When I walked through the doors of Pitt Law as a 1-L in 1983, I was deep into alcohol use disorder, also known as an “alcoholic.” I was also dealing with traditional and exercise bulimia. Throw in clinical depression as well. I felt completely alone in my struggle. I would tell no one. Not my parents, my roommates or my dean of students. I had no concept of 12-step recovery (Alcoholics Anonymous is the most well known) or any other type of peer support that might have been available. I was simply surviving the rigors of law school and my disorders on a moment to moment basis.
Times have certainly changed. Today, as an incoming 1-L either in recovery or perhaps terrified of seeking help, there is a wellness path for you. When I wrote The Addicted Lawyer, one story used, was from a law student in recovery, Melissa. She graduated and is continuing her recovery in the practice of law. Who better than to offer some insight and advice to incoming students. Pay attention. It’s great advice.
On August 19th, 2014 I arrived at law school orientation. In the preceding year, I endured the loss of my father to pancreatic cancer, survived the LSAT, applied to law school, and packed my life to move 250 miles to Boston. More noteworthy though, was that on that date I was just shy of three years sober and about to commence one of my most challenging pursuits yet in recovery– becoming a lawyer; a lawyer in long-term recovery. Long-term recovery means for me that I have not had to put a drink or a drug in my body since August 30, 2011. A huge accomplishment for someone like me and still somewhat shocking when I reflect on that point in my life seven years ago.
Right before that pivotal day in August 2011 I was nineteen years old living in a homeless shelter in Easton, Pennsylvania, intravenously consuming 50 wax-folds of heroin and cocaine a day, and completely isolated from everyone who loved me. I was broken, hopeless, and felt as if I had dug myself so deep into a hole via my addiction that I had no way out. Luckily for me, something shifted and propelled me into a life of recovery. I was blessed to be guided through a continuum of care of detox, inpatient treatment, a halfway house, sober living and entered into a twelve-step fellowship. Slowly but surely, I began to climb out of that hole and into a life beyond my wildest dreams.
How did I get where I am now? Many of us have been asked what we want to be when we grow up. For me, at one time, an outlandish question, believing the only thing I would ever amount to was a criminal and a person with a debilitating addiction. Fortunately, people around me saw something that I couldn’t see in myself– potential. I met these questions with the answer that I wanted to be a lawyer. In response, those same individuals who questioned me, supported me to not only continue to pursue my rehabilitation but also to embark on the journey to become just that – a sober lawyer. There I stood in the middle of law school orientation absolutely enamored with the love and support behind me but also horrified that I wouldn’t make it. How was I going to do this?
If you’re reading this article I assume that you are entering law school and have a similar pit in the bottom of your stomach. But don’t worry, if I could do it, you most certainly can too. The work you have put in thus far is tremendous and you should be very proud of yourself– you deserve to be exactly where your feet are. Now for the bad news, you’re about to be launched into the microcosm that is law school abundant with stress, anxiety, and isolation from the outside world. Yet there is hope. The following advice is not only for those who are currently or previously suffering from a substance use or mental health disorder but for anyone entering into three (or four years) of law school. The truth is whatever brought you here will keep you here if you heed the following advice and work hard.
Be yourself and enjoy the ride (with some friends)!
One of the most important things I considered when entering law school was if I was entering into an environment that was going to accept me for who I was. My unique past and my vision to help people who were similarly situated as I was the only reason I was even going to law school. I wanted to become a lawyer, I wanted to become an assistant prosecutor, and I wanted to make a difference in a world where so many people with mental health and substance use disorders enter courtrooms across our country every day. Why could I not be a representative of what recovery and perseverance look like– not as a defendant, but as a lawyer. I could and I would. I just needed to be myself and find some people who understood who I was and what I was trying to do.
It wasn’t always easy. In my first year of law school I approached a faculty member to help with my law school’s annual wellness day and in response, she said to me, “No, I don’t think that is a good idea. What if you relapse?” A full-fledged example that the stigma of being a person in long-term recovery or recovering from a mental health disorder is alive and well in our legal profession. Thank god for the people who guided me to not only seek out other faculty and students to collaborate with to bring what was needed to the school in terms of wellness but to use those actions to shape the minds of those who don’t understand what it means to be in recovery or to live a balanced healthy life in law school.
My first piece of advice as corny as it is is to keep going no matter what. Don’t let anyone tell you that your dreams are too unrealistic or that you should “tone down” who you are or that you may not make it because of whatever preconceived notion they have about “people like you”. Be yourself and go be the person you want to be and find those who will support you. If you don’t find those people right away don’t give up. We are out there.
It’s okay to be not okay!
Again, it’s okay to be not okay. Hundreds of pages of reading a night, legal jargon that makes absolutely no sense, and a highly competitive environment will eventually drive even the most well balanced of law students to their wits end. Keep a core group of people inside and outside of law school no matter what. Let them carry you through the high school like the drama of 1L year, the stresses of finals, and the complete defeat you will feel when you put in everything you have to come up short of what you hoped. Law school is a marathon, not a race even though it can feel like that sometimes. Stick with the people who love and support you– you’ll be alright even when you’re not okay.
Reach out to your LAP and find out what’s available.
Help is available to you if it is from your law school, affiliated university, or your local lawyer’s assistance program. Pay attention in law school orientation or ask your 1L advisor or mentor to help you locate what resources are available to you. Most lawyer’s assistance programs offer some sort of counseling, twelve step based lawyer’s meetings, or wellness workshops that law students can attend. These services are often free and even if you are not someone who has a mental health diagnosis or a substance use disorder you are never too well to take advantage of these amazing services. Know what you have so that you can utilize them when needed.
Pro tip: If you have a mental health or substance use disorder and you are worried about character and fitness for the bar exam your local lawyer’s assistance program can be a great resource for you to start proving that you are “sober enough” or “healthy enough” to become a lawyer.
Last but not least, have fun! But not to much fun. Some of my greatest memories are spending time with the people I went to law school with, attending Barrister’s Ball (aka law school prom), and trudging through the hard times that I faced in law school to prove to myself (and others!) over and over again that just because I wasn’t a cookie cutter law student didn’t mean I wasn’t just as worthy of that law degree. You are totally worthy of that degree– now go get it!
Reflecting back on my time in law school over a year after graduating, ending a year judicial clerkship, approaching seven years in long-term recovery and mere weeks away from being sworn in as an assistant prosecutor I am telling you that you can do this. No matter where you’re from, what you did, or what you do there is a way to get through law school. Enjoy the ride, you got this.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.