Gabrielle Ann Scott Elliott, a woman in her late 20s with a 10th grade education, a criminal record and a desire to become a lawyer, was thumbing through an old Vassar College yearbook one day when she spotted a coincidence that she thought was too good to pass up.
A woman with a similar name - Ann Scott Elliott - had graduated from Vassar in 1964. That woman had the one thing Gabrielle Elliott needed to get into law school: a college degree.
So Gabrielle Elliott wrote to Vassar for Ann Scott Elliott's college transcript and successfully used it to gain admission in 1972 to the University of South Carolina Law School.
Despite her lack of formal education, Gabrielle Elliott graduated from law school with above average grades and an impressive list of law-related activities, including working as a research assistant to two law professors teaching legal writing to freshmen and finishing fourth in moot court competition.
She also passed the South Carolina bar exam, completed her work for a master's degree in environmental law at the University of Washington in Seattle, and was about to join a wellknown law firm in Columbia, S.C., the state capital, when her bubble burst.
Through a fluke, the University of South Carolina discovered that she had been admitted to law school on someone else's college grades. The South Carolina Supreme Court disbarred Elliott last year and the school is now trying to take away her law degree.
At about the same time, officials at the University of Michigan Law School - ranked among the top 10 in the country - found they had a similar situation involving a recent graduate.
According to Michigan officials, a 1977 gradute named Henry L. Anderson III was admitted to the final two years of law school on the basis of forged recommendations and a phony transcript that gave him credit for far better grades than he actually earned during his first year at another, less distinguished law school.
In all, Michigan officials said, Anderson forged three sets of transcripts before he was caught. Moreover, school officials said he managed to squeak through two years at Michigan by plagiarizing learned law review articles and turning them in as his own original research.
Nobody knows for sure how many more people who have gotton into and through law schools by cheating or using forged transcripts. Law schools don't like publicity about those they catch and they, of course, are the only ones anyone knows about.
"The fightening thing," said Dean Richard E. Day of the University of South Carolina Law School, "is there could be more of them. How many people are running around with false credentials? The question is what to do about it."
"We literally don't know if the cheaters who get caught are just the tip of the iceberg, or if there is no substantial problem," said Millard Ruud. executive director of the American Association of Law Schools.
John P. Germany, a Tampa attorney and former chairman of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, said, "Somewhere along the line there is going to be an inconsistency that will crop up and get the person caught."
He said the South Carolina Supreme Court was right to take away Gabrielle Elliott's right to practice law, even though she graduated from law school and passed the bar exam, because she failed to meet the profession. "Character and fitness," he explained, "are as important parts of entering the bar as passing the exam itself. If someone lies one time, the question is when will he stop."
Gabrielle Elliott, for instance, both used false college transcripts and concealed her criminal record - a conviction for shoplifting in New York's Bloomingdale's and an arrest a bad check charge in Virginia Beach - when she applied to law school and for admission to the South Carolina bar.
A professor whom she asked to provide a letter of recommendation checked her college record and found that to have been born when she said she was - in 1945 - she would have entered Vassar at the unusually young age of 15 and graduated at 19.
This prompted the school's investigation, which led to the discovery of the real Ann Scott Elliott, who submitted a sworn statement that she never used her Vassar transcript to apply to South Carolina law school.
Even the best law schools get flimflammed. In one of the most embarrassing cases ever to come to light, a man was accused of entering Harvard Law School twice within 10 years using different names and different sets of forged college records.
According to charges filed in Boston's federal District Court, the man first entered Harvard in 1968 using the name of Spiro M. Pavlovich. He was caught, and thrown out of school, just before finishing a four-year program leading to degrees in both law and business administration.
Harvard found that Pavlovich had been admitted on the basis of a forged transcript showing he graduated with high marks from Tulane University. In fact, he had not graduated from any college.
Sporting a beard and using the name James Scott Cord, according to the federal indictment and college records, he entered the same program in 1973 and made it through three years before he was caught again. This time it was a New York law firm to which he had applied for a summer job that had asked Harvard to check Cord's record.
It turned out he had inflated his Harvard grades to help his job hunt, according to court records. Further checks by Harvard showed he had used a forged transcript from Tulane to gain admission as a transfer student to the University of New Orleans, which awarded him the degree that allowed him to enter Harvard.
He is now awaiting trial in U.S. District Court in Boston on charges of making false statements on his application for a federally insured loan to pay for his Harvard law and business degrees.
Law schools began trying to tighten some admissions checks in 1973 when some of them noticed a few cases in which people are taking the Law School Admissions Test got much better scores the second time around. To eliminate the possibility of ringers taking the tests, the Law School Admissions Council asked the Educational Testing Service to require a thumbprint or some other form of positive identification from everyone taking the LSATs.
The law school test is the only examination administered by the Educational Testing Service where thumbprints are required.
The thumbprint, of course, wouldn't have protected the law schools from people like Harry Alexander III or Gabrielle Ann Scott Elliott since they both were able to get passing grades the first time they took the LSATs.
In fact, it took the suspecions of a Washington lawyer who got a job application from Anderson to trigger Michigan's investigation into his law school record.
The Washington attorney, a partner in a major firm here who asked that his name not be used, said he became suspicious when he noted that the only references Anderson gave on his job application couldn't be checked. They were all professors who were out of the country on sabbatical leave or who had taught at Michigan for a year as visiting professors from other countries.
At the same time, said Assistant Dean Susan M. Eklund of the University of Michigan Law School, a professor took a closer look at a piece of original research that Anderson had done for extra credit in the field of criminal law and found it to be "a pretty severe case of plagiarism."
The university published a statement about the Anderson case - without mentioning his name - in the law school newspaper and wrote letters to bar examination officials warning them that he might try to get a license to practice law.
According to that statement and letter, Anderson falsified the transcript of his undergraduate marks at Georgia Institute of Technology, where he graduated in 1974, to make it appear that he was a better student. He used that transcript to get into the University of Cleveland's Marshall School of Law.
After this first year there, he applied to Michigan and submitted his false Georgia Tech transcript, along with forged letters of recommendation and class standing and a forged transcript that inflated his marks at the Marshall School of Law, according to the statement and letter.
"It was upon those false credentials that Mr. Anderson was admitted to the law school with provisional advanced standing," Eklund wrote the bar examiners. "His actual credentials were not sufficient for admission."
Because of this, the law school made the lawyer-like decision that Anderson had failed to do all the work necessary for a Michigan law degree, and took it away from him.
Anderson also allegedly falsified his final Michigan grade transcript, inflating his marks to make it appear he was a better student, and submitted it to at least two law firms as part of a job application.
Anderson, reached at his home in a Cleveland suburb, blamed his actions on "personal problems rather than mischievious intent." He said he doesn't think it is any longer possible for him to become a lawyer and that he is now looking for another job.