A Lawyer's Addiction, A Firm's Intervention: 'Best Day of My Life'

By Debra Bruno

June 23, 2016

Alcohol Addiction

This is the first in a series of profiles of people who have struggled with addiction and were able to get help through the D.C. Bar's Lawyer Assistance Program. Through our LAP, the Bar offers free, confidential services to lawyers, judges, and law students dealing with issues that are interfering with their personal and professional lives. 

By most definitions of success, Michael* hit the marks. A law firm partner who had gone to an Ivy League law school, a father of four who taught Sunday school at his church, a successful litigator with big-name clients—the lawyer, today 54, looked in many ways like a walking example of the American dream.

There was just one problem. Michael was an active alcoholic. And even though he imagined he could lead a double life with the drinking part well hidden, his life was slowly unraveling.

He had started drinking when he was in high school, and by the time he got to law school, he said, drinking was "an everyday thing." Like many who turn to substance abuse as a buffer, he said he used alcohol in law school to feel like less of an outsider and to connect with people.

Ironically, his achievements in some ways allowed him to ignore the truth. "I was always able to kid myself that [drinking] was not a problem," he said. "I was able to get the grades and to hold down a job—usually—and so I had this narrative about being a self-made individual."

As he entered corporate law as a litigator, he was faced with an irony of the legal world: the higher up he went, the less oversight he encountered. "Being an associate instilled some accountability in my day-to-day life," he said. "The more senior I became, the more autonomy I had, the drinking picked up."

As a way of managing his addiction, he created what he called "half measures of infinite variety." For instance, he'd limit himself to drinking just Campari, or just beer, or drinking only on the weekends. At the same time, his drinking was starting to attract attention at his first firm, and even though he was a partner, he felt vulnerable.

So he left that firm. "The story is classic: we keep moving," he said. It's the preferred mode of alcoholics. "If we keep moving, we can avoid detection and have a fresh start."

At his second firm, he continued to advance and he continued to drink. "I led such an incongruous life," he said. "I'd be out all night and then on Sunday teaching Sunday school, and then at the office wearing a suit, handling matters for big clients. I would work at night and drink at my desk." Meanwhile, his drinking was again starting to draw attention, and today he thinks he lost clients because he was less able to sustain relationships with them.

That's when the firm stepped in. With advice from the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), which consults with firms on intervention plans and treatment programs and offers post-treatment assistance, the firm held an intervention right in the office.

Rather than being a low point, for Michael the moment was "the best day of my life."

"I was instantly relieved," he said. "I did not feel embarrassment, shame, or fear. I wasn't angry." The representative from the treatment center told him he had a plane ticket and a car waiting outside with a suitcase holding his things. "I said, 'Can I get my jacket?'" Michael recalled. They told him no.

Meanwhile, he had a lineup of pressing matters at the firm—depositions scheduled, briefs due, and court appearances set—which his colleagues took over.

He loved being in treatment, he said. "It was the most meaningful two months of my life," he said. Even though he had worked nearly every day of his life, treatment forced all of that to stop. He wasn't even allowed to use the phone. "I was forced by circumstances to confront myself, to put all the busyness, which was part of my addiction, to the side," he said.

After 60 days, he said, the treatment center declared him well enough to come back to D.C. He was "discharged almost against my will." But he was released into the help of the LAP, which lined up what's called an Intensive Outpatient Addiction Program at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.

He also met with Denise Perme, manager of the LAP, which offers D.C. Bar members the free and confidential help of three licensed clinical social workers. The program is a "gold standard," Michael said, "because of the critical resources available to Bar members." In addition to addiction issues, the LAP offers help to lawyers struggling with stress and depression and a host of other wellness issues, including things like advice on elder care.

"I was soaking up the services like a hungry plant," he said. He also became active in a 12-step recovery program and eventually served as a mentor to other lawyers going through addiction.

He eventually went to another law firm, in part to make a fresh start. One question the firm asked in its application form was whether there was anything in Michael's past that was not known but might become an embarrassment if it became known.

"I decided I would tell them," he said. "It was a dicey moment." But to his great relief, the hiring partner said, "Now I know we need you."

While he isn't sure exactly what that meant, Michael said he is relieved that "everything is on the table." He now speaks to law schools about breaking free from addiction. Law firms, sadly, are less responsive to overtures like that.

But it's a beautiful thing, he said, to belong to a community of lawyers in recovery. "There are lawyers at the top levels, young associates. As prevalent as addiction issues are in our profession, the silver lining is, so is recovery. People should know: if they want it, we are here on the other side for them," Michael said. "They will come into a fellowship of lawyers."

*Real name withheld to protect his privacy.

If you are struggling with addiction or other problems and would like help, contact the Lawyer Assistance Program at 202-347-3131 or e-mail at [email protected]

Debra Bruno is a freelance journalist who writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Washingtonian Magazine. She lived in China for three years and has worked at Legal Times, Roll Call, and other publications.