Should Plagiarism Prevent Someone From Becoming a Lawyer?

A question that will likely become more common as we move forward...

Oluwaseun Itunu Olowolafe is now eligible to become a lawyer in Canada. Approved by Law Society of Ontario, he is now eligible to be granted an L1 license and will likely be called to the bar shortly.

However, Olowolafe’s path to the bar was far from typical. Having received his law degree in 2012 from the University of Northampton in England, it took nearly eight years for him to go from being a degree holder to finally having a clear path to becoming a lawyer.

The reason for the delay was simple: Plagiarism.

Olowolafe, by his own admission, was punished for three separate acts of plagiarism while obtaining his undergraduate degree. These allegations led to him not only twice withdrawing his licensing application, but being rejected in 2016.

This is due to the fact that lawyers in Canada, much like in the U.S., must be determined to be of good character (or good moral character as it’s called in the U.S.) before they are granted a license to practice law. This is an effort to guard against people who have the required knowledge and coursework but may engage in unscrupulous activities when granted the authority to practice law.

To that end, Olowolafe’s case posed a question: Should plagiarism be a block on admission to the bar and, if so, how long does one have to be incident-free before that block is lifted?

The Case of Oluwaseun Itunu Olowolafe

Olowolafe’s first brush with plagiarism took place in September 2006. While working on his undergraduate at the University of Toronto, he was found to have plagiarized an assignment submitted for course credit. He received a zero for the assignment and his mark in the course was reduced by 40%

In June 2009 he had his second run-in as the school took action on an assignment he had submitted in 2008. He received a zero for the course with a note that the reduction was “due to academic misconduct” and was suspended for 12 months.

During those 12 months, he chose to study abroad rather than put his academic career on hold. He ended up getting an LL.B. from the University of Northampton in 2012 and Law Societies of Canada issued him a certificate of qualification that allowed him to apply for a license in any of the territories or provinces.

However, during 2012 he also admitted to the third incident of plagiarism, this one back at the University of Toronto where he was trying to finish a philosophy specialist degree, this one resulted in a three-year suspension from the university.

Also during 2012, Olowolafe submitted his first licensing application. Though he disclosed the 2006 plagiarism incident, he did not disclose the 2008 one. He called this a “foolish mistake” and said it was not intentionally deceptive. He did, however, amend his form to include the more recent suspension.

He ultimately withdrew that application in July 2014 but quickly re-entered the process in September of that same year. However, that application would be short-lived as he withdrew it in January 2015, discontinuing the process (and the investigation) a second time.

Later that same month, he tried again but this time in Alberta. There he provided different explanations for the plagiarism incidents. Ultimately, in February 2016, The Law Society for Alberta rejected his application saying that he had failed to establish his good character on a balance of probabilities.

Olowolafe tried repeatedly to reinstate his application but was ultimately unsuccessful. In March 2018, he filed again with the Law Society of Ontario but presented much more evidence that he had matured and had taken responsibility for his actions. This came not just through his own words, but that of witnesses, including his older brother and mother.

That same year, he also finally completed his degree at the University of Toronto after completing required academic workshops and finishing the rest of his coursework.

In December 2019, the Law Society granted his application saying that he was “Presently of good character and was eligible to be granted an L1 license.”

That brings the long, winding road of Olowolafe’s story to a conclusion, but it leaves a lot of difficult questions unanswered.

The Plagiarism Question

Note: I come at this as an outsider. I am not a lawyer, I have never sat for the bar and have no intention of doing so. I know nothing about the process other than what my research and conversation with attorneys has taught me. I come to this as someone with a great deal of experience with plagiarism and plagiarists, but not these specific hearings.

There’s not much doubt that Olowolafe committed repeated acts of plagiarism. Not only are the decisions of the University of Toronto pretty clear, but Olowolafe himself has admitted it.

However, he’s far from the only student to have committed plagiarism and go on to become a lawyer. Former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, was found to have plagiarized in law school in 1965 but was admitted to the Delaware Bar in 1969, just one year after graduation.

What makes Olowolafe’s disturbing is three things:

  1. The Repeated Plagiarism: The story involves three separate plagiarism allegations over the span of about five years. Mistakes and missteps are understandable, but this was a repeated problem over his academic career and one that led to a three-year suspension.
  2. The Lack of Transparency: For whatever reason, Olowolafe did not initially disclose one of the incidents. Whether it was a genuine oversight or an attempt to hide it no one but Olowolafe knows. But either way, the failure to disclose the incident is as damming as the incident itself.
  3. The Changing Story Around It: Initially, Olowolafe blamed the plagiarism on events in his life, including needing to care for his mother after a car accident. Though he now admits those elements had no bearing, there was a definite lack of responsibility early on. He also attempted to portray the plagiarism issues as being much smaller than they were, calling it a “failure to cite footnotes correctly” even though he now admits that they were larger deals.

Combine this with multiple multiple applications (in two separate provinces) and it’s easy to see why many are mistrusting of Olowolafe’s reform.

That said, in recent years his story has changed and he has been both more upfront about what happened and taking increased personal responsibility for it. According to the published decision, Olowolafe has been much more open and transparent about his past transgressions, even acknowledging that much of it was due to him not taking his studies seriously.

To add to that, there’s the simple truth that the last plagiarism incident took place over 8 years ago and he has since served all of his suspensions and completed all of the degrees. If the University feels he has moved far enough past it, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t.

What is clear to me is that the 2016 decision in Alberta was the right one. The plagiarism was too new, Olowolafe was too deflective and there simply wasn’t a solid reason to believe he had reformed. Three years later, that question becomes much more complicated.

While I’m personally somewhat mistrustful of Olowolafe’s turnaround, I also haven’t spoken to him personally. I only have his testimony as provided by the decision and other news coverage. I put my trust in the Law Society of Ontario that they, with their more intimate knowledge, made the correct decision.

Olowolafe would not be the first plagiarist to feign a turnaround to try and put their past behind them but he also wouldn’t be the first to genuinely do so and go on to do great things. Which he is will have to be decided by Olowolafe himself as he chooses how to carry out the next phase of his life.

Bottom Line

The real lesson here is that plagiarism, or other academic integrity violations, can come back and haunt you. Even if they happen at the undergraduate level, they can bite you later in life.

Though we talk about plagiarized dissertations and theses getting degrees revoked, it can also be a problem for many even if it takes place earlier in one’s academic career.

That said, I would personally hate for plagiarism, especially early on, to be an automatic block that would keep one from becoming a lawyer. While a plagiarism incident should be disclosed and weighed, it does not automatically mean the person is of bad moral character.

If we don’t offer people a chance to redeem themselves, then there is no motivation for people to work to improve. Here’s hoping that’s exactly what happens with Olowolafe.

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