Washington Lawyer

From the President: With Personal Woes, Don't Try to Go Solo

From Washington Lawyer, January 2011

By Ronald S. Flagg

flaggLawyers are problem solvers. Many of us went to law school to pursue a profession committed to helping clients solve problems. While we devote ourselves to solving our clients’ problems, we are not always as vigilant in addressing our own personal challenges.

Billing pressures, long hours, and the adversarial nature of law practice can add up to unrelenting stress, which can lead to chronic anxiety and depression. Studies report that about 20 percent of lawyers suffer from depression, and that the legal profession suffers from far higher levels of depression than any other occupation. The stress of being a lawyer today and the culture of many of our workplaces also can contribute to a higher incidence of alcohol abuse and addiction. To that end, studies also indicate that 17 percent to 19 percent of lawyers have an alcohol problem. While these types of statistics are impersonal, their magnitude bears a critical, personal message: Each of us almost certainly works with or knows a lawyer suffering from depression, alcoholism, or other addiction.

Tragically, too many lawyers suffering from these diseases deny their extent, or even their existence, and try to go it alone to avoid embarassment or professional failure. I say “tragic” because depression, alcoholism, and other addictions usually can be treated, but only with the help of others. The stories of two of our members, John and Angela,* are illustrative.

After graduation, John clerked on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and then joined a law firm where he started drinking. As John puts it, “I learned to make the perfect martini and was ‘off to the races.’ My disease progressed slowly, but unremittingly. After losing both my partnership in a law firm and then my general counsel role at a leading company, I confronted my alcoholism for the first time. I tried Alcoholics Anonymous [AA] briefly, but decided it was not for me. I thought I could stop drinking if I just exerted willpower. I couldn’t.

“I made an appointment with the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program. The director put me at ease and assured me there was a way out. I went into an outpatient program with great enthusiasm, studying everything with my usual intellectual zeal. I was a walking encyclopedia, knowing it in the head, but not in the heart. AA was still ‘them,’ and I made a science of comparing how I was not like the others in AA.”

After a relapse and hospitalization, John went through subsequent periods of sobriety and additional relapses. Eventually, “I admitted that I was totally powerless over alcohol. I saw that there was a way, if I would and could surrender my self-will. The counselors at the Lawyer Assistance Program started the long and sometimes difficult process of helping me put the pieces back together. It is working. I am once again happily married and have a thriving career as a partner in a Washington law firm.”

Shortly after Angela joined a law firm, one of her close friends died unexpectedly. As Angela describes it, “I had not previously billed hours or accounted for every moment of my day. I had not simultaneously managed client and firm demands, billing hours, and grieving my friend’s untimely death.

“The most difficult thing to do when you’re depressed is to recognize that you are depressed—not just having a series of consecutive bad, sad days. I tried to juggle my work and what I later learned was depression. I saw a therapist. I thought positive thoughts. Sometimes I managed, but I was accustomed to thriving, not merely managing.

“The firm was very kind to me, but there is only so much a firm can do. It is a business. The hours must be billed. The clients must be served. And depression does not respect these things. Depression respects nothing—not your work ethic, not your relationships, not your profession.

“Ultimately, I left my job, and I used the counseling service offered by the Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program. After a short break, I returned to practicing law, and I have a demanding and fulfilling career that I love, but I continue to take care of myself. I see a therapist. I take medication. I nurture my relationships with my family and friends. I work out and mentor students. I rest. Now, when life happens (and it always happens), I have a healthy internal reserve, a wide and deep support system, and a confidence that whatever life throws my way, I can and will handle.”

As John and Angela’s stories show, lawyers with alcoholism and depression can be helped, but only if they reach out for assistance. The D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program is a free, voluntary, and strictly confidential program for lawyers, law students, and judges who are experiencing problems—such as addiction, depression, anxiety, or stress—that interfere with their professional or personal lives. The Lawyer Assistance Program provides confidential telephone access to a trained professional counselor; assessments and referrals to appropriate treatment programs; in-person counseling; and volunteers, such as John and Angela, who have experienced the same problems and successfully faced them. To get help, or if you have a friend or colleague who needs help, call the Lawyer Assistance Program’s private number at 202-347-3131.

*Names have been changed.

Reach Ronald S. Flagg at rflagg@dcbar.org.