Robert started drinking at age 18 and was an alcoholic by the time he entered law school. “I managed to get my degree and go to work for a Wall Street firm. After that I changed jobs every two years or less. I just couldn’t hang on to one. Nobody ever mentioned drinking to me. But I’m sure that with every job I lost, drinking was the main reason.”
Images of hard-headed, hard-drinking lawyers abound in popular culture. These images make a point: The professional status granted by a law degree offers no immunity from addiction. The same can be said for people in other prominent professions, such as physicians, pilots and politicians. In fact, the rate of addiction for attorneys may exceed that for the general population.
In 2002, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 9.4 percent of Americans age 12 and older could be classified as substance abusers or substance dependent. According to the American Bar Association, the corresponding estimate for lawyers is nearly double–15 to 18 percent.
Emil Jalonen, an attorney in recovery who now works in Hazelden’s Residential Evaluation Program in Center City, Minn., connects chemical use to the overachieving, high-pressure lifestyle of the legal profession.
“Lawyers in private practice often have many clients, which means multiple bosses,” says Jalonen. “All these bosses have different personalities that the attorney must deal with, and all of them have their own needs to meet. Also, lawyers operate under very strict timelines. If you don’t get a certain paper filed by a certain time, for example, your case gets thrown out of court.”
Increased competition is another factor. The fact that lawyers in many states can now advertise, paired with increased graduations from law school, creates an expanding pool of lawyers all chasing the same clients.
Lawyers’ professional survival depends on their competence as perceived by peers and clients. This in turn creates pressure to appear invincible and deny signs of addiction.
A solution lies in lawyer assistance programs–organizations formed by legal professionals to assist each other with recovery from addiction and other mental health problems. Today, such programs exist in all 50 states and Canadian provinces as well as Great Britain.
Lawyer assistance programs differ widely. Some are basically support groups. Others are full-blown diversion programs that aim to rehabilitate impaired lawyers as an alternative to suspension or disbarment. In all cases, confidentiality is strictly maintained.
One goal of peer assistance is to get impaired lawyers into addiction treatment programs. However, many lawyers fear that attending treatment will take them out of the office for extended periods of time and lead to loss of clients.
Lawyers assistance programs are frequently the answer.
“Many lawyers who have been helped by the organization want to volunteer their services to help others,” says Tom Shroyer, executive director of Minnesota Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. “Our volunteers will go in and at no cost for their time assist with another person’s practice in order to meet the needs of clients and keep the attorney out of trouble until he or she is able to get back on the job.”
Chuck Rice, a chemical dependency counselor at Hazelden, says that peer assistance should include aftercare–continuing help for lawyers after they complete treatment.
“My experience with attorneys tells me that long-term treatment outcomes are dramatically improved when lawyers have a fair amount of external support,” Rice says. This includes monitoring, ongoing contact with a treatment professional, and access to other recovering attorneys.
Robert, an advocate of peer assistance, achieved sobriety through inpatient treatment, four months in a halfway house, and a permanent move to Minnesota.
“I’ve managed, in large part as a result of that move, to stay sober for the last 16 years,” he says. “I still practice law, and I sincerely believe that I am very possibly the luckiest man I will ever meet.”
If you are a lawyer, judge or law student, you can access confidential help for chemical dependency and other mental health issues. Contact your state bar association and ask for a referral to a lawyer assistance program. Other resources include:
American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, 312-988-5359, www.abanet.org/legalservices/colap/home.html.
Alive & Free is a health column that provides information to help prevent substance abuse problems and address such problems. It is created by Hazelden, a nonprofit agency based in Center City, Minn.