Washington Lawyer

When Lawyers Need Help

From Washington Lawyer, June 2016

By Tim Wells

Upset man with head in handsA recent study sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that more than 20 percent of licensed attorneys in the United States consume alcohol at rates associated with problem drinking. The study confirms other empirical data that show that lawyers experience alcoholism at approximately 2.5 times the rate for the general population. The authors of the ABA/Hazelden study conclude, "[I]t is reasonable to surmise from [our] findings that being in the early stages of one's legal career is strongly correlated with a high risk of developing an alcohol use disorder."

In the aftermath of this report, Washington Lawyer spoke with D.C. Bar Disciplinary Counsel Wallace E. "Gene" Shipp Jr. to discuss the prevalence of alcohol abuse in the profession and how it impacts lawyer discipline.

Washington Lawyer: You've seen the results of the recent ABA/Hazelden study on alcoholism within the legal profession.
Gene Shipp: Yes, lawyers have a problem. There's no doubt about that. All of the major studies confirm that the legal profession has higher rates of alcohol abuse and substance abuse than any other profession. We're also seeing higher rates of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

WL: Why do you think lawyers are experiencing these problems?
GS: Being a lawyer can be very stressful, and as stresses pile up, people often turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. A lawyer's job is to be the champion for his or her client, and the client is often in some sort of trouble with no easy solution available. The client comes to the lawyer with a serious problem that needs to be solved, and the lawyer has to take all of that on. No matter how sad, pathetic, or evil, no matter how much trouble the client is in, the lawyer has to be the client's champion. The stakes are high. Whether you're dealing with a civil case or a criminal case, the client is going to have a lot on the line. Prison? Bankruptcy? The custody of a child? That's a heavy burden to bear. Then, if you add the lawyer's own family or domestic problems, along with the stress of running a business, it can take an emotional toll. To decompress, a lawyer might go to a bar or go home and pour a drink. Lawyers in high-stress situations often find ways to self-medicate;alcohol is the most common.

WL: Has the problem gotten worse over time?
GS: Not that I can see. It's a problem that has been around for a long time. It does seem to be getting more attention now, and that's a good thing. An awareness of the problem can help drive the solution.

As I look at the profession, I don't see an epidemic of stumble-down drunks. Twenty years ago it was obvious that a lot of the lawyers we were dealing with inside the discipline system had alcohol addiction problems. It was much easier to read on them, and it was much easier to see in the facts that were presented. That profile isn't as prevalent as it once was. The more common pattern is the lawyer who develops a drinking problem or a drug problem over time. Seven to sixteen years after being admitted to the bar seems to be a common gestation period. Lawyers who like to think of themselves as "social drinkers" might gradually increase the amount and the frequency with which they drink. They stop in at the bar after work more often. As they advance in their careers, they take on more and more stress. They become problem drinkers and develop an addiction that profoundly affects them.

WL: Is the Office of Disciplinary Counsel taking steps to deal with the problem?
GS: Yes. We try to be proactive. I had a case many years ago where we were investigating a lawyer with an alcohol problem. We couldn't get him into treatment. We tried, but he just shut himself up in his house and drank himself to death. That was a great tragedy. I never want to see that happen again. I decided then that the disciplinary office needs to be vigilant because by doing so we can save lives. If we get a phone call from a courtroom clerk, or a judge, or an attorney on the opposing side indicating that someone might have a problem, we're going to talk with that person and try to find out what is going on. We don't wait for a client to file a disciplinary complaint. We try to get to people before they get themselves in a disciplinary situation.

WL: How so?
GS: If we identify anyone we think has a drug or alcohol problem, we automatically refer him or her to the Lawyer Assistance Program at the D.C. Bar. We do that routinely. If we can get a lawyer into alcohol or drug treatment, or mental health treatment, before there's a discipline problem, that creates a better situation for everyone—the lawyers, the clients, and the discipline system.

WL: Do you think of alcoholism as a disease?
Absolutely. The scientific research makes that clear. We've all gotten past the notion that alcoholism is the result of some sort of moral failing. It's a disease and it should be treated as a disease.

The bad news documented in the ABA report is that lawyers have unacceptably high rates of addiction disorders. But there's also some good news out there, and that is that research shows that of people who go into recovery, there are three professions that do very well: doctors, lawyers, and airline pilots. Their recovery rate is much higher than for the general population. Lawyers are highly educated, and they have smarts to recognize when they are being given a second chance.They understand that the second chance might be a last chance. They don't want to find themselves facing disbarment. They don't want to end up painting houses, or selling cars, or doing any of the things people do after they've lost their license to practice law. Lawyers are motivated to do well in recovery. Among the lawyers the court has put on probation for alcohol- or drug-related problems, we don't see a lot of repeat offenders. What we see are people who take advantage of the opportunity to get clean and save their careers.

WL: If alcoholism is a disease, can it be used to provide mitigation for any misconduct that an attorney might have engaged in?
GS: Yes, in the District of Columbia we have what is called the "Kersey Doctrine." If an attorney is able to show that he or she 1) suffers from an addiction; 2) that the addiction was the cause of, or substantially related to, the misconduct; and 3) that he or she has been rehabilitated from the disease so that the likelihood of [the attorney] repeating the misconduct is remote, the court can employ the Kersey Doctrine and offer mitigation. Now, Kersey is not a free pass. You're not told "Go and sin no more" and sent on your merry way. There is monitoring and/or probation over a period of years with the possibility of disbarment if you relapse. So it's serious stuff.

At the end of the day, our job in the Office of Disciplinary Counsel is to protect the public. That's where we start, and that's where we finish. We want to help lawyers when we can, but we are also mindful that clients deserve professional representation. If a lawyer's behavior demonstrates a recurrent pattern of bad conduct, the public interest becomes paramount.

WL: What advice do you have for an attorney who notices that a partner or a colleague is exhibiting symptoms of addiction?
Be attentive and seek out the resources you have at your disposal. The Lawyer Assistance Program at the D.C. Bar is an excellent resource. The assessments the LAP performs are highly professional. The success rate is very high. One of the things I always tell our incoming members at the Mandatory Course is that at some point in their careers they are going to see a colleague or a friend in crisis. You're going to encounter alcohol, drug, and mental health issues. When that happens, don't shrug it off and ignore it. Remember that you have the power to save a life. Don't be afraid to get involved. If you're not comfortable having a direct conversation with the individual, then get help. Place a phone call to the Lawyer Assistance Program;they can give you counsel on what needs to be done. If necessary, they can arrange for an intervention.

I understand that getting involved can be very intimidating. An intervention is usually a last resort after family and friends have tried other ways of urging the person to take action and to get help. When a lawyer undergoes an intervention and is confronted about his or her addiction with family, friends, and possibly colleagues present, he or she may be defensive and very angry at first. The lawyer may direct that anger at everyone involved. But if the intervention is successful and the lawyer enters addiction treatment as a result, the anger will usually subside and be replaced with gratitude toward the folks who cared enough, and had courage enough, to act.

WL: Is there a message that you think is important for D.C. Bar members to hear?GS: Yes. Be attentive. Recognize behaviors that are symptomatic, and take whatever steps are necessary to come to the aid of a colleague or a friend.

Also, pay attention to your own behavior. One of the classic symptoms of an addiction disorder is denial. If you think that maybe you've got a problem, call the Lawyer Assistance Program and make an appointment. The counselors are top notch and [the program] is completely confidential. There is absolutely no downside in having a conversation with an experienced professional about the issues you're dealing with in either your personal or your professional life.

Tim Wells is managing editor of Washington Lawyer. Reach him at [email protected].