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Impaired lawyers overcome denial,
stigma to achieve road to recovery

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."

Like other alcoholics, Robert devised strategies to shield himself from the consequences of drinking and keep his disease a secret. "I never got a DWI because I lived in New York City for 12 years and of course didn't own a car. And I never got in any overt trouble professionally--largely because I didn't do anything."

Thoughts about drinking hijacked Robert's workday. "I left the office early because I couldn't stay out of the bars. I did not drink before noon on workdays, but, on the other hand, I couldn't get much done in the morning. I couldn't even sign my name because my hands shook so badly.

"All I could think of was getting to lunch and ordering my first martini. Then you smell of the stuff and people notice that. How much faith did they have in me? Not much."

An equal opportunity disease
Images of hard-headed, hard-drinking litigators abound in popular culture. Judging from Paul Newman's character in The Verdict, alcohol and the practice of law are inseparable. Novelist John Grisham portrays hip lawyers who cut lines of cocaine with a credit card. Other filmmakers and authors depict lawyers' vulnerability to alcohol and drugs.

Setting aside literary excess, these images make a point: the professional status granted by a law degree offers no immunity from chemical dependency. The same can be said for people in other prominent professions, such as physicians, pilots, and politicians. Alcohol and other drug addiction is an equal opportunity disease.

In fact, attorneys probably lapse into addiction at rates that exceed 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 (ABA), the corresponding figure for lawyers may be nearly double--15 to 18 percent.

A statement from the ABA's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs offers an explanation for this figure: "Because many lawyers and judges are overachievers who carry an enormous workload, the tendency to ‘escape' from daily problems through the use of drugs and alcohol is prevalent in the legal community."

Built-in stress
Emil Jalonen, an attorney in recovery who now works in Hazelden's Residential Evaluation Program at Center City, connects chemical use to several sources of stress that are facts of life in 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. In the recent past, lawyers who demonstrated competence and paid their dues could count on a stable practice. As soon as lawyers were allowed to advertise about 20 years ago, that changed. The extra competition, aided by more lawyers graduating from more law schools, fueled an expanding pool of lawyers all chasing the same clients.

Taken in isolation, none of these stressors are unique to the practice of law, Jalonen says. What's potentially lethal to sobriety is the combination of them, day after day, in the pursuit of billable hours.

The results extend beyond substance abuse to other mental health issues. Recognizing this, the ABA's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs offers services related to stress, depression, anxiety, compulsive gambling, and substance abuse.

Skilled at denial
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.

"Being a lawyer in a community means that you've reached a certain status," says Stephen, another lawyer in recovery. "You fear that if you go to treatment and own up to being an alcoholic that you'll be hurt professionally. This is just another trick that the disease plays on you. You're oblivious to the fact that your drinking has been actually hurting yourself and your reputation for years."

During his drinking days, Stephen carefully crafted a case against the fact that he was an alcoholic. Since he never drank at lunch, he reasoned, he couldn't possibly be alcoholic. To him it made no difference that he repeatedly showed up at work with a hangover from the previous night.

"And, of course, you can always find someone whose drinking is more problematic than yours," Stephen adds. "People die from it, so if you're alive, you must be okay."

Skilled lawyers, often adversarial by nature, develop an arsenal of skills to avoid being pinned down on their denial. When confronted with the consequences of their chemical use, they can succumb to the "paralysis of analysis"--debating your definition of addiction or steering the discussion to somebody else's chemical use.

'Solo by default' fuels disease
Even so, all these strategies can backfire. Impaired lawyers may eventually find themselves unemployed. To make ends meet, some of them start their own private practice. Tom Shroyer, executive director of Minnesota Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (, describes them as "solo by default."

"These are people who might not want to be with other attorneys because their disease might get discovered," Shroyer says. "Or, they may have been discovered while working with a firm and been asked to leave. This group probably contains more troubled individuals than attorneys at large."

Shroyer adds that addiction is a disease marked by withdrawal from human relationships and emotional isolation. For a lawyer who's chemically dependent or on the brink of addiction, the isolation of a solo practice most likely exacerbates the substance abuse problem.

Isolation and denial displayed by lawyers in any setting should come as no surprise, Jalonen says. "When you go to law school, you come to believe that you have a whole lot of power--a certain sense of arrogance which makes you believe that you can conquer all and do all. So it's difficult to get to the position of admitting that you have this disease.

"Besides," he adds, "the legal profession is based on using our intellectual capabilities, and recovery is based on being able to relate to our emotional self. It's a struggle to make the longest trip in recovery--the journey from our head to our heart."

Peer assistance--a path to recovery
When the ABA created its Commission on Impaired Attorneys in 1988, only four states had lawyer assistance programs--organizations formed by legal professionals to assist each other with recovery from alcoholism and mental health problems. Today, such programs exist in all 50 states and Canadian provinces as well as Great Britain. Many of them have a paid, full-time director and professional staff.

Lawyer assistance programs differ from state to state. Some are basically support groups. Many are employee-assistance-program (EAP) models focused on education, assessment, referral, and support for lawyers experiencing one or more of the range of behavioral health problems. And others are full-blown diversion programs aimed at rehabilitating impaired lawyers as an alternative to suspension or disbarment. Confidentiality is key to all the assistance programs.

The diversion programs typically require lawyers to enter addiction treatment, take random drug tests, and submit to other means of monitoring their recovery progress. Compliance is reported with the lawyer's authorization to the recovering lawyer's state bar association during a probationary period that can last several years. A lawyer who meets the requirements gets to maintain a license and keep practicing law.

The EAP model usually focuses on intervention, professional assessment, referrals to treatment, links to local Twelve Step groups, and continuing legal education about addiction.

Through its Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, the ABA actively supports peer assistance in all these forms. The commission created a formal model for lawyer assistance programs in 1995 and, more recently, a model for recovery monitoring programs.

Many impaired lawyers fear that attending treatment will take them out of the office for extended periods of time and lead to loss of clients. Peer assistance organizations are frequently the solution.

"One of the great advantages of an organization such as Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is having a cadre of volunteers who themselves have experienced chemical dependency or depression," says Shroyer. "Lawyers who have been helped by the organization stay involved and want to volunteer their services to help others. In Minnesota, for example, 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."

Succeeding in treatment
Legal professionals display a unique style while they're in treatment, says Chuck Rice, an addiction counselor and supervisor of the Tiebout Unit at Hazelden in Center City. As a lawyer in recovery himself, Rice recognizes certain patterns in his peers.

"Lawyers need fairly sophisticated counseling," he says. "They don't react very well to the old-school, just-do-it kind of approach. They're pretty detail-oriented. They're trained to analyze. They intellectualize. They tend to come across as argumentative, when in fact that's how they process new information. You need to be more willing to engage in a dialogue with them."

Special treatment tracks for lawyers are rare. In addition, there is no data on treatment outcomes for lawyers as compared to outcomes for people in treatment as a whole.

"However," says Rice, "my experience with attorneys tells me that long-term outcomes are dramatically improved when lawyers can be monitored and when there's an accountability system with a fair amount of external support. This means ongoing continuing care groups, ongoing contact with a treatment professional, and access to other recovering attorneys."

Rice adds that "most lawyers in treatment are invested in continuing to practice law. If their license is at risk, it's a pretty powerful incentive to do what they need to do." The same is true for physicians and pilots, professions whose diversion groups require strict monitoring programs with mandatory long-term aftercare. The outcomes for these professions are very impressive--sobriety rates of about 90 percent three years after treatment.

Sobriety, gratitude, productivity
"One of the things that played a huge part in my sobering up was simple, honest-to-God vanity," Robert says. "I was tired of being nothing but a slob--and that was on a good day. I had been miserable for years, in large part because I knew I was an absolute, unredeemed failure at everything I'd ever done or tried."

In Robert's case, sobriety required two inpatient treatments, four months in a halfway house, and a permanent move from New York 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."

Stephen's story is similar. After his wife staged a one-person intervention, he surrendered to his powerlessness over alcohol and agreed to enter treatment. Thanks to his long-term sobriety, he also maintains a legal career.

"The alcoholic lawyer whose firm supports him or her has stared disaster in the eye and survived," says Stephen. "That lawyer is going to be awfully grateful--and far more productive."

Resources of help
If you are a lawyer, judge or law student, you can access confidential help for addiction and mental health problems. Contact your state bar association and ask for a referral to a lawyers assistance program. Other resources include:

The American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLap), a national clearinghouse on lawyer assistance programs, 312-988-5359 or

International Lawyers in Alcoholics Anonymous, a support group that acts "as a bridge between reluctant (in denial) lawyers/judges and AA," can be reached via e-mail at Its Web site is

Hazelden tailors care to each individual and offers a full continuum of addiction services, including assessment, treatment, and continuing care, 800-257-7810.

"Being a lawyer in a community means that you have reached a certain status. You fear that if you go to treatment and own up to being an alcoholic that you'll be hurt professionally. This is just another trick that the disease plays on you. You're oblivious to the fact that your drinking has been actually hurting yourself and your reputation for years."
--Stephen, a recovering attorney

"When you go to law school, you come to believe that you have a whole lot of power--a certain sense of arrogance which makes you believe that you can conquer all and do all. So it's difficult to get to the position of admitting that you have this disease."
  --Emil Jalonen, recovering attorney who works in Hazelden's Residential Evaluation Program in Center City

--by Doug Taft

Published in The Voice, Summer 2004

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