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Convictions Can Come Back to Haunt Rehabilitated Law Students

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 13, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There are plenty of lawyers with criminal backgrounds. Many ex-cons-cum-lawyers cite their past troubles as the reason they first pursued a legal career. When it comes to drug convictions, however, it can be even harder to turn things around. For one, drug convictions can disqualify students from federal student aid.

Turns out a past conviction can also get you kicked out of law school. That's what happened to David Powers, a rehabilitated drug user and part-time law student who was kicked out after the school found out that he had been charged, but not tried, for dealing.

Buying is All Right, Selling Isn't

In 1999, Powers was arrested for selling LSD and Ecstasy (very '90s) to an undercover cop. After making a plea agreement, he was convicted of possession and underwent rehab. He now calls getting arrested "the best day of his life," according to a feature on the would-be-attorney in The New York Times.

Years later, fully reformed and working as an accountant, he decided to pursue a law degree. He studied law part time at St. John's University School of Law and disclosed his drug-related convictions to the school when applying. But he had his acceptance rescinded, after three semesters of study, when the school found out that he had initially been charged with dealing, not buying. In classic "let the John go free" style, the school didn't mind that he had used drugs, but it had an "unwritten policy" against accepting students who'd sold them.

Powers' Case Not Unique

Powers sued -- with representation from a lawyer formerly convicted, twice, for robbery. Unfortunately for Powers, a New York's highest court ruled recently that St. John's was within its rights to reject him.

It's no secret that those who've had run-ins with the law can have a difficult time getting to practice. A state bar's character and fitness requirements can pose major obstacles. In one case, it took a New York attorney with a criminal past ten tries to get into that state's bar -- or, as the New York Post described it, to be demoted from con to lawyer. In Washington, a former felon who'd made it through law school found out at the last minute that the state bar would not allow him to sit for the exam. With some last-minute wheeling and dealing, he was allowed to take the exam and have his fitness judged afterward.

Advocates for rehabilitation say decisions like St. John's pave the way for future expulsions, allowing schools to punish students long after they've been rehabilitated.

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