What counts as "unlawful conduct"?
June 25, 2014 5:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm a reference for a friend who is applying for a license to practice law. The reference form asks me whether my friend has ever "been arrested, or engaged in unlawful conduct". My friend has not, to my knowledge, ever been arrested (or had any other trouble with the law), but like most people consumed alcohol before the age of 21, jaywalks, downloaded music as a teen, etc. Nothing serious at all. What should I say?

I need to pick "yes" or "no". If "yes" I am given a chance to explain. I don't want to hurt my friend's application, but if I say "no", I can't imagine they will really believe me - everybody breaks SOME laws. We're talking about really minor transgressions most people are guilty of. Do such things even count as "unlawful conduct" on a serious reference form like this?
posted by Cygnet to Law & Government (17 answers total)
This is a state licensing form, yeah? It's not being reviewed by a witty hiring manager looking for people overstating their virtue. It's for ticking boxes on the licensing requirements. "No" is a very solid answer.
posted by colin_l at 5:14 PM on June 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

When you're filling out forms in any context, don't feel handcuffed. Use your common sense. Skip questions if you don't want to answer. If questions are unclear, feel free to answer what you think they actually mean rather than worrying about what possible alternate meanings the literal words could be interpreted to.

I've gone through a couple bar admissions. Sometimes the questions are badly written. Don't agonize over them. Figure out what (truthful) message you are trying to convey, and then configure the form in a manner best suited to convey that message. Being literal isn't always equivalent to being honest.
posted by cribcage at 5:22 PM on June 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

If the only "unlawful conduct" that you know this person has committed as an adult is jaywalking, I hereby give you permission to say no. I don't think they're really asking about having a couple of beers in college.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:28 PM on June 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

They want to know if your friend has ever committed any serious crimes. Those he has been convicted of they will know of. They want to know about those that he got away with.

Limit your answer to serious crimes and you’ll be fine.
posted by yclipse at 5:35 PM on June 25, 2014

posted by zippy at 5:35 PM on June 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

Was a certain behavior illegal? Lawyers spend endless hours arguing over that question. And no lawyer is ever expected to admit, on behalf of a client, a simple yes.

A very close acquaintance of mine serves on the 'suitability' committee of the local bar in a major city, and has chaired it several times. This topic is the committee's raison d'etre, and my friend and I have discussed it rather deeply.

On the one hand, while Friend insists the committee will discover ANY arrest, that seems to be the backbone of its work: S/he has never mentioned any interest in a non-recorded violation. Perhaps what the Law hasn't addressed, and you don't volunteer, doesn't exist.

Full disclosure: Friend, who is over 75, has never received so much as a speeding ticket. But I know Friend did something at least once that was, I'm sure, technically outside the law.

On the other hand, Friend tells me the committee has dismissed youthful indiscretions that DID result in arrest or citation, and even conviction. And more serious ones than tipping a drink, blowing a joint, etc.

I'm not sure how helpful this is. And I can't tell you what to do. But I can tell you what I'd do: If I'd never been arrested, I'd answer the question 'No.'

Good luck to your friend.
posted by LonnieK at 5:40 PM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

The form is trying to find out about the character of the applicant, not the reference. You seem to be treating this as one of those personality tests that contains questions like "Do you ever lie?" as a trick to detect liars. This Is Not That. It is not a trick question.
posted by gatorae at 5:42 PM on June 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

You should say "no."
posted by ewiar at 5:54 PM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're a personal reference and not under oath. I'm assuming you're also not a lawyer. I think you're on firm ground answering the question the way a reasonable person would.

Meaning, if this came up over dinner and someone said "Oh, X? He's always breaking the law" you'd say "no he isn't," right?

Just check no.
posted by phearlez at 6:06 PM on June 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Say "no" unless you are certain that your friend has been convicted of a crime. To say "yes" because you believe your friend may have been underage is counterproductive and counter to the intent of the form.

I fill out 5-10 of these a year - the are looking for real infractions. If you put "yes" it will just confuse them, because no one ever puts "yes" for things like that and they'll have to figure out how to technically address it, even though it's a nonissue.
posted by mercredi at 6:09 PM on June 25, 2014

I've filled out many. And always said no. Interesting to me, the state bar I am awaiting admission in (this is a study break, ok) only wanted to know about adjudicated incidents (I think this language meant one was to include incidents adjudicated by colleges as well) and did not request that I tell them I've never done drugs.
posted by atomicstone at 6:19 PM on June 25, 2014

I would (and have) answered no in this scenario. If you are not comfortable doing that, you should tell your friend you aren't able to be their reference. Answering yes to the question will jeopardize their chances of being admitted to the bar; if you feel you must answer yes, you should give your friend the opportunity to choose another reference.
posted by melissasaurus at 6:19 PM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

if I say "no", I can't imagine they will really believe me - everybody breaks SOME laws.

Yeah, so if they meant it to be so broad that everyone would give the same answer, they wouldn't have needed to ask the question, would they? They'd already know the answer in advance, so they wouldn't need to waste the ink.

With such a vague question under these circumstances, it would seem that you could safely interpret it as if it included the word "significant" — has s/he ever engaged in any significant unlawful conduct? If they were interviewing you in person and asked you that, would you say, "Yes, I have once seen him/her start to cross the street a bit before the 'walk' light turned on"? Probably not, either because you wouldn't be able to say this with a straight face, or because you'd know they wouldn't take that kind of answer seriously — they'd say: "No, I mean significant unlawful conduct."
posted by John Cohen at 6:44 PM on June 25, 2014

Interesting to me, the state bar I am awaiting admission in...only wanted to know about adjudicated incidents...and did not request that I tell them I've never done drugs.

Via LSDAS, you can view any law school's application. I got curious once so I began poking around. They are very, very different. Some ask about convictions, others ask about charges or arrests. I saw at least one that asked about parking tickets. The worst was a thinly veiled question about whether you had ever committed infidelity or were gay.

(I add this because in my experience, bar admissions vary roughly this same amount between states, and maybe that perspective would be helpful to the OP in wondering how much to bother trying to parse vague language.)
posted by cribcage at 6:57 PM on June 25, 2014

Say no unless you want to make your friend's life much more complicated for no good reason.
posted by Sebmojo at 7:24 PM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's only unlawful if you have been convicted. If you have not been convicted, then not even a court of law can say it was unlawful.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:09 AM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

OK! Thanks all. I said "no". :)
posted by Cygnet at 3:24 AM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

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