Can I Go to Law School if I Have a Criminal Record?

Law School Expert Blog

Tips for applying to law school with a criminal record:

  1. Gather all relevant facts and documentation from courts, police departments, and your university (if disciplinary action at your college was involved);
  2. Review law school character and fitness questions on applications to determine whether your incidents must be reported.
  3. If your arrests and/or convictions or other discipline must be reported, draft a candid, factual explanation and make sure to demonstrate that this incident or pattern of incidents no longer defines you or is indicative of your current behavior.

If you’re thinking about applying to law school, and you have a criminal record, it’s important to go into the process with your eyes open. First, you’ll need to report almost all incidents in your law school applications as part of the character and fitness disclosure. The questions on each application vary slightly, but in most cases you’ll have to report all criminal incidents (sometimes arrests even when there was no conviction) and sometimes even if the charges were expunged or sealed. You should obtain all documentation related to these events, and be prepared to be candid in the applications. That, above all else, is what the law schools are screening for. In order to practice law, you will need to complete a background check with the state bar examiners where you intend to practice. They will uncover if there is something you failed to report in your law school applications, and if you were not candid in your law school applications, you could be prevented from practicing law.

I often field questions from people who are wondering whether they can get into law school with a criminal record combined with a low LSAT and/or low GPA.

“I’m wondering if it’s possible (or what the likelihood is) of getting into law school with a 2.5 GPA, 138 on the LSAT twice, and a DUI on my record. Is there anything I can do at this point to get into a law school? Going back to undergrad and increasing my GPA? Taking the LSAT over? Anything?” – J.

The answer for J. is that there is an incredibly small likelihood of his acceptance to an ABA law school right now. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt about diversity, being president of everything at school, having a few years of significant work experience, and a fairly reputable undergraduate college (a combination of which is highly unlikely), law schools have no incentive to take a risk on him. He brings nothing of value to a school, from a law school’s perspective. Any law school would have to sacrifice its numbers to admit him and probably sacrifice its first time bar passage rate and employment statistics as well.

Breaking Down The Specifics

Going back to undergrad doesn’t work. It doesn’t change your LSAC computed GPA. If J. could get himself into a graduate school program of repute and do very well (not just a 3.0, but in the neighborhood of a 3.7 GPA) and get some solid academic letters and significantly increase his LSAT score, then I think he might have a better chance of being admitted to law school. This would show maturity and seriousness of purpose.

One DUI is problematic, but if J. can show he’s changed and grown and learned from the experience, this alone probably won’t keep him out of law school. J. needs to put some real and metaphorical distance between himself and the DUI incident for law schools to be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Read The Comments!

I anticipate some questions and comments on this one, so fire away. And happy Friday!

619 Responses

  1. I have been following the blog for a while now. It has been a bad day and went straigt here for solace searching the archives.

    I am a non-traditional student (35+) raising a family and working 45 hours a week. I was just denied application to 2 PT programs (low Tier 1 and Tier 2) and waitig for the third response. I have a 2.9 GPA, 150 LSAT, and no option to quit work if I want to eat (FAFSA says no aid).

    Where do I go from here when attending Law School was a career and personal goal?

    1. Wow. This is impressive, to say the least. I’m currently lying in bed after having just thrown myself into a state of mild dejection resulting from examining my statistical chances of matriculating into *any* law school, and I certainly did not expect that my search for information on applicants such as myself to yield this very informative, decade-old blog. I’m quite glad I found it, though. And I’m even more impressed that you’ve been keeping up with it for all this time, Ms. Levine. Then again, you are the “Law School Expert” for a reason.

      Anyway, to the details: I am an aspiring law student who is big on ambition but short on statistical relevance. I’ll start with the “indicators of success:” my LSAT score and my UGPA. Neither are stellar at 149 and 2.95, respectively and, frankly, I feel that I‘m fooling myself into thinking I can become an attorney based solely on this data (and the inherent stigmas attached). The UGPA is associated with a bachelor’s degree in finance with a concentration in real estate and land use from California State University-Sacramento—a major I passionately regret pursuing (I now completely understand the reason behind choosing a major one likes if considering a legal career later). However, a factor contributing to the lackluster GPA is that almost two decades ago I was an undergraduate straight out of high school and that initial stint in college was an unmitigated disaster. I walked away from those first two semesters on academic suspension burdened with a 1.75 GPA.

      And then there’s my LSAT score. I have never been particularly solid when it comes to sitting through standardized tests, and it doesn’t help that I feel rather disdainful towards said exams. I am of the school of thought that high scores on standardized tests and exceptional GPAs are not always accurate indicators of academic prowess, but it is very difficult to refute the statistics that indicate otherwise. I took the LSAT one time with zero prep and eked out the score I previously disclosed. It’s not terrible, but it could certainly be better.

      So is that it? Are these my only concerns? Of course not. I was also, in the years since graduating high school, a generally terrible person. In compiling the litany of interactions I had with law enforcement in that time, I realized that my character & fitness addendums are going to make it seem as if I did nothing but disregard every traffic law conceived. Yes, I know that traffic infractions are not considered, but failure to appear to court for said infractions is a markedly more serious offense that often results in issuance of bench warrants and driving privilege suspension. If you think that I merely said “ok, sure, I’ll stop driving my car now,” you’ve been missing the general narrative. I have no less than eight instances of driving on a suspended license that I have to explain and there’s no other excuse other than blatant disregard. Sure, I could use the “car-dependent metropolis“ excuse and blame my defiance on the failure of municipalities to expand and/or enhance their mass transit systems, but clearly that won’t fly (regardless of how true it is for many placed in the same scenario). The most recent instance of getting caught took place in 2013 (personally regarded as the worst year of my life). Then there were the bad checks written in the early-aughts. Oh, and then there was the forgery charge also in 2013. You want to talk about obstacles to overcome? For some odd reason, I didn’t think I had enough obstacles being presented in life so I made some of my own! You know, because I’m brilliant like that.

      So that’s what I have going against me. What do I have working in my favor? If you ask me, not a whole hell of a lot. I’m hoping you’ll tell me otherwise, but I’m also not a complete idiot with regard to public perception and I’m pretty good at understanding what counts as “virtuous” in the eyes of those who have supposedly set the standard. Anyway, I am a Navy veteran. Served for over five years from 2002-2007. Not only did I serve in the Navy, I was a part of one of the most academically rigorous and challenging programs in the Armed Forces: the nuclear propulsion program. And even in that exclusive company I was a part of an even more exclusive enclave: those who had the privilege of being nuclear reactor operators. As you can imagine, I totally ruined that with my immaturity and defiance and I was ultimately discharged under “other than honorable” conditions. However, I did serve and I did so proudly; there is no discharge category that can take those years of service to my country away from me even if I was a complete jackass the entire time. I am clearly a non-traditional student. I’m a first-generation Caribbean-American who will be the first to pursue a law degree from either side of the family. I overcame my relatively low GPA when transferring from community college to CSUS and was selected for the university’s business honors program, an honor bestowed upon only tens of transfer applicants out of thousands (I shouldn’t have even been considered for the standard undergraduate program, let alone the honors program). I was selected as a legal intern *as a community college undergraduate* among L1 law students at a local franchise law firm and was later promoted to become a full-time legal assistant. I managed to scrape together three very solid letters of recommendation: two from professors at CSUS (one of whom recommended that one of my assignments be published) and one from the lead attorney I worked with at the franchise law firm. I have punched high many times and I’ve landed some very solid hits, and yet, here I am worried about my prospects for getting into law school.

      The bottom line is this: I DO NOT DOUBT MY ABILITY. I CAN AND WILL BECOME A SUCCESSFUL ATTORNEY AND A HELL OF AN ADVOCATE. The only thing holding me back is my past. Even my recent shortcomings with some unfavorable grades pale in comparison to the overall pattern of ineptitude I’ve displayed through now. The question is should I even bother? I’m almost certain that the benefits are still largely overshadowed by those two “measures of ability” in my LSAT score and UGPA, and if that isn’t enough to dissuade admissions officers, then my general crappiness as a human being certainly will. I would appreciate your honest opinion and to also keep in mind that this is an abridged account of past events (!!!). I still haven’t mentioned my passion and my reasons for seeking a legal career or how they tie into my past experiences and my current professional career. My pessimism lies less in myself and more in how I perceive the admissions system, which isn’t to say that I find it flawed—it’s just very difficult to finally commit to making a difference when you know that very few, if any, will give you that chance, and that’s incredibly discouraging.

      1. Hi – first, thank you for sharing your story.
        Second, it’s not your past holding you back from going to law school.
        It’s that you haven’t tried applying! (Or at least, that’s how I’m understanding your story!).
        Just try. Pick schools that take people with LSAT scores in the 140s and put in your application and see what happens. Then you will know.
        Sound good?

  2. I’ve also been following this blog for some time and I have a similar experience as J but a few exceptions: I was President of everything, African American first generation college student, great letters of rec from professors and heads of the department in which I majored. I have significant work experience as a community organizer and I started a marketing company on the side. I am in the process of going to one of my state schools for an MBA/MPP but my ultimate goal is to go to Law School and become a Civil Rights lawyer.

    What is at question is my undergrad gpa of 2.7 and that I’ve been arrested before. I plan on going to Law School in the next 4 years, however my concern is if I can attend a good law school with these attributes and what type of things can I do to boost my chances?

    1. Brandon,
      Your background sounds amazing. I help people apply to law school when they have an arrest in their background; I can help you strategize how to present this to schools and I talk about this some in my book. It doesn’t have to preclude your admission to law school, especially if you distance yourself from the event and show that it does not define who you are. You have a lot going for you and – with a solid LSAT score – I feel that you have the potential to be successful in reaching your goals – especially if your arrest ties into your aspirations to be a civil rights attorney.
      Please let me know if I can help you in any way.
      Ann

  3. First off, Thank you for this amazing blog/website and all the informative links and posts that you have. As a senior year undergraduate student who is in the process of applying and studying for the LSAT your website and the information here has def. decreased my stress level a bit. So thank you (:

    In regards to one of the comments you made the initial post of J. You said ” going back to undergrad doesn’t work”. Is that implying that after one graduates, they decide to go back and re-take courses they did not do well in to bump up their gpa is not a favorable ( I use that term loosely) option?

    Also what are your thoughts on a Low GPA/ High LSAT combo? With your past experience in the admissions office how is that looked at?

    Thank you.

    1. N – Yes, after you get your bachelor degree additional credits you earn do not bump up your LSAC calculated GPA. (See http://www.lsac.org/AboutLSAC/about-lsac.asp). Your Academic Summary Report GPA is what really matters most so this is important to understand. (You have to play on their website a bit to understand this, but it’s an essential website to get to know).
      A high LSAT shows great potential in law school and also some smarts, so it can absolutely overcome low grades at the right school. The key is to look at the 25th/75th percentile numbers for each school to see where you might fit. I have lots of testimonials on my website from clients who had 2.4 and 2.6 GPAs, did well on the LSAT, and were really thrilled with their results. I also have clients with 3.9s and 151s going to Top 30 schools. It’s all about how you package the lower #…..
      Ann

  4. Hello and thank you for all I am learning by reading your blog.
    I have seen posts from aspiring law students about low gpa’s and fears of that factor hampering law school. I do have the same issue, but I have seen that every situation is different so I really want to tell you mine.
    Although I have a low UGPA of 2.56, I believe everything else about my application can show a strong case. When I was an undergraduate I had a surgery and was often in a wheelchair, on crutches, or just struggling by with a medical problem caused by gun shot injuries to my knees during my U.S. Marine Corps service. This also hurt me financially, since I could not get coverage from civilian insurance for a military injury (as my student insurance company, OETNA, told me. So, I was often too injured to work and support myself compounded with huge medical costs. Later, my knees started getting better but I was working full time to pay my tuition and medical bills; and I always had a pain and inability to sleep problem until the end of my undergraduate studies, which also strongly affected my performance. I have professors who can verify this in their letters, if you think it would be helpful.
    On the other hand, since graduating with my undergrad in Anthropology from Indiana University, with 2.56 UGPA, I have been living and working in Ethiopia for two years, now going on three. I have also worked in medical coordination and several other humanitarian affairs in several African countries since 2006. I am responsible for getting one Liberian Child life saving medical care (it took me four years of very hard work and some hazardous travel time throughout West Africa, even during the Cote’d’Ivoire Civil War. I have also been managing humanitarian projects in education, human rights, orphans (of HIV) welfare and education, and other areas where I have experience in management, project design and implementation, fundraising, etc. I have even learned to be proficient in the local language of Ethiopia, Amharic.
    I have also recently negotiated the release of a human trafficking victim who was help in slavery, without pay, in Dubai, U.A.E. That event inspired me to begin my long time dream of applying for an international law degree because I had to act very similar to a lawyer in order to secure her release. In the end, I brought her back to her family in Ethiopia. They are now my family, as I married the girl’s sister (we were dating at the time that the sister went missing due to her captivity in Dubai).
    My organization in Ethiopia was shut down due to the outlawing of organizations practicing human rights activities, but I managed to re-open our projects, in spit of government persecution, under a new organization which still serves our orphans and other beneficiaries; but with less emphasis on human rights talk and education (although we can still do our work if we watch out for legal red-flags that could get us in trouble again.
    Sorry to ramble about myself, but I believe I have the kind of experience that shows that I could make a big difference if I was armed with the knowledge and recognition that comes with a solid international law degree. I have even been practicing the LSAT and believe I will score really well. I also have the most amazing recommendation letters from professors and I could acquire more. I had a great reputation with my professors because I worked as a teachers assistant and research assistant for the high profile head of my school’s Anthropology Dept., and later Dean of Students for Liberal Arts (by promotion). I was also a Senator in student government, as a representative of the School of Liberal Arts. It is only my UGPA of 2.56 that really threatens to hold me back.
    Could you please give me some personal advice??? You can still post it, however. I would really like to hear your feedback; good or bad.

    1. Bryan, Thanks for sharing your history. You have a wonderful story – especially what you’ve been doing in Ethiopia – and if you can do very well on the LSAT then I feel optimistic about your chances. I can’t really give strategy information over the blog – this is a service I provide for my clients only once I’ve reviewed transcripts, resumes, standardized testing history, goals, etc. I wish you the best of luck.
      Ann
      PS. One of my former clients had a 2.4 UGPA and did well on the LSAT. He transferred from a Top 50 to a Top 10 and graduated #1 in his class from the Top 10! How’s that for hope?

  5. HI, Im hoping I can get an answer fairly quickly, I just found this blog and am a little nervous about my application to law schools regardless of my credentials. I went to a top 20 undergrad university, came out with a 3.7 cum gpa, poli sci honors society, 2 years undergrad unpaid internship at a consumer advocacy lobby, and 1 year working as a human resource developer for the international rescue committee- a refugee resettlement agency. I got a 165 on the LSAT, and am currently working as a legal assistant full time for a reputable law firm. The bad news is that last year I was pulled over, adn being negligent of laws that involve the breathalyzer, I refused a breathalyzer test and that in my state was an automatic temporary loss of license. Other than that my record is clean. I hope to attend a top 20 JD program, and am wondering how much admissions boards are going to penalize me for my refusal charge.
    Any comment appreciated. thank you!

  6. I am 34 years old and have worked at the same place for 14 years. I have done volunteer work with hospice and victims advocate for years. I graduated with a 3.3 gpa and have not taken the lasat yet. The problem is this past week I was arrested for assault. There was alcohol involved. A guy started screaming in my face and it’s a long story but I turned around at some point and scratched him in the face and then he close fisted punched me in the face. I was in shock and even though I had a witness, they believed him and did not believe that he hit me. It was a horrible investigation by the cops. They charged him with nothing. Everyone I know cannot believe how the cops acted towards me. First,can I even take the LSAT at this point. I guess that is my major question If I do get convicted, what does that mean as far as trying to get into a law school? Thanks

    1. Kimberly – if you are mentally prepared for the LSAT, take it. If life is too weird right now, wait until December (or February).
      Get a good lawyer.
      It’s not over til it’s over.

  7. Sometimes I honestly feel like giving up ;-( I graduated from undergrad 2 years ago and I have taken the LSAT 3 times, not being able to score above a 140 on all 3 exams. I graduated from undergrad with a 2.85 GPA and my highest LSAT score is a 140. I will not be able to take another LSAT exam until Feb 2011, as per LSAC rules. Which would be a little to late for me to apply for the Fall 2011 class. As for right now I am looking into getting my masters next fall in Public policy to show law school admission that I could handle graduate level work and do very well. From there I will take an LSAT prep course and retake the LSAT. I just wanted to know if you feel I would still have a chance of getting into maybe a part-time program if I study harder and take the LSAT again as well as get my masters.

    1. P,
      If you’ve never taken an LSAT prep course then that’s the #1 thing you can do for yourself. The grad degree will help a little but not if your high score is still a 140. I wish you all the best.

  8. Hi,

    Thank you for this blog!! The Law School admissions process can be quite overwhelming at times and information like this is a necessity! I am a non-traditional student (27) working to finish my undergrad (which has taken me several years and quite a few bad grades scattered around the past 10 years.) In the past 3 years I have had a big life change “grew up” and have been working hard to do well in school. Unfortunately my older grades are still haunting me (some of them almost 9 years old), this has left me with what I calculate will be a very low TOTAL (all institutions) gpa that LSAC will calculate. (around a 2.0). I just took the LSAT and was scoring in the very high 150’s on diagnostics. (I am not opposed to taking it again, based on my score to raise it into the mid 160 range). I am also a minority female with years of work experience as a legal assistant at a few law firms. What are my chances of getting in to law school? I will obviously be writing an addendum about my grades, though not sure how to approach that exactly…

    1. Hi Rachel,
      Thanks for your comment. We need to see where your LSAT comes back before we can really address this but if it comes back where you were scoring in the high 150s then you can absolutely go to law school – it’s just about picking the right schools. You’ll definitely need an addendum about your grades. You might find my book really helpful for that.

  9. First of I just want to say, thank you so much for this blog!!! I have taken the LSAT 3 times with my highest score being a 141. I graduated from undergrad with a 2.87 GPA. I know that I do not have a strong GPA or LSAT score so I have been thinking about taking the GRE and getting into a master’s program. With hopes that I will perform extremely well (3.50 and up) to show that I have matured and to show “the seriousness of my purpose”. From there I will restart my LSAT prep, this time around I will not take the exam until I am completely ready and I know that I will not let my nerves get the best of me. I know that I have the ability to score higher on the LSAT because I have, so I guess my questions to you are: Do you feel that if I retake the LSAT for the 4th time and score nothing lower then a 150, I have a chance of getting into law school even though I took the LSAT 3 times already? Do you feel that applying for a maters program and performing very well will help me gain admissions to law school?