Bar Admissions Blog
Beating the RAP Sheet
Q. I've worked hard to overcome the past. But I amassed an extensive criminal record growing up on the mean streets of Baltimore. Should I even try for a legal career?
A. Some of the best lawyers I know served time in prison before turning to the right side of the law.
Many were first attracted to the law by their brush with it. Spending hours reading cases in the prison law library, they dreamt of better lives and took action to pursue it. By overcoming adversity to escape very dark chapters in their lives, they are uniquely suited to help their clients overcome similar challenges.
To qualify for bar admission, one need not qualify for sainthood. The question is not whether you've always been fit to practice law, but whether you will meet that standard when you ultimately apply for admission.
Though past misdeeds do not automatically disqualify applicants, you will need to prove that your present moral character is worthy of admission to the Bar.
Your burden of proof gets lighter over time. Naturally, if you committed these offenses many years ago, but worked hard to overcome the challenges of the past, a lengthy track record as a law-abiding and productive member of society will serve you well in this process. Conversely, the more recent and more serious the offense, the more difficulty you may encounter when claiming to have been successfully rehabilitated.
In a field that believes in second chances, many ex-cons have turned their lives around to embark on rewarding careers. By building a better life after your last offense, you will build what I call a "rehabilitation résumé" to show that you are truly a different person than the individual named in that RAP sheet. With growing recognition of the importance of second chances, some jurisdictions have implemented more lenient or individualized approaches to the admission of individuals with criminal records, taking into consideration factors such as successful completion of rehabilitation programs, community service, and strong evidence of personal growth and moral character.
There is no easy litmus test to determine the sufficiency of a person's rehabilitation. But factors include:
- Number of Offenses - while isolated offenses or a few youthful indiscretions are quite common, longer RAP sheets raise more questions to ensure that you have truly put the past behind and are not likely to repeat history;
- Nature of Offenses - not all crimes are created equal. Nor are all character committees. Many can see past crimes of theft, fraud or other forms of dishonesty, but will have a much tougher time with more serious offenses like murder and rape, absent extenuating circumstances that may help to mitigate the extremely inflammatory nature of these crimes;
- Rehabilitation Efforts - for some offenses, particularly those resulting from addiction, there are recognized programs designed to overcome the underlying cause. For example, if a chronic alcoholic has achieved sobriety through regular and continuing membership in Alcoholic's Anonymous, these efforts will not only save your life, but improve your chances of bar admission also. On the other hand, an applicant with a series of drug possession or drunk driving arrests who hasn't taken any of the "twelve steps" or participated in any recognized recovery program may encounter more skepticism when stepping toward bar admission;
- Years Since Last Offense - this isn't a precise quota for years of law-abiding behavior. The passage of time you will need to develop a track record of rehabilitation really depends on the number and nature of your offenses and on your rehabilitation efforts.
No matter how much you wish to put the past behind, ignoring it won't make these problems go away. Don't make the mistake of concealing any aspect of your criminal record in response to applications for admission to colleges, to law schools, to the Bar itself or on any other form. Though many juvenile matters may be exempt, on some applications, you may even have to disclose arrest records which have been legally "expunged."
When it comes to bar admission, the cover-up will be taken more seriously than the crime itself. A criminal record may ultimately be forgiven. A lack of candor will not.