Applying to Law School with a History of Substance Abuse

Law School Expert Blog

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.  But 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

22 Responses

  1. 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. 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. 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.

    1. 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.

  4. My husband recently entered recovery and I have been debating on writing about how the experience has affect me and my decision to go to law school. I want to make it not a sob story, and not about him, but about me and how the experience has changed my perspective. Is it appropriate to write about as it is not my addiction, but it has heavily impacted both my life and my decision to go to law school?
    He has been in recovery for a year and I have been working full time in a demanding management role, which I feel shows I can handle a lot on my plate.
    I want to be sure I don’t come across as a victim. I plan to shape my narrative around perseverance and growth.

      1. My journey to/since recovery paints a vivid picture of what kind of person I am. Should I “ease up” on my recovery story and try to spend more time explaining why I want to go to law school?

  5. Thank you for this. Recovery was a very significant part of my early twenties, and it’s hard for me to identify any character trait I have that isn’t at least in some way related to it.

    I wanted to know your thoughts on a contrasting opinion, not mine, but one I found on a forum:

    “The reader of your essay has the privilege of anonymity. They don’t have to look you in the eye or even call you after reading it. That makes it easy for them to act on prejudice. And they will.”

    Based on your article, I get the sense that this prejudice isn’t as prevalent in Law Schools. Still, it sounds like we should cite some concrete examples of how we’ve handled responsibility since recovery? Should we do this even if our LOR’s and other achievements already speak to that?

    Thank you for your insight

  6. Hello,

    So I finished my undergrad with a 3.84 university, but a 3.0 cumulative GPA. I did poorly during my time in community. I have been a habitual drug user since the age of 15. I am 28 now. My time in community college was completely under the influence of heroin and liquid morphine. I never imagined that i would one day be applying to law school. I have 3 years sober, but am afraid that my low cumulative GPA will prevent my acceptance to a T14 school, specifically UC Berkeley. I quit in 2015 and immediately my grades drastically improved, and have kept improving each semester.
    What advice would you give when I write my personal statement?

  7. Ann, thank you so much for this article.
    I’m getting ready ready to apply for next fall. I actually applied to law schools 15 years ago right after undergrad, but I ended up spending my 20s as a heroin addict. I got clean in 2011 and have worked in rehabs since then. I am 37 yrs old now, and finally feel ready to get back to my original plan of law school. My concerns are: 1. I have a decade gap in scholastic/employment history b/c of addiction, and 2. does my older age make me a less desirable candidate?
    I would appreciate your feedback. Thank you in advance!

    1. Bronya,
      Thanks for sharing your story. IF you have recent endeavors to show what you are currently capable of achieving, law schools will have a lot of admiration for you!

  8. Hi,

    Thanks for the pointers! I found them really helpful.

    What are your thoughts on a personal statement on how my time in recovery shaped why I want to attend law school. In treatment I saw the ways that stress that can come from outstanding criminal processes, issues in family court, and debt collectors can have on the most people in recovery and it has really shaped why I want to study and practice law.

    Any thoughts? Or would you think the PS should not focus on recovery?


  9. Great post. I’ve been in recovery for several years, applying to law school right now, and I’m planning to take a similar approach. Curious to know from the previous posters- how did the application process work out for you?

  10. For the addendum, if you have multiple alcohol related arrests (5), I was thinking that the top part of the essay would just be talking about each one in one paragraph (half a page) and then the second the rest of it half page to page would be discussing how much I have changed and all the things that I have done in the time that has past. Am I on the right path? I think because I clearly had a pattern that it would be foolish to try to talk about what I learned each time since the behavior continued. Thank you so much, and the post above is very helpful!

  11. Hi Ann,
    I am applying to law school for this fall (2020). I have a little bit of an issue to say the least. The reason I got interested in going to law school (since this WAS NEVER ON MY AGENDA) was I got caught up in the legal system (CPS) over a false positive drug screen when I had my last child. It was proven by hair follicle test. Yet, I spent 10,000 dollars on 2 lawyers and still did not get my children back. I found myself involved simultaneously in 3 court proceedings for all the same minors. My second lawyer filed a case in chancery court despite knowing youth court had jurisdiction and my mother filed a child support case in her home state even though she was under the jurisdiction of my state. My mother (who did not raise me) went against me and the courts had a hearing the day one of my attorneys withdrew from my case and just happens this court didn’t invite me or their father. After two lawyers failed me and I started representing myself. I have wrote many motions, many answers to lawyers complaints/petitions. Just recently in Jan of this year I wrote a motion to vacate the youth court orders to which the judge did not despite overwhelming evidence that this court and cps falsified documents. I even did a hearing where I gave oral argument. I have sent my case to my states Supreme Court and the evidence against them is astonishing. I am very confident that the case will be overturned. How could I go about using this as a personal statement? I have fought every uphill battle known to mankind to get where I am at. I even started going to trials and viewing them in my own time and writing about the events of that day. I have many notebooks of various court proceedings on any given day. Being apart of the youth court I found that most folks are poor ( I am from middle class background). I found that they do not understand what is going on in any proceeding. They never get any paper work and their case worker never helps them like she should. They are victimized and made to drug test over and over and over even when they have tested clean for 6-10 months on end. Even like in my case after they take a hair follicle test. I decided I wanted to be involved in this. I want to make a difference in these type of proceedings and I ultimately want my own children returned to me. How could I incorporate this?

    1. Hopeful,
      I think your encounters with the legal system are relevant but you need to be careful about how much to share in order to maintain your credibility.

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