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First Person: ‘It Isn't a Dead End. It's a Pathway.’

January 10, 2019

It’s no secret that hard-driving Washington, D.C., legal professionals often struggle with stress, mental health issues, and even substance abuse. As part of its commitment to assisting lawyers with these and other challenges, Washington Lawyer focused on wellness in its January/February issue, highlighting numerous stories of recovery and resilience.

Here, Attorney “R” shares his own journey to wellness. R entered the legal profession later in life, after several years of sobriety. A volunteer with the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Committee, R has utilized his experience to mentor attorneys struggling with alcohol abuse.

My story is a little different. I made the decision to enter law school after a number of years of sobriety and AA, and I’ve been a practicing attorney for about a decade now.

I came into the profession with a kind of foundation in that way of life. I volunteered with the Lawyers Assistance Committee of the D.C. Bar because I felt I was potentially a helpful mentor to others who might be facing the same struggles, not just while they’re practicing but also while in law school. Particularly for law students in D.C., there are so many stressors around finding a job with so much government work and clerkships available, and so many prestigious law firms, that it creates a kind of pressure-cooker atmosphere.

In my previous career, I was in a profession that required a lot of advanced training and other post-graduate training. I had chosen it for, in retrospect, what were very psychologically unhealthy reasons when I was much younger. It involved a lot of commitment and effort, and once I was in it, I thought I couldn’t give it up. I had too much invested in it.

I had what most people would think was good fortune, but in some ways to me it was a misfortune of being so good at it that I was encouraged to do more. Nobody told me to reconsider it or to slow down. As I got further into the work, the disconnect between what that life was and who I wanted to be became really grayed, and I self-medicated with alcohol. That’s certainly not the only reason that I drank abusively. I had a pattern established in college and as a young person of partying hard, so the groundwork was laid. When I was in that situation of being confused, stressed, and unhappy, drinking was a go-to remedy.

mindfulness for wellness quote

I planned to change my lifestyle before anyone forced it on me. I reached a moment where I just had enough. I entered AA over 18 years ago, and I haven’t had a drink since. I found it absolutely invaluable, especially when I later entered law school, because the things that law school values are not necessarily the things that make a person emotionally balanced.

I went to a law school in D.C. and found the pressure was pervasive. I lived on campus my first year and observed the culture up close and personal. The thing is, and this is true for D.C., there is this culture of “work hard, play hard.” So, I crammed for exams, stayed up all night for multiple nights to finish papers, and when those things were over, I felt entitled to let off steam and get messed up. I felt like I was not good enough if I got a B+ and someone else got an A-, like my life was screwed forever and that person was obviously coasting toward the Supreme Court. Even as an older student, I found it very hard to maintain my own balance in relation to that. It was like I was pushing back against the tide.

What I saw happening was people laying a very bad foundation for dealing with stress in the future. Alcohol is readily available and socially acceptable. Leaving street drugs aside, you can get alcohol in so many places here, and if that’s your go-to remedy when you’re feeling uncomfortable or you don’t know how else to celebrate, you’re putting yourself in a dangerous situation. Not everybody is going to develop a problem, but you’re putting yourself in a position to develop a problem.

Later, joining a law firm, it felt similarly to law school, and it was kind of a daily performance anxiety for a long time. Being active in the 12-step program and having a lot of friends outside the legal community were absolutely vital to me.

I joined the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Committee, thanks to some friends of mine in AA who let me know about it. I volunteer to mentor people who struggle with alcohol issues. It can be a challenge, as clients can get reluctant. Maybe they’re a partner at a big firm, or a prosecutor at the Department of Justice, and if anyone knew they had a problem, they get cold feet. I put my name forward, find a way to relate to them, and give them my personal phone number. They don’t have to provide their names. They can just contact me, and we don’t create a text record.

Your problem is not going to go away, so you can either deal with it now or you can deal with it later. The chances that it will be better if you deal with it later are very low. One thing attorneys are great at is dealing with facts, but what if they know they have a problem? They can’t erase the fact they are facing these issues, so what do they do with it? It would be an ethical violation to tell a client to bury the facts, so why do it to yourself?

The recovery communities in D.C. are very, very vibrant, and if you’re plugged into one of those and active in it, you’re going to meet a lot of attorneys because it’s Washington, but you’re also going to have a social world that’s independent of the firm or the law school. These communities are filled with highly accomplished, interesting, and intelligent people with full lives. It isn’t a dead end. It’s a pathway to something much greater. 

Need Help? 
The D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program offers free and confidential mental health, addiction, and other well-being services for judges, lawyers, and law students. The confidential phone number is 202-347-3131. You can also reach the LAP by email at [email protected].