Finding the Solution
Four Lawyers Face Up to Life Problems
As human beings, lawyers face the same life problems other people doproblems that can adversely affect ones ability to live and work at full capacity. In 1985 the District of Columbia Bar established the Lawyer Counseling Program (LCP), one of the first lawyer assistance programs in the country. Throughout the years the program has helped lawyers overcome life problems and improve the quality of their lives.
The program has both professional staff and trained lawyer-volunteers who work with their peers under the protection of Rule 1.6(h) of the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct. The program is free and confidential. To access its services, a lawyer, judge, or law student need only call the office on the confidential line at 202-347-3131.
LCP staff and volunteers also provide educational programs on such topics as substance use, abuse, and dependence and stress. To request a presentation, a firm, law school, or other group in the legal community should contact the director on the confidential line.
Life problems can be resolved. The four lawyers who share their stories here have all successfully managed serious, occasionally baffling, problems. Today they all are working and living well.
If any of these stories seem personally familiar, or if you are currently experiencing such problems, call the Lawyer Counseling Program for help.
I always knew that I was smart. But I also knew that I had certain idiosyncrasies in regard to learning and dealing with deadlines.
I graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in the early 70s and took an associate position with a prestigious Washington firm. From day one I had trouble juggling assignments. When I enjoyed the subject matter of a research project, I would spend hours tracking down minor points and creating memos replete with largely irrelevant academic footnotes. But if an assignment was boring, or hard to get started, Id let it linger in my in-box until the assigning partner exhausted his patience and stopped using me.
In those areas that I enjoyed, such as civil and depositions and administrative litigation hearings, I was also creative in conjuring legal theories, and very intuitive. I used my combative intensity well. I took on a court-appointed pro bono criminal case everyone else had given up on. The same senior partner who later canned me for missed assignments was elated when I found grounds to appeal and won a favorable decision before the D.C. Court of Appeals on unique grounds, the first such success in the firms history.
My uneven performance perplexed the firm. I was one of their remedial troubled associates, although I was considered bright and personable. With the negative feedback, I started doubting my skills and wondered if I chose the wrong profession. I too saw myself as a remedial associate. Several missed assignments, and the production of sloppy work product on those matters that didnt interest me, created a repetitive and self-fulfilling spiral of disappointment. One day I asked for more meaty assignments, but the firm had had enough and it was suggested that I look for work elsewhere.
I bolted to the opposite extreme of a staid tax firm and started a litigation shop with two litigators and no structure. With a law practice replete with the excitement of my own cases came the realization that I was now responsible for results and I had the freedom from unwanted structure. With little oversight, my old bad habits remained, and I doubted my skill as an attorney.
When the firm broke up after one year there soon followed a series of job changes, and in seven years I was an associate with three different firms. In the subsequent 14 years I became a partner in four firms. During that time I continually questioned my competence, despite the fact that I had built a well-respected civil litigation practice. I had graduated in the top 10 percent of my class at Harvard Law, yet I wondered if I was smart enough to make it as an attorney in Washington. My colleagues would remark on my unevenness of performance, which routinely ran the gamut from brilliant to dismal.
Mercifully, those years of uneven performance have been relegated to the past. Ive been at my present firm for an amazing eight years, and Im pleased by my ability to maintain a consistent level of performance that has translated into an increase in the amount of personal satisfaction I derive from the practice of law.
The turning point came through happenstance when my seven-year-old son was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). When he was put on Ritalin, I said I would take it as well to lower any stigma he felt. But I also knew that ADD was hereditary, and I recognized many of his symptoms in my habits. After that initial self-diagnosis, I went to see my doctor, and I have been taking a form of Ritalin since 1995 with very positive results. My dosage is small, but the difference is dramatic.
I have subsequently learned that many adults are never correctly diagnosed with ADD, and that recognition of the condition is frequently missed in childhood. Often the main symptoms are inattention and impulsivity rather than physical hyperactivity, and many children use their high intelligence and determination to mask ADD symptoms. This compensation occurs at great emotional cost.
Many high-functioning individuals with ADD harbor feelings of poor self-worth. They often see themselves as failures and feel that they are constantly letting others down. Over the years that an individual adapts to his or her ADD situation, the adaptations (both positive and negative) become part of ones personality, layered over the ADD symptoms.
Adults with ADD tend to be bored with tedious, repetitive tasks. They also frequently have trouble planning ahead and initiating organization. Procrastination is common. Their impulsivity may result in frequent job changes, troubled romantic relationships, financial problems, and a tendency to interrupt others. Often ADD leads to addictive behaviors, such as gambling and drug and alcohol abuse.
In the years that followed my diagnosis, I have made remarkable changes that have greatly improved my ability to function as a lawyer. I no longer dread preparing answers to interrogatories, and I no longer put off tasks that I previously avoided. My dealings with my partners and staff are much more cordial. I listen more and dont feel the impulsive need to interrupt. I can plan ahead and work toward filing deadlines without making a looming deadline into a looming crisis. A simple deadline is not the chaotic event of previous years. Remarkably, I can do simple things that were once impossible, like sit through a partners meeting without squirming or stirring up a controversy by insisting on some minor point.
I now realize that my ADD was a negative factor in my law career from day one. Without realizing what I was doing, I was acting out many of the usual symptoms of adult ADD. On the standard questionnaires used to diagnose ADD tendencies, I always score very high. Im still easily distracted and I still seek high levels of (healthy) stimulation. While intuitive and creative, I have trouble following through and completing tasks. I multitask to the extreme, and am still easily bored, but now I know how to channel my energies.
I have learned to structure my workplace to help manage my tendency to distraction. For example, I will limit taking outside direct calls to the hour before lunch and the last hour of the workday. I keep a number of calendars and use scheduling software. In managing deadlines Ive learned that I have to delegate and rely on others, as well as to accept my own limitations. I frequently remind myself of the old adage, the wiser I get, the more I realize how little I know.
Learning that I have adult ADD has been a huge help, because knowledge is power, and I now have the power to anticipate my reaction to certain situations and to seek expert assistance. Rather than feeling the compulsive need to know it all and do it all myself, Ive learned to delegate to others. The upside of my ADD is my ability to hyper-focus in taking depositions or in preparing briefs. So I try to use my creativity wisely rather impulsively.
I am a plaintiffs attorney, which fulfills my need for excitement, yet Im supported by a traditional law firm with competent partners who view me as their brilliant, slightly eccentric pit bull. While there are still days when the siren call of the Internet distracts me from client matters, I am aware of my tendency to procrastinate, and can now hunker down and complete matters that I used to leave hanging to the last minute.
My 30 years in private practice have shown me that I am not alone with my learning disability. Regardless of work setting, there are resources available to help attorneys recognize and address positively their own ADD or similar learning issues. Skilled counseling is readily available. One place to begin the process of finding the way out is the Lawyer Counseling Program. The program staff will help you evaluate your concerns and make appropriate referrals if required.
The Ground Floor
When I was drinking, I thought that on the outside everything looked just fine: I had a partnership in a well-respected law firm, a wife and two kids, and a house in the suburbs. But I was the only one being fooled.
I began drinking as a college freshman. The first time, I drank enough to black out. But I didnt think that was significant. I just thought that was what it meant to party hard. I crashed a car and made a fool of myself countless times. But none of it ever made me think there was anything odd about my drinking habits.
After graduating from college, I worked for a while, got married, and went to graduate school. I seldom drank during this period. It just wasnt part of the lifestyle. At one point I contracted hepatitis and the treatment required that I abstain from alcohol for one year. No problem.
Eventually, I decided to go to law school, and once I arrived it didnt take me long to find the heavy drinkers. Even though I was getting drunk with my classmates, it didnt adversely affect my performance. My grades were always good. In fact, I graduated first in my class and accepted an offer to come to Washington as an associate in a small, well-respected law firm.
Imagine my pleasure in finding that the office building that housed our firm had a bar on the ground floor that was a gathering spot for practitioners representing clients before the agency with which we had our primary practice. Immediately, I fell into the habit of stopping in for a drink at the end of each workday. The waitresses and bartenders all knew me, and my favorite would appear without my ever having to say a word. I took that as positive recognition of my status.
Some mornings I woke and actually remembered getting home. Otherwise Id have no recollection. Still, I somehow managed to function. Id get up early and leave the house around 5:30 every morning. Id work hard through the day. But I was unhappy and irritable, for no particular reason that I could pinpoint.
Then one night I was at fault in a slight fender bender. A policeman stopped to see what had happened, and he immediately realized that I was drunk. I flunked all the field sobriety tests. I was placed under arrest and taken to the Fairfax County jail, where a breathalyzer test showed that my blood alcohol content was .22, more than twice the legal limit.
I spent the night in jail. In the morning, when I was allowed to make a phone call, I called my law partner, not my wife. I considered that arrest to be the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me.
I tried to minimize the importance of the DWI. The court ordered that I participate in the alcohol and substance abuse program, which required attendance at AA meetings. I had to go at least once a week and write up a report of topics discussed and my responses.
I put off going to my first AA meeting for as long as possible. But my first written report was due on Tuesday, so I went on Monday night.
When I first entered the church where the meeting was held, I thought I was in the wrong place. The premeeting hubbub sounded like the noise of a cocktail party. I sat quietly in the back row and tried not to draw any attention to myself. After all, I was only there as an observer. At one point, the guy chairing the meeting asked if there was anyone new present. Meekly, I raised my hand. Doing so resulted in my being given a copy of the AA Big Book and other literature, all of which I kept hidden under lock and key in a drawer in my office.
The one thing I hadnt expected was that as I left the church that night, I felt better about myself than I had in a very, very long time. I was amazed that the man sitting in the front of the room, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit, had once felt the way I often did. I always assumed that I was the only one who felt inadequate about not knowing how to handle every situation that might crop up.
During one of those AA meetings that I was required to attend, I heard someone say, Dont judge your insides by other peoples outsides. That hit me with the force of revelation. It was the most reassuring, useful statement I had ever heard. It summed up perfectly the way I had been living my life. It explained to me why I felt like such a fraud. My insides were sick and crippled by my alcoholism, even though I thought I was putting up an impressive front.
After one meeting, I walked part of the way back to my office with the gentleman who had led the meeting. He did not tell me who I was or wasnt, what I should or shouldnt do. He simply said that coming to the meeting was the best thing I could have done for myself. I didnt understand him fully, and I certainly didnt believe him. After all, I was just there to fulfill an obligation imposed upon me by the court.
But I kept going to the meetings, and after every meeting I felt better. Now, with the benefit of 15 years of hindsight, I can say that I understand exactly what he meant, and that he was absolutely right. Ive come to understand how great a life without alcohol and with AA can be. Over the years Ive developed a close relationship with my wife and kids, the kind of relationship that wasnt possible when I was drinking all the time. I also have wonderful friends with whom I can share intimate thoughts and feelings. Ive discovered that I no longer have to keep the real me hidden from others.
At the time of my arrest, I never thought that getting hit with a DWI would prove to be the best thing that ever happened to me. But it was.
After I graduated from law school, I joined a midsized firm that had spun off from a larger firm. As a freshly minted lawyer, I was excited about launching my career and was pleased to be a part of a growing, dynamic law firm.
But I soon discovered that the psychological atmosphere at this firm was intense. The partners were very aggressive and their management focus went beyond having a healthy bottom line. The firm culture centered around attempting to motivate people through verbal berating and maintaining the constant fear of being unemployed. Since this was my first experience in a law firm, I assumed that pressure and abuse were normal. Thats just the way it is in a big-city law firm, I thought.
I worked very hard, striving to make everything I did absolutely perfect and to maintain high billable hours. But even that didnt make my supervising partners happy; they were always looking for something to hang over my head to squeeze more work out of me. Without recognizing it, I was trapped in an abusive employeremployee relationship. I lived in fear of a misplaced comma, and when I went on a well-deserved (I thought) vacation, it was viewed by the firm as a weakness or, indeed, betrayal.
In such an intense and competitive environment, I felt like I needed to fit in. So why didnt I? I had done very well in law school, and had always been successful in my previous endeavors, so why was I having so much trouble here?
Somewhere in the back of my mind was the barely conscious thought Maybe I dont want to fit in here. Maybe this firm does not share my ideals of what it means to be both a competent lawyer and a decent human being. But I suppressed the thought and tried even harder to be the kind of lawyer the firm wanted me to be.
I told myself that I couldnt just quit. My student loans would not pay themselves. I had to have an income to pay my bills. I had sent out many résumés and scheduled several interviews, but in doing so I felt I had to keep it secret. If the firm found out I was looking elsewhere, theyd ask me to leave immediately. And my frequent absences from the office were not going unnoticed.
The pressure to produce and the constant fear of making a mistake made it difficult to find creative and effective solutions to legal problems. In addition, the pressure decreased my ability to function outside the office. I was withdrawn in conversations with friends. My romantic relationship withered, as I lacked the emotional capital to invest. All of the activities that I most enjoyed were squeezed out of my life. I was working late and on weekends, and I didnt have much leisure time. Even the things I did have time for just didnt seem as fun anymore.
At night I was having anxiety dreams. Id wake up and it would be impossible to go back to sleep. Id lie there and wonder, What is wrong with me? What cant I pull myself out of this funk?
This certainly wasnt the career Id envisioned when I was in law school. This was not my idea of being a great lawyer who still loved the law. I was depressed and anxious all the time. I needed help.
I recalled a presentation given at the D.C. Bar course for new admittees about the Lawyer Counseling Program. So I called the number and set up an appointment. My hope was that I could get a referral for a psychiatrist. But I did even better. I met with a counselor there, and we set up a series of eight weekly meetings, during which we discussed the cause of my unhappiness and the nature of my work environment. Then we developed a strategy for working through my depression.
I drafted a professional mission statement. Number one on my list was I need to respect myself and the people I work with. While I set about looking for a new job, I also focused my attention on doing the best job I possibly could for the clients at the firm, while simultaneously putting less stock in the negative comments of the supervising attorney that I was working with. I also made time in my schedule to do the things that I enjoyed doing. I made taking care of myself one of my new priorities.
Each time I left one of my sessions at the Lawyer Counseling Program, I felt better. I felt reenergized, refocused, ready to move forward. I ultimately found a new job working in another midsized firm with exceptionally talented attorneys who shared my values of what it means to be a decent human being. Work became enjoyable again, and I could also devote time to other avocations in my life. As I gradually made the necessary changes, Id still occasionally return to the Lawyer Counseling Program to discuss the issues and challenges I was facing.
Ive come to discover that having a successful career is very important to me, but not at the expense of extinguishing my own personal values or denying myself important friendships and relationships outside the office.
Right now, Im grateful that the Lawyer Counseling Program helped me find my path out of the gloom of work-related depression, and I take solace in knowing that the program will always be there if I ever need it again.
My early twenties were a disaster because of my drinking and drug use. This was more than just wasted potential. I endured stays in a drug treatment center, a mental hospital, overdoses, stomach pumps, jail, drunk driving convictions, forged prescriptions, evictions, job dismissals, blackouts, and seizures. That was all part of my decline from being an Ivy League merit scholar to a fringe-dwelling drunken malcontent.
Although I managed to graduate from college and complete my first year of law school, I continued to drink and was getting into all sorts of trouble. Prior to my second year, the law school forced my temporary withdrawal until I got better. I was bluntly told that no bar character and fitness committee anywhere in the country would be able to look past my substance abuse problem unless I established at least a couple of well-documented years of recovery.
I enrolled in an outpatient program that provided me with structure and discipline, and I attended 12-step meetings on a regular basis. After a few months, my thinking cleared. I felt much better, both physically and emotionally. I developed relationships with others in recovery, and renewed relationships with family and friends. Eventually, I was readmitted to law school.
I grew confident of my ability to maintain my abstinence, and I did not feel the urge to return to a life dominated by alcohol and drugs. I did well in school, got married, and began my career as a lawyer. I enjoyed having a successful life, and I told myself that I was fortunate to have lived only a few years in the gutter. I did not think I would ever return to drinking or drug use. I was no longer being monitored by professional support programs, but instead was participating in those programs as a volunteer.
I had been clean and sober for eight years. Then one day, while working out, I threw out my back. The injury was very painful and I went to see my doctor. He knew all about my history of alcoholism, but he wrote out a prescription for a narcotic painkiller to help me with my back pain. I wasnt sure if it was appropriate of me to take such medication, so I gave the pills to my wife for distribution and told my sponsor. In doing so I felt like a child, but accountability was important.
At first, I stuck to taking only the prescribed amount and did my best to rehabilitate my injury. When the pain subsided, I stopped taking the pills, but only temporarily. Without proper rehabilitation, the pain returned. This time I got some pills from another doctor, and I didnt let anyone know about this batch. I liked the feeling the pills gave me, and pretty soon I started taking more than the prescribed dose.
I thought I could control the amount I took, but Im an addict, and before long I was going to see multiple doctors and using different pharmacies so that the amount I was taking wouldnt be discovered. My days grew hazy and my memory started to fail. I was continually nauseated, sweating, sleepy. I knew I was in trouble, and secretly I tried a clinic that specialized in medicine for withdrawal from opiates. But nothing compensated for the feelings the pills provided, and I gave up on the clinic and kept on taking the pills.
At work my job performance became erratic. On a business trip I feigned jet lag and stomach flu, raising some embarrassing questions about my abilities. But that didnt stop me. I continued to concentrate on getting more and more painkillers. I even reverted to some of the risky and illegal activities Id experienced in my early twenties, despite the fact that such behavior could ruin my legal career and land me in jail.
After I returned from the embarrassment of the business trip, I felt remorseful and frightened. I told myself I had to stop. But doing so was not as easy as Id hoped. My wife confronted me about my withdrawal from participation at home, and some fortuitous encounters with people I knew from 12-step recovery programs made me realize that I desperately wanted the happy, stable life back that Id had prior to my back injury and the fateful prescription.
Without much fanfare, I managed to taper off the drug, and spent a few distraught and terrified days in withdrawal. I told some of my friends in recovery about what was happening, and attended 12-step meetings, where, in the interest of being honest, I announced that I was once again new to recovery. This experience led me to realize that there is a false sense of confidence that can accrue with the accumulation of time spent clean and sober. After a few years of sobriety, I believed that I was immune to relapse. Of course, I wasnt.
Now that Im back in recovery, I regard my humiliating experience with painkillers as invaluable, and Im grateful that the duration of my return to addiction was reasonably short and that the damage done was light. There were no arrests, accidents, or dirty needles in my arm, which could have easily been the case. I now know that I may be as susceptible to painkillers as I am to sedatives and alcohol, and the fact that I was highly satisfied with a sober and recovering life was not a defense against having opiates in my brain.
I share my experience at meetings in order to warn others, as well as to provide hope. In order to remain sober, I know I need to be aware of the dangers of substances other than alcohol. Medicinal drugs, even when prescribed by a doctor, also pose dangers for me. And no amount of back pain can compare with the pain of drug abuse.
Today I am aware that total accountability is my only safe haven. It was difficult to approach the professional support program where I once volunteered as being new to sobriety and to ask for monitoring. However, I also saw my experience as beneficial to others who might not know of the particular dangers of prescription drugs.
Fortunately, my continuing contact with the recovery community saved me from an even deeper descent into the horrors of addiction. At my 12-step meetings Im regularly reminded of what I need to do to treat my alcoholism and drug addiction. Its a blessing to be sober again, but I go forward knowing that Ill never be immune to relapse and with a new lucidity about the nature of my illness.