Applying to Law School with a History of Substance Abuse

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Each year, I work with a couple of people who have overcome addictions and are applying to law school. This year, I have quite a few on my client roster. I know there are a lot of you out there worried that your addiction will prevent you from being admitted to law school. Today’s post is for you. Here are 5 points I want to share:

1. You’re not alone.

It’s ok to talk about this with law schools. Obviously, it’s not what you want to lead with – this isn’t an AA meeting. (Ok, a little humor, I hope….) But this is part of who you are, and it won’t automatically get you kicked to the “no” pile. Substance abuse is taken very seriously by admission officers because lawyers (working in a stressful profession) have high rates of alcoholism. So, there is some screening going on here. But all of the clients I’ve worked with who have shared their addiction, and story of overcoming addiction, with law schools have been admitted to law school. So you won’t be the first or only one with this story. If that helps.

2. How big a problem is this from a law school’s standpoint?

The key thing is recency. How long have you been sober? What have you done since then to show you’re capable of handling stress? What have you done that shows you’re trustworthy? Provide facts that demonstrate that law school won’t be your first experiment with stress since sobriety.

If you been convicted of a crime related to the addiction, then there’s no way to avoid bringing this up in your applications. You’re going to have to address it. Even that, however, shouldn’t scare you away. The key is to show that (hopefully) significant time has passed since these incidents, and that you handled yourself responsibly after, learned an important lesson as a result, and have spent time giving back to others in meaningful ways. Don’t be coy when explaining arrests – be specific about the charge, the disposition, any fines, community service, alcohol management classes, jail time, etc. ┬áBut at the same time, don’t go overboard with the backstory about your girlfriend flirting with another guy at the bar and setting you off on a violent streak….. Select details carefully or being candid will backfire.

3. How can I overcome any presumptions or stereotypes the reader might have?

I think there is a tendency to get too introspective and philosophical when you’ve been through rehab, detox, AA, therapy, etc. It’s just not the right tone for a law school application. Instead, I urge you to stress professionalism, responsibilities, how you’ve been able to handle a lot and succeed, how even when something sad/stressful/difficult was thrown at you recently you were able to sail through with flying colors. And don’t pass blame onto parents, spouses, etc. Take responsibility for yourself and own up to your actions.

4. How do I prove I’m sober and ready to take on the challenge of law school?

Provide facts. How long have you been working? What kind of hours? What kind of financial/confidential responsibilities have you been trusted with? How have you repaired your relationships with family members and friends? Have you been giving back to the community in a meaningful way? What about school? Have your grades improved? How about your relationships with teachers? Have you gotten more involved on campus? Have you removed yourself from those who were bad influences? These are the kinds of facts that show a law school you’re serious.

5. Will this be the thing that keeps me out of Harvard?

No, this alone won’t keep you from attending a fantastic law school. So put yourself out there – if this is your dream, go for it. Just play your cards right.

See also:

The Legal Profession’s Hidden Secret: Substance Abuse

AALS Substance Abuse Report

Stress-Depression-Substance Abuse

5 thoughts on “Applying to Law School with a History of Substance Abuse

  1. April Bradley on said:

    Thank you for the pointers. I am going to be writing my personal statement soon and was wondering what should or should not be said about my past addiction. This article helped me more than you will ever know.

  2. Patrick Taylor on said:

    I too am a heroin addict and I too am applying to law school. My personal statement addresses both the highs and lows of my addiction, but to list all my arrests in detail would be a novel. How do I convey this in 3 pages?

  3. David on said:

    What if a low undergrad gpa (2.1) and lack of a decent resume through college and the first year and a half after were due to being completely strung out but you’ve since been sober for a year with no prior arrest and you do significantly higher on the lsat than a school’s median lsat. Would the drug addiction need to be referenced or should I just start now volunteering as much as possible while continuing working full time and trying to advance in current job field as much as possible up until the application.

    • Hi David,
      Of course you’re under no obligation to share your history with law schools. Being sober for a year is a huge accomplishment – but more than a year would be even stronger. Volunteering and working while taking the LSAT will show schools what you’re currently capable of handling. When drafting the addendum you can choose to be vague, referring to health issues, or be brave and take it head on – you struggled with sobriety and are now proud to say you’ve been sober for a year and how this has directed your life goals.

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