Should I Drop Out Of Law School?

One of the toughest decisions a law student struggling with addiction or other mental health issues may have to face is whether it is in his/her long term best interests to take a break from law school to focus on self-care.

There are often attendant feelings of  the shame, guilt,  loss and  fear that the student will never make it back. These emotions can be overwhelming and keep the student from addressing the issue with the level of self-awareness needed to make this difficult decision.

Taking a break from law school does not have to be the end. It can be a new beginning.  It is possible to take that break, get healthy, develop a plan and the tools for self-care and resume studies.

Parker is an example of a law student who took that pause, got healthy, developed a self-care plan and re-entered law school. Here is his condensed story, the full version is  in my book, The Addicted Lawyer.

By the time Parker turned twenty-six, he had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas, been accepted to Teach for America, been elected Teacher of the Year on his campus, won the annual Outstanding Young Educator award for Houston ISD, and received the full-tuition Root-Tilden-Kern scholarship from NYU Law.

Although Parker had struggled with substance use disorder since he was fourteen, he worked incredibly hard to keep the discordant realities of his life separate. The progression of his substance use, however, eventually required morning-to-night abuse of opiate painkillers and anxiety medications to stave off debilitating withdrawal symptoms. His friends and family were concerned about the symptoms they could spot, but Parker assured them (and himself) that he didn’t have a problem.

“I desperately hoped that going to law school would fix me,” he says “I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was a child and had worked for nearly a decade to get into a top school. Something had to change, and surely the new environment and challenge of law school would provide that opportunity. Either way, there was no Plan B.”

But nothing changed, in spite of the new environment and challenge of law school. Parker’s addictions exploded, his hope faded, and he was isolated in his dorm room whenever he wasn’t in class. Suicidal, longing for the safety and security of his family, he withdrew from NYU Law and moved back home. Five months later, he entered a residential treatment program for substance abuse and began his winding road to recovery.

Ten months after checking into treatment, six of which were spent in the grip of a brutal heroin addiction, I, along with the help of a therapist, my family, a loving church community, and a twelve-step support group, was finally able to begin building the foundation of a sustainable, long-term recovery from substance use disorder.”

Slowly, Parker’s life began to improve. His relationships healed, and some long-lost self-respect returned. Years of shame began to fade, and he learned how to laugh again. He reveled in the simple joy of early recovery. One day, out of the blue, an old counselor of his offered him a newly created job position—director of Three Oaks Academy, a high school program designed specifically for students in recovery from substance abuse.

“I was surprised and more than a bit intimidated,” he says. “At the time, I had been sober for only six months. But I stepped through my fear and accepted his offer, a decision for which I remain indescribably grateful.”

Parker says that his experience at Three Oaks was transformative, both professionally and personally.

During my time (there), I saw many young people restored to health and wellness, and their families healed, thanks to the full continuum of care provided by the recovery school and alternative peer-group models, from initial treatment to ongoing recovery and academic support,” Parker says. 

Parker had to work through a tremendous amount of fear to even consider returning to law school, but, with the help of the same support network that carried him through his early days of sobriety, he realized that it was a risk worth taking. He studied hard to retake the LSAT, applied to several excellent schools, and was accepted to Stanford Law.

Parker says that the contrast between his life today and the mere existence he was “eking out’ when he arrived at NYU Law seven years earlier couldn’t be greater.

“Instead of investing all of my hope in a “geographic cure,” I’ll arrive at Stanford with a solid recovery foundation and a plan, devised by me and my therapist, of the specific ways I will maintain my physical, mental, and spiritual health while I’m in school, along with how I’ll have fun and relax. There are twelve-step meetings on campus. I look forward to attending those and to learning more about the Stanford recovery community. I’ll continue to be an advocate for school-based recovery support systems, and I hope that, moving forward, my story can help persuade more schools to provide their students with ongoing recovery support, not only in the name of saving lives but also to create stronger and healthier student bodies, ones with a diversity of life experiences, comprised of students who are well along the road to happy destiny.”

Parker’s relationships today—with his family, his friends, and his partner—are stronger than ever, He is comfortable in his own skin, and his life has newfound direction and purpose. He is currently in his second year at Stanford Law as well as seeking a dual  graduate degree in Education.

There are many possible touch-points when a student is faced with making these difficult decisions about his/her future. One critical touch-point is the law school Dean of Students office.  It’s a touchpoint often enveloped in an aurora of fear and stigma in itself. Some common concerns are,  “Will what I tell them be confidential?”  “How will what I tell them affect my ability to take the bar exam?”

Here is what the  David Jaffe, who co-authored the seminal  law mental health study and deals with these concerns as the associate Dean of Student Affairs at the American University Washington College of Law. Here  had to say:

If a student comes to you and says, “I think I have a substance use issue and I am afraid if I seek help—I will have to drop out and will never make it back.” What do you tell her?

Noting that there is a far greater number of law students struggling with a substance use or mental health issue than those who approach their dean of students, the first thing I do is acknowledge the student’s bravery for having come forward, let her know that she is in a safe and confidential environment. 

In most instances I respond initially to the student in an indirect way, but for a specific reason: I ask the student, “Do you want to be a lawyer?” The immediacy (or delay) in the response is almost always a clear table setter for the remainder of the conversation. A student who, but for the substance use or mental health issue facing her has her heart set on becoming a lawyer, will answer almost immediately in the affirmative. Conversely, a student who hesitates with the reply often has something else going on that is not related to the immediate issue (such as having started law school as a least-worst option, or owing to pressure from parents, etc.). For this latter student, a substantive conversation must be held to glean if proceeding with law school is in her best interest.

Assuming the student’s response is in the affirmative, my goal is to do everything in my power to have the student receive help without dropping out of school. In some instances even a twenty-eight-day inpatient stay may be effectuated without the student having to leave school.

A dean of students will have a good relationship with the student’s faculty and should be able to facilitate a temporary absence. In the event that a course is heavy on interaction, and too much class will be missed, the dean of students should be able to arrange for a withdrawal from the course without a complete withdrawal from the semester. 

Further, even in the instance that the student chooses to (or needs to) withdraw from one or more semesters, maintaining contact with the student will send a positive signal that there is a place for her. I worked with a student who withdrew partway through one semester and took another semester of leave prior to returning to earn his degree. We met every couple of months off-campus just to talk, during which time I was able to reassure him that we were prepared to receive him back (and provide ongoing assistance, if necessary) when he was ready.

In sum, a student who want to earn a law degree should not be prevented from doing so due to a substance use or mental health issue. If the student is committed to assistance and recovery, so too will be the law school.



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