The Power of Suggestion and Support

The way I remember it, I was sitting at a Culver's somewhere between Minneapolis and Sioux Falls during an undergraduate mock trial trip when Professor Sandy McKeown challenged me to consider going to law school then becoming a public defender.

That was 2007. It was my second semester at the University of South Dakota after returning to college at the ripe old age of 30 and after a felony DUI conviction that was preceded by 12 years of struggling with addiction.

My goals until that challenge were: (1) Continue working on my recovery and journey to wellness, and (2) Graduate with a journalism degree and return to my former career of radio broadcasting. 

After a long string of excuses and self-imposed limitations, a process began with Professor McKeown, my lawyer, and many others to clear a path to law school. 

Three years ago -- 2013 -- the Supreme Court of South Dakota approved my conditional admission to practice law in South Dakota. Thirteen conditions were recommended and imposed by the Board of Bar Examiners. 

Last week, the Court approved the Board's recommendation for full admission to practice law in South Dakota.

Professor McKeown was a former public defender. I wanted to be a public defender. What better place to impact the lives of individuals struggling with the same mental health and addiction issues I struggled with.

But life does not follow some of the best laid plans. The challenge, because of my past, was not getting into law school, but getting admitted to practice law. Overcoming that challenged required a 4-hour hearing that strategically educated the Board of Bar Examiners about addiction and addiction recovery through key witnesses and other evidence. The entire presentation to the Board was architected and led by Professor McKeown as my lawyer. We not only proved-up 8 years of recovery -- sobriety, in a less enlightened world -- but my good moral character, which is the standard to meet in South Dakota.

It took a year from that hearing before the Supreme Court approved the conditional admission. By this time, I was out of law school for a year with a massive financial aid debt about to become reality and no possibility of practicing law in a traditional way. 

By this time, I had been working at Face It TOGETHER for 9 months. 

The public defender's office would have been poetic, but Face It TOGETHER was where I was meant to be. 

Consciously I knew during law school, during the bar exam, during the Board of Bar Examiner's Character and Fitness Hearing, and during three years of conditional admission that the accomplishment of the above letter was not for me. The accomplishment was for others like me who can one day see that addiction or mental illness should not be an immediate barrier to becoming a lawyer. Addiction, like many other chronic illnesses, can be managed and is not instantly or forever disabling. 

Today, as I write this, I am the newly appointed chair of the Lawyer Assistance Committee for the State Bar of South Dakota. My first task is to redraft out-dated statutes that define addiction and mental illness as "misconduct" versus the health conditions that they are.

I am incredibly grateful for that moment nearly 10 years ago that, in part, set the destiny of my life, but will undoubtedly set the destiny of many other lives.