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Helping Bar Applicants Prove Character and Fitness for Admission to the Bar

Technical Plagiarism

Q. Rushing to get a paper done, I failed to attribute a one-sentence passage to its original author or to use quotation marks. Despite this innocent error, my law school reprimanded me for "plagiarism." Will this technicality preclude my admission?

A. Not necessarily. But you won't get past the problem by reducing it to a "technicality."

Plagiarism is a serious academic and ethical offense. What you call a technicality is the very definition of "plagiarism" — the act of using someone else's words without attribution. Rather than aggravate the problem by questioning the legitimacy of your reprimand, accept the fact that you have violated your school's honor code and subverted the rights of the original author.

Though your school may view this as a form of "academic dishonesty," bar examiners will scrutinize the details before reaching such conclusions. When considering acts of plagiarism, licensing boards are able to distinguish between:

1. Negligent Plagiarism — Relying on "data dumps" from various sources downloaded to their computers, students often lose track of various sources. Disorganized students then cut and paste passages without quotation marks or appropriate citation. While impermissible, these infractions raise more questions about an applicant's attention to detail and fitness for the practice of law than with moral character; and

2. Intentional Plagiarism — Not limited to one or two isolated passages, this typically involves the wholesale misappropriation of paragraphs of text which are passed off as original work. Providing more circumstantial evidence of a deliberate scheme to deceive the reader, the plagiarist will often replace some words with synonyms, combine shorter paragraphs, insert line breaks to vary formatting, or change sentence structures to some degree. Unable to explain this form of piracy as a mere "mistake," applicants who steal the work of others face serious questions about their moral character.

Bar examiners won't necessarily use these terms. But they will examine the offending paper to determine whether the applicant's transgression was wilful or merely negligent. Licensing boards often forgive remorseful applicants who did not actually intend to undermine the academic process. Those whose copying constitutes more flagrant piracy have more to worry about.

Regardless of the extent of plagiarism, all applicants must take responsibility for their infractions. An attitude of contrition will take you farther than one of defiance. Those who strain to minimize their offenses undermine their own applications, practically begging bar examiners to teach them a lesson.

Nothing is worse than an applicant who refuses to acknowledge confirmed misconduct. Unless there is a strong defense that the law school overlooked, you are better off owning your mistakes than relitigating them before the licensing board. By contrast, those who candidly articulate the lessons they have learned may gain the respect of bar examiners who may have made similar mistakes in their own past. Though you may not have intended to lift the passage, bar examiners expect greater care on the part applicants who must uphold the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct.

It's important to recognize your mistakes, but even more important to take action in response to them. If the infraction really did result from a rush to complete the assignment, explain the concrete steps you have implemented to prevent a recurrence — allowing yourself more time to catch errors, keeping track of source material, cite checking and other responsible precautions.

Even if you intended to lift someone else's work, be transparent when addressing the issue in your application and in later communications with bar examiners. Rather than lose any semblance of credibility by denying the undeniable, you will score more points by responding with uncompromising candor.

This may not alleviate all concerns. But to quote one politician who probably copied the passage from another in the 1980s, "when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

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