Bad Idea Jeans: Setting Your Pants on Fire

December 10, 2009

Since I introduced 203's B.I.J. feature last spring, many of you have waited anxiously for the next post, perhaps for no other reason than to discover a new 80's reference you've never heard of as reaffirmation that you're still under 30, so things really can't be all that bad. I hadn't been inspired for a while, as things have been going well: baby's sleeping through the night, the Yankees won the World Series, and I had a chance to get out and see New Moon in the movie theater (Werewolves. v. Vampires -- feel free to discuss in the comments). But since it has started getting dark here at 4:30 p.m., my Seasonal Affective Disorder has slowly set in, and I'm ready to impart a new lesson.

I guess it goes without saying that setting your pants on fire is Bad Idea Jeans, not the least because you would no longer have said jeans. But what I'm referring to here is lying on your application.

Now, there're no shortage of opportunities for you to put untruths, partial-truths, omissions, or exaggerations on your application. For the most part, we probably won't know. (I will refer you here, though, to the part of the application you sign which says, "I understand Yale Law School may verify information included in my application." This means we can, and sometimes do, randomly snoop around to see whether you're actually the person you say you are -- more on that in a future Bad Idea Jeans: Greatest Hits.) But there is one part of the application in which you are unlikely to get away with lying, and that is the Character and Fitness questions, which vary from law school to law school but appear on our application as follows:

Question 11. Have you ever been convicted of, or pleaded guilty or no contest to, a felony or misdemeanor, or are there any criminal charges pending against you at the present time?

Question 12. At any college or university, have you ever been suspended, expelled, or required to withdraw, or been the subject of any other disciplinary action or proceedings for misconduct or deficient scholarship, or are there any charges pending against you?

Simple enough, right? Sadly, we see time and again how these questions cause enormous anxiety, and sometimes ongoing problems, for law school applicants and students.

See, we're not going to be the last people to ask you these kinds of questions. You could probably breeze into law school using a Clintonesque "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" self-rationalization to avoid disclosing your past. You could even whistle through another three years, line up a cushy clerkship and job, and start picking out the furniture for your 300-square foot Manhattan studio from Pottery Barn. But at some point, you will find yourself applying to the bar of some state, only to stop dead in your tracks when you see something like the following (taken from the New York State bar application):

Have you ever, either as an adult or juvenile, been cited, arrested, taken into custody, charged with, indicted, convicted or or tried for, or pleaded guilty to, the commission of any felony or misdemeanor or the violation of any law, except minor parking violations, or been the subject of juvenile delinquency or youthful offender proceedings? If you answer yes, state the charge or charges, the disposition thereof and the underlying facts. Although a conviction may have been expunged from the records by an order of the court, it nevertheless should be disclosed in the answer to this question. Please note that you should have available and be prepared to submit or exhibit copies of police and court records regarding any matter you disclose in reply to this question.

What happens is that when you answer this question, the Character and Fitness Committee from your state comes back to us (or whichever law school you graduated from), and asks the Registar or Dean of Students whether your answers match what you disclosed on your applications. Now, if you are observant, you'll notice that our questions don't exactly match the bar question. Guess what? IT DOESN'T MATTER. The bar committees will freak out when they see that your law school application disclosures don't match your bar application disclosures, and they're going to want to know more. They're going to give the new information to your law school, and ask your school (more specifically, the Dean of Admissions) to warrant that you would have still been admitted had s/he known the new information. They're going to ask you why you didn't disclose the information earlier. They're going to go through the rest of your application with a fine-toothed comb. In short, you're going to have to go through a lot of red tape, have a P.O.'d alma mater, and, if what you didn't originally disclose was actually pretty bad, find yourself with a rescinded law degree and/or unable to sit for the bar.

Lest you think I'm being too preachy, I'll confess that I'm no saint, either. When I applied to the FBI, I had to undergo a polygraph examination. I remember getting to the FBI office, and seeing a tall, burly, old guy with a crew cut fiddling around with a bunch of wires and hookups on what looked like a medieval torture machine. I sat down, and he ignored me. He suddenly turned around and pulled up his chair directly across from me, about ten inches from my face.

"Character," he said, locking eyes, "is what you do when you think no one is looking."

Crap. I had just jaywalked across Church Street and blown off the homeless lady selling flowers. Had they been trailing me?

During the four-hour interrogation that followed, I proceeded to scour my mental rolodex and barf out every moral infraction I could think of. Like the time I "borrowed" some printer paper from my job to use at home. Or the time I tried to use a fake Nebraska ID to get into a Georgetown bar (I was rejected). Or the time I kinda sorta traveled to Cuba, you know...illegally. I cried; the polygrapher thanked me and told me I spoke very good English.

The point is that we all have skeletons in our closet, and when it comes to law school and practicing law, a bone or two will come flying out sooner or later. It's in your interest to have it be sooner. To help you out, here are a few things to consider:

1. If you need to consult an attorney about whether or not to disclose something, then you probably need to disclose it (despite what your attorney tells you).

2. If what you've done is enough to keep you out of law school, it's almost certainly going to keep you from practicing law. You might as well know now, because while getting rejected from law school is bad, graduating from law school with $150K of debt and no way to pay it back is even worse.

3. Business schools don't ask you these kinds of questions.

One last thing. I've read close to around 10,000 files at this point, and to be honest, I've seen very few transgressions that would ipso facto disqualify someone from admission to law school. But here's the deal: a lack of candor, even about an otherwise excusable incident, raises serious questions about your fitness to practice law. Remember that Martha Stewart didn't get convicted for an actual securities violation (there wasn't one), she was convicted for LYING about it. So set yourself free: tell the truth. (And by the way, please don't try to end run the question by omitting an answer on your application and then sending an email to the general admissions address that you "forgot" to mention your DUI, or whatever -- that just makes you look sketchier.)

OK, I'll end with a gratuitous 80's reference (extra credit for readers over 30: Haim v. Feldman -- please discuss):


Dan said:

Just so we're clear...literally setting my pants on fire is still a very good idea, right?

December 12, 2009 7:44 PM

Dina said:

I cannot BELIEVE that 10,000 applications have been sent in already and it's not even the end of Dec. *panic sets in*

December 12, 2009 11:16 PM

Youthful Indiscretion said:

I am so glad I read this blog entry. I am in the process of applying to law school right now, and I had completely forgotten about this issue.

So here's my question: Does a Juvenile arrest/conviction for shoplifting (a pack of cigarettes) from 20 years ago constitute a serious sticking point for a Yale applicant?

More specifically would an otherwise stellar application (4.0/180, strong academic letters, good extracurricular activities) be likely to miss presumptive admission solely on the basis of the issue mentioned above?

December 14, 2009 1:14 AM

craigj said:

No, Dina. That was 10,000 applications during her entire time as Dean of Admissions.

December 18, 2009 11:12 AM

Dina said:

Oh thank God! I've been really worried about the recession-induced increase in applications affecting the pool for college students, especially those who are not in the 170++ range.

December 20, 2009 1:15 PM

Ricky said:

It sounds like Asha is saying that, even though the application only asks about misdemeanors and felonies, we should also include infractions so that the bar, which asks for the "violation of any law," doesn't notice any discrepancies. Is this correct? If so, the questions on the application should be changed in order to parallel those of the bar.

December 20, 2009 8:48 PM

Robert Maxey said:

This blogs are pretty nifty. I still have a few years before I apply, but I would like to be as prepared as possible when I do apply.

I learned a valuable lesson when I was younger. I didn't take high school or higher education very seriously at first. I didn't study for the SAT or apply to more than one college. When I was admitted, I dropped out after two semesters and started a career. After a few years I came to dislike my job and realized that if I continued on my path, I would be doing engineering for the rest of my life. That is when I quit my job and went back to college.

I don't want to make the same mistake twice and I find these blogs to be guiding. Yale is my first choice with George Mason as my second. However, I know how selective YLS is and knowing the admission process intimately is the first step in being admitted :)

December 20, 2009 10:29 PM

KardashianLover said:

So I'm guessing Yale has admitted applicants who have had trouble with the law? How serious is something like a DUI conviction? Is it the harbinger of doom? Thanks.

January 24, 2010 5:18 AM

Cameron Smither said:

...death by stereo

January 29, 2010 7:28 PM

A-Non said:

Is Asha saying we should disclose everything the bar is going to eventually ask about, even if the wording of the law school app. question doesn't require it?

If Yale asks "Have you ever been convicted of, or pleaded guilty or no contest to, a felony or misdemeanor, or are there any criminal charges pending against you at the present time?" and the answer to all of those is "no," should someone disclose, say, a juvenile arrest that was handled through a diversionary program?

Yale's question doesn't seem to require disclosure of juvenile diversions, but the bar's question would require disclosure. The bar is going to "freak out" that you didn't disclose something on your law school app that the law school didn't ask you about?

If Yale asks us to "name all the dogs you've owned" and the bar later says "name all the PETS you've owned," is the bar going to be pissed we didn't name our cats on the Yale application?

February 10, 2010 6:06 PM

ABE said:

Dear Asha:

While I was in college, I participated in a fraternity prank where we attempted to steal scarves and gloves from a department store. I was convited of a misdemeanor for this crime; however, much older now I have learned from this mistake. I want to apply to law school, but I want to know if disclosing this infraction on my Yale Law School application would automatically put me out of the game for admittance?

Thanks, ABE

February 16, 2010 6:40 PM

asha said:

Ricky and A-Non: You are both correct that our question is underinclusive compared with the New York bar question, and that it would make sense for us to mirror the C&F

question on the bar exam that most of our graduates take. However, for reasons that are still opaque to me, I'm not allowed to ask the exact same question (some conflict between CT law and what the question asks). So, this post is really just some advice I'm passing on based on what I've seen go down as students technically are not in violation of our application if you answer within the parameters of our question only. It's just that it could cause you problems later on. And remember, the C&F question I've quoted is from the New York bar application -- if you know you are planning to take the bar in a different state, you should check the relevant question for that jurisdiction as it may not be as encompassing as New York's. But I do think that you'll do yourself a favor in the long run if you disclose more, rather than less, at the outset.

February 17, 2010 9:58 AM

asha said:

Youthful Indiscretion: Ideally, we prefer to take people who have no criminal history. However, for admission purposes, we look at the totality of the application, including such things as: the circumstances surrounding the event (like your childhood environment, for example, if it happened as a juvenile); how long ago the incident took place; any other infractions you've had since then; your character as reflected in other parts of your application, particularly your references; and your own explanation and acceptance of responsibility for the crime. So whether it is a "sticking point" depends on a lot of factors, and simply having a perfect GPA and LSAT score does not necessarily "cancel" a C&F issue.

February 17, 2010 10:09 AM

asha said:

KardashianLover: I'm not going to lie -- a DUI is pretty bad. As I noted in response to Youthful Discretion, we do look at a number of factors in deciding how to weigh a criminal history in an application. With that said, please note that as I said in the post, admission to law school does not in any way obligate the bar of any state to admit you to practice. Furthermore, bar committees are notoriously cranky, and I'm guessing that they are going to ping when they see something like a DUI. If I were you, and I knew where I wanted to practice, I would call the Character and Fitness Committee of that state and find out how they treat such convictions. Good luck!

February 17, 2010 10:11 AM

asha said:

ABE: I'm a little confused by your question. It sounds like what you're describing sqaurely falls within the parameters of Question 11. So, if you're question is whether you should bother applying since you will have to disclose this information, I would refer you to my response to Youthful Indiscretion (above) -- we don't autmoatically throw out any applicant who answers "Yes" to Question 11, but rather we look at the incident in light of a number of factors. If, however, what you're asking is whether you might choose not to disclose this information because it will increase (or at least not decrease) your chances of admission, I would advise against that. As I note in the post, the bar will conduct a pretty thorough background check when you apply, and if information surfaces at that point which you clearly should have disclosed to us and deliberately did not, then your law degree would likely be revoked.

February 18, 2010 4:27 PM

Alex said:

"3. Business schools don't ask you these kinds of questions."

Actually, many business schools (Columbia and Wharton come to mind) run background checks on every accepted student through companies like Kroll where they 1) check for criminal convictions, 2) pull your credit history, 3) verify your employment history and salary, and 4) call your recommenders.

I think it's something law schools should consider. As you mention, a spotty record could disqualify you from practicing. In that sense it's even more relevant to law school applicants than for business school applicants.

March 6, 2010 10:09 PM

Ryan Boda said:

Just discovered your blog! It's great. Thank you. My question is whether or not a noise violation for a party I had in College (I had to pay $100 fine) falls under the "parking ticket" category, and whether or not I have to disclose it. I also don't have any documentation on it-- nor can I even remember exactly when it happened (which seems to be required when disclosing this on applications to some schools). Just wondering...



October 13, 2010 12:57 AM

asha said:

@Ryan: I would disclose this. It's so minor that it's not going to hurt your application, and then you're covered in terms of disclosure on your law school application when you apply to the bar (I know in New York you would have to disclose this).

Generally for minor things such as this, or e.g., jumping the subway turnstile (which happens with surprising frequency among law school applicants), just saying you did it and were fined and that you paid it is OK for me, even if you have no documentation or can't remember the exact date. But other law schools may have different requirements.

December 4, 2010 11:32 AM

Anon2 said:

Asha, what about a charge that is dismissed? You'd still recommend disclosing, even if it were something that happened when the applicant is a juvenile?

December 4, 2010 9:29 PM

asha said:

@ Anon2: A dismissed charge does not really fall in the purview of our question, so you would not HAVE to disclose it. However, it's likely that it will surface in your bar background check, which means that there will be a discrepancy between your two sets of disclosures.

This means one of two things: either it's something fairly minor that happened as a juvenile or, allternatively, even though the charge was ultimately dismissed, the circumstances surrounding the arrest/charge are serious enough that they would have been material to the admission committee's decision to admit you. In the first scenario, it's better to disclose it, since it probably won't hurt your application. In the second scenario, it would be better to disclose it, because you don't want your law school to find out something later and feel like you were not honest...that could cause you some really big problems.

That's just my take.

December 4, 2010 9:44 PM

Anon2 said:


Thanks for the response. One follow-up question. The following is not an attempt to debate you, as you obviously are more qualified to speak on matters such as these - I'm just struggling to understand how not disclosing a juvenile dismissed charge to a question like Yale's could be an issue when it's a completely honest answer. It isn't a "Clintonesque definition" of "is" situation - someone answering "no" to that question if she had a dismissed juvenile charge (regardless of severity) is truthfully answering the question. It isn't like the applicant was purposefully deceitful in answering "no."

Certainly, there will be a discrepancy between her LS application and bar application if she's applying to the NY Bar... but that's because there is a discrepancy in the questions asked. The differences in these questions aren't trivial or insignificant, but it would seem that such wording differences are nonetheless treated as minor by the folks who write the questions. For the applicants who don't consult blogs or other resources, how are they supposed to know when they simply answer the question, based on the application, that they could be in hot water down the road? Doesn't this seem a bit unfair, as if the applications and/or schools are setting up their future students for difficulties by not adopting a uniform standard?(I know that isn't germane to those of us here, but it's part of what I see as a larger problem with the distinct advice and variations for C&F questions).

Here's another scenario: Many schools don't ask for or even want disclosure of minor traffic citations. Some specifically exclude them, while others don't include an exclusionary statement on the application, but will tell applicants not to include them when calling the admissions office and asking. Presumably, a bar committee will want full disclosure of these matters, but the schools are telling prospective students to not disclose - which, based on your explanation, would seem to lead to the same kind of discrepancies about which the bars are concerned. Isn't this a double-standard?

And one more: some schools specifically exclude juvenile or expunged charges - take the Texas application. Let's say a Texas Law grad applies to the NY Bar. How can the bar can legitimately raise an issue for non-disclosure when the school excludes the relevant subset?

Bottom line: I just don't understand how the bar - or the law school, for that matter - could have reasonable ground to feel an applicant was being dishonest when the question clearly doesn't cover the matter (as compared to a question like that on the NYU Law application, which clearly does).

Thanks much for your insight and assistance. It's so helpful to all of us stressed out 0Ls!

December 4, 2010 10:59 PM

asha said:

@ Anon 2: All good points. I don't know, this is a tough one.

You are completely correct that a dismissed charge isn't covered by our question. All I can say is that bar committees are notoriously cranky. (When I had my New York C&F interview, the lawyer I met with spent two hours going through my bar application page by page and grilling me -- this was when I was in the FBI holding a TS clearance!)

To revise my earlier answer a little, I guess the issue isn't one of honesty, but more materiality. The bar is going to want to know whether the law school would have still admitted you. When this happens at Yale, I have to write a long letter saying that the incident wouldn't have been material to your admission. This becomes harder for me to do if, say, the incident or charge was based on some major injury to people or property, or something that was really kind of out there (breaking and entering into a home, or stealing something). I fortunately haven't had anyone surface with things like these, but without knowing what kind of charge you're referring to that would be my concern.

If it's really minor, and wouldn't be material, then it seems like it worth it to just get it out there up front. But as I said, if it's not something that's covered by our question, then you don't have to disclose it, as long as you're aware that it might involve some bureaucracy down the line.

I wish I could be more helpful, I'm just giving advice based on how I see things play out.

December 5, 2010 8:50 AM

Anon 3 said:

Hi Asha,

You've talked a lot about criminal infractions, but I was wondering if you could comment on academic dishonesty in college? Specifically, just how bad is it for admissions purposes?

January 3, 2011 5:35 PM

Annabelle03223 said:

Even though disclosure vs. non-disclosure and discrepancies in wording on law school applications vs. state bar applications is a tough topic to figure out, I'd like to reinforce Dean Asha's message, assuming this is not unaccebtable.

First, isn't the point of being ethical/having character disclosing information that is not required? Perhaps one's law school application doesn't ask and doesn't even want information about, say, traffic citations or juvenile charges(because they have 4,000+ applications to go through, and who hasn't received a minor traffic offense since learning to hit the road, etc.?), but it would seem to show candor and strong character to briefly reveal transgressions of the law, the context surrounding said incident and one's commitment to prevent such an incident from occuring again in an addendum.

Second, I am assuming that whatever a law school application directly asks for reveals what the admissions committee finds most significant in their applicants' backgrounds (e.g. felonies, misdemeanors, etc.). Whatever they don't ask for, then, is within the individual's discretion to reveal or conceal. In my eyes, for instance, it is important to reveal any documented violations of the law to a.) pass the ethics test, b.) prevent future inquiries and c.) show the admissions committee that as applicants we realize we are not perfect but also realize the importance of learning from our mistakes. After all, addenda and diversity statements are not required by individual law schools, and yet many applicants feel that the information we include in them is significant enough to merit our time and energies. So how can trangressions of the law (and, yes, this is coming from someone who has received a speeding and parking ticket but plans on disclosing it), even if minor, not be an issue when we wish to practice the law?

Character and fitness? Character means being honest about "what you do when you think no one is looking," right?

January 4, 2011 9:51 AM

asha said:

@ Anon 3: Academic dishonesty is kinda bad. I mean, there are professors reading your file, and I daresay that they probably care more about the honesty of your academic work than if you were smoking weed in your dorm room. I've seen a wide range of academic dishonesty infractions, though, so it really depends on the nature of the charge. I would advise that you disclose what happened fully and take full accountability for it. Also, professors who know you well and who are willing to address this aspect of your application (assuming they know of the incident) and vouch for your character can go a very long way in mitigating the impact of an academic dishonesty charge on your chances of admission.

January 5, 2011 4:31 PM

anon2.5 said:


In regards to the "dismissed criminal charge" topic, would you consider being charged for a fake i.d. something that would have affected an admissions decision if it had been disclosed given the frequency of fake id in colleges? Since the charge was dismissed, I'm wondering how this would affect admission to the bar. I can't find anyone that can give me any answer to this, so your insight will be greatly appreciated!

January 24, 2011 7:17 PM

asha said:

@ anon 2.5: These things are always case-specific, so I hate to make generalizations (but I will, since you asked). I would say that a single instance of using a fake ID in college would probably not be a big deal. I'm assuming here that the circumstances involved something like trying to get into a bar. If you were using a fake ID to do something more nefarious, or manufacturing fake IDs for others, you'd probably be going into a whole other category.

But the run-of-the mill fake ID situation is not going to keep you from being admitted to the bar, provided your are candid about what happened.

January 25, 2011 8:33 AM

cptn said:

Speeding Tickets.

Asha, I have a somewhat impressive list of misdemeanor speeding tickets. My record is currently clear (due to driving a Prius for that last few years). I have no other infractions. How do you feel speeding tickets affect both admissions and bar applications.

Thank you for the Blog, it is very helpful.

May 27, 2011 3:07 AM

asha said:

@cptn: In general, speeding tickets don't make me pause, but when the list is really long, I do stop and take a look. A history of chronic speeding infractions kind of raise a red flag, for me. I just have to wonder why on earth this person couldn't get it together after, say, the first five tickets? The first ten? It just seems a little odd.

I'm not saying that it is going to keep you out of law school -- it most likely will not -- but you might want to address the issue in a short narrative after you disclose all of the tickets. The fact that you've had a clean history in the recent past is a plus. I really can't say how bar committees view chronic speeding -- sorry!

By the way, I just got a Prius too, and I love it.

June 8, 2011 9:51 PM

Anon4 said:


I think you have done a very good job at explaining this point, but I have one more question. Are there any situations where Yale (or any other law school for that matter) would NOT certify to the Bar that an applicant would have been admitted had it known about an incident even though the Law School application's version of the C&F question was answered truthfully?

For example, assume you were arrested/charged for [put whatever serious crime you would like here; I would say rape or murder, but they are unlikely to be able to be pleaded to in a way that would not result in a conviction, so let's say something like a serious domestic violence case or trafficking several pounds of drugs, something that's fairly extreme but still possible to receive some sort of pre-trial diversionary program]. You manage to plea bargain some sort of non-conviction deal (I'm not talking about a jury acquittal here; I'm talking about some disposition of the case where it is evident that you actually committed the offense). Therefore, you truthfully answer "No" to Yale's question regarding convictions. However, the offense was so outlandish that had there been a conviction, Yale would have never accepted the applicant. In this scenario, would it be possible for Yale, three years afterwards, to say to the Bar that it would NOT have accepted the applicant, despite his or her truthful answer according to the way the Law School's C&F question is phrased?

If Yale might not certify an applicant to the Bar despite no dishonesty in the answer to the question, my $0.02 on the issue is that either Yale needs to change the question (as far as permissible under CT Law) or set the test to whether or not Yale will certify simply based on the question, was the applicant truthful? Reading this blog is not a requirement for Law School applicants, and I would say that most do not know about this issue regarding the discrepancy between the NY Bar's and Yale's versions of this question and the resultant problems that can arise at the time of the Bar's C&F evaluation. It would not be correct for Yale to assert that it would not have accepted an applicant despite an applicant's truthful response.

August 4, 2012 1:10 AM

CuriousStudent said:


What if I have never "been cited, arrested, taken into custody, charged with, indicted, convicted, or tried for, or pleaded guilty to, the commission of any felony or misdemeanor or the violation of any law, except minor parking violations, [n]or been the subject of juvenile delinquency or youthful offender proceedings" but I was removed from the school and placed in a discipline alternative school as a result of an incident in middle school? After a year I returned back my school. Do I have to disclose this under question 11?

I don't want to disclose it and have the admissions committee think that I am unable to follow directions, but I don't want to fail to disclose it and be looked upon as though I was hiding the incident.

December 28, 2013 9:28 PM

Sue said:

@CuriousStudent: It's always tough to say without knowing the exact details of what transpired, but generally, our view is that you would not need to disclose something like this that happened so long ago, in middle school, and that did not result in any kind of proceeding. That said, we like to recommend that applicants (because only they know all the gory details) ultimately use their judgment as to whether the incident is something that might be of interest to the admissions committee. If you do choose to disclose, you needn't worry that you'll be perceived as not being able to follow directions just because the incident may fall outside the letter of the question.

January 6, 2014 4:44 PM