Two former law school administrators recently were disciplined by bar authorities for their role in law school admissions scandals. Former Villanova Law School Dean Mark Sargent was suspended for three years by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for causing false LSAT and GPA data to be reported to the American Bar Association. Former Assistant Dean for Admissions Paul Pless of the University of Illinois College of Law was reprimanded by the disciplinary board of the Washington State Bar Association for misreporting LSAT and GPA data of incoming students to the ABA. Neither was charged with a criminal violation.

Both former deans were disciplined under local versions of Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4. Sargent was cited for violation of RPC 8.4(c), which defines misconduct as “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation,” as well as Massachusetts RPC 8.4(h), which proscribes “any other conduct that adversely reflects on his or her fitness to practice law.”

Pless was also cited for violation for the Washington version of RPC 8.4(c), and furthermore was found to have violated RPC 5.3, which requires that “a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the non-lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer.” (Pless not only himself intentionally altered admissions data, but was negligent in supervising the work of his nonlawyer staff in generating such data.)

Neither of these sanctions was imposed for misconduct directly related to the practice of law. No lawyer-client relationship existed, and the challenged conduct was not an act for which a law degree was even a prerequisite. (There are many law school admissions officers, and even an occasional law school dean, who do not possess a J.D. or are not admitted to practice in any jurisdiction.). While the institutions involved in these cases were law schools, they just as easily could have been medical schools, business schools or divinity schools. The activity involved was higher education, not the practice of law.

Whether the prohibition of dishonesty in RPC 8.4 should extend to conduct not related to the practice of law, but engaged in by someone who happens to be a lawyer, is a debatable one. Necessarily, there must be a preliminary inquiry into the seriousness of the lie. As Professors Geoffrey Hazard Jr. and W. William Hodes note in their treatise on the legal profession, a “lawyer-parent who knowingly lies to a child about the presence of ice cream in the freezer has not violated Rule 8.4(c).” Furthermore, some might argue that, absent a criminal conviction or accusations of theft, attorney disciplinary authorities should be circumspect about policing culpable but noncriminal dishonesty by lawyers outside the practice of law, lest they become the arbiter of truth or falsity in subject matters wholly outside their competency. One can imagine, for instance, the chaos that might ensue if the New Jersey Supreme Court used its disciplinary authority liberally to enforce RPC 8.4(c)’s proscriptions against perceived mendacity by elected politicians who also happen to be lawyers.

Despite those limitations, we agree with the weight of judicial authority that does not limit the reach of RPC 8.4(c) to conduct that is subject to criminal or administrative sanctions, or that is performed by a lawyer acting in his or her capacity as a lawyer. As several courts have held, when a lawyer submits false information to a prospective employer on a résumé or transcript, he exhibits a lack of those characteristics that are essential to the practice of law. Another court suspended a lawyer who made false statements about his domicile in the context of running for public office. The Supreme Court of Illinois censured a lawyer who plagiarized academic work submitted toward an LL.M. degree.

Admission to the bar is not merely a certification of knowledge and technical competence. It is also a certification that one possesses the character to enable clients to entrust their lives and fortunes into the lawyer’s care. There is no such impermeable barrier between one’s professional and nonprofessional life that permits reliance on the model of someone who is professionally ethical but privately corrupt. It behooves lawyers to remind ourselves periodically that in accepting the honor and responsibility of life in the profession of law, we also necessarily agree to some lowering of barriers between professional and private conduct that others might enjoy.