Online Recovery Plan for Lawyers
The new Online Recovery program for Lawyers is the first of its kind in America. This is a fully licensed and nationally accredited program designed specifically for lawyers needing help for alcohol or other substance abuse.
We call this a “pre-consequence” program, encouraging lawyers to consider getting help before the situation gets out of hand and the physical, emotional, family, spiritual and legal consequences begin. We often wait too long and the consequences have already begun and now we must deal with those while dealing with our recovery. Please reach out to any you know who are suffering.
Addiction and Attorneys: Confronting the Denial
Nationwide, lawyers and other professional groups are beginning to talk openly about addiction and other mental health issues that affect their members. The authors debunk myths about addiction, and explain how addiction affects lawyers and what treatment options are available for recovery.
Addiction to alcohol or other drugs is a powerful and destructive problem that affects thousands of attorneys. Reliable studies show that attorneys suffer from addiction at twice the rate of the general population. Equally reliable studies show a strong correlation between untreated addiction, professional misconduct complaints, and malpractice claims. Behind the scenes, family members suffer, and employers and colleagues are forced to clean up the damage that untreated, addicted attorneys leave behind. In the media, stories about the harm done by addicted lawyers damage our professional reputation.
Years ago, bar associations did little, if anything, to assist impaired lawyers, and institutional denial was the unspoken solution. This situation is changing at a rapid pace.
The Wisconsin Lawyers’ Assistance Program (WisLAP) is one such program, and it provides confidential assistance for lawyers struggling with addiction and other mental health problems. Acting quietly, WisLAP has assisted thousands of lawyers by providing confidential referrals, informal interventions, and a “voice in the night” when someone needs immediate, direct support.
Understanding that education is a necessary starting point to solve any problem, this article is intended to educate the profession about lawyer addiction. First, the authors provide a brief explanation of addiction and its extraordinary, yet often subtle, power. The goal here is to break through some of the misunderstanding and rhetoric that surround this topic and to offer a workable definition of addiction that invites introspection and realistic dialogue. Second, the authors explain why lawyers are so difficult to treat and how addiction captures lawyers’ most valued assets – intelligence, analytical skill, and professional reputation – and uses these assets to fuel its power. Third, the authors offer some thoughts about treatment and what we, as lawyers, can do to address this widespread and insidious problem within our profession.
Addiction: Defining the Problem
The words addiction and alcoholism invoke different images to different people. To some people, an alcoholic is a skid row bum who has lost everything, and an addict is a heroin junky who steals to support her habit. Many people believe that actual, physical dependence is a necessary symptom of addiction, which the popular media often portrays in the most severe terms imaginable. While these portrayals accurately describe addiction in its most extreme stages, they suggest that a person is addicted only when everything is lost and there is nothing left to do but drink or use.
This is a myth. While a complete overview of addiction is beyond the scope of this article, several basic principles that define addiction and its extraordinary power must be understood. Symptoms are a necessary, yet superficial, starting point to understanding addiction. Once identified, these symptoms point to an important truth: An addicted person is involved in a relationship with a chemical that is very difficult to break with willpower or self-knowledge. When the power of addiction takes over the user’s willpower, addiction becomes a formidable foe that often adjusts to its surroundings and takes on many faces so that it can inflict the most possible damage on the user and people around the user. When this happens, meaningful, targeted treatment may become necessary for the user and for those people who are directly affected by the user’s destructive behavior.
On the surface, symptoms of addiction are relatively easy to identify, even for a layperson. Most clinical assessment tools diagnose addiction-related disorders by reference to objective consequences, including problems with the law, failure to fulfill family or professional obligations, exposure to danger, and social or interpersonal problems resulting from chemical use. Often, this assessment is based on self-reports or the results of questionnaires, such as the one presented in the accompanying alcohol/drug self-test.
While identifying objective consequences of addiction is a useful starting point to understanding addiction, it does not complete the picture. There are volumes of scientific literature that strongly suggest that addiction is directly connected with other, underlying problems. Many addicts turn to alcohol and other drugs to medicate untreated psychiatric or psychological disorders. Others become dependent on alcohol and other drugs because of unresolved trauma, including childhood neglect and other forms of abuse. Clearly, there are many reasons why people turn to drugs, and ultimately become addicted, that have nothing to do with addiction itself. While these reasons do not change the set of challenges that addiction presents, they do provide further insight into the process of addiction, its underlying causes, and potentially meaningful points of intervention.
The underlying reasons also provide an opportunity for compassion and understanding. After confronting the rhetoric that often surrounds addiction, a more useful, common-sense definition of addiction comes to the surface. When reduced to its most simple terms, addiction is a relationship with alcohol or other drugs that provides a subjective, tangible payoff to the user that is pursued at the exclusion of competing obligations and priorities. In most cases, this relationship becomes so powerful that the user develops a strong cognitive defense system that protects the relationship’s perceived benefit, which often is no more than a pure escape from uncomfortable or intolerable feelings. This cognitive defense system is defined by the hallmark features of dependency, including denial, justification, blame and, often, outright self-deception. As this condition worsens, the addict must convince himself that a lie is the truth in order to protect this important relationship. Unfortunately, the addict often believes the lies that he is telling himself, which is why treatment is so difficult, at least in its early stages.
This discussion of the process of cognitive distortion raises another important point. Ironically, using is not the problem for most addicts. Many addicts can quit using, at least for a short time. The problem is that addicts ultimately convince themselves that using is a
legitimate option, despite the fact that any reasonable person would tell them that using is actually destroying their lives. When addiction progresses to this point, intelligence, analytical skill, and willpower supply false information to the addict regarding the perceived costs and benefits of continued use. Viewed from this perspective, the question is not why addicts use so much, but why they return to alcohol or other drugs that cause so much obvious damage. The process of cognitive distortion is a core feature of addiction. It is extraordinarily powerful, and it can be fatal.
One final myth requires attention. Many people believe that addiction is an either/or phenomenon: that a person either is or is not an addict, and that making this determination ends the inquiry. This belief is a very dangerous misconception because it provides a quick out for people who have not suffered significant consequences from their addiction. Viewed honestly, addiction is a human condition that many people have experienced at one time or another. Addiction exists on a continuum. At one end is a person who is not prone to addiction and who never uses alcohol or other drugs. At the other end are the heavy users – the crack addict and the skid row bum who provide the stereotypical portrayal of addiction. What about those who fit in between? What about the attorney who has a relationship with alcohol because it numbs the stress and anxiety associated with her work and makes it easier to relate to her spouse when she comes home at night? What about the attorney who uses pain killers to self-medicate because of the loss of a loved one or a painful divorce? It is easy to envision many scenarios in which these hypothetical attorneys would pursue a relationship with substances to the exclusion of competing priorities, including work, and how they would slowly withdraw from other people as this relationship gathers strength.
Are these hypothetical lawyers addicted? If one accepts the either/or model of addiction, they may not qualify as addicted. After all, they have graduated from law school, they have jobs, and they are the problem solvers that people seek when they need help. However, if one accepts the fact that addiction is a progressive condition that often exists on a continuum, then these are two attorneys who are suffering, who need help, and whose behavior may be hurting other people, including their clients. If one also accepts the fact that both of these attorneys have developed a personal relationship with alcohol or other drugs that is producing an important, subjective payoff, we have potentially identified several valuable points of intervention. Identifying this subjective payoff is so important in understanding the powerful grip that addiction has on professional populations, including attorneys.
Addiction and Attorneys: A Difficult Combination
A treatment center in Phoenix, Ariz., has a sign that helps to explain why attorneys often are difficult to treat:
Rules of Recovery
• Don’t analyze
• Don’t judge
• Don’t compare
• Don’t blame
• Don’t justify
These rules speak directly to the power of the cognitive defense system that all addicts rely on when they feel threatened. For lawyers, the rules make a more telling point. After all, lawyers are trained to analyze, to judge, to compare, to allocate blame, and to justify. This thought process begins in law school, where the law student often competes in isolation against her peers with little social interaction, and it is reinforced throughout the attorney’s career. When these skills are captured by the process of addiction, the addicted lawyer becomes his or her own worst enemy, and the denial process is strengthened at a very sophisticated level. Ironically, the skills that lawyers work so hard to develop fortify the cognitive defense system that addicts invoke when they feel threatened. According to Michael Cohen, the director of Florida’s lawyer assistance program, “the very skills that make us good lawyers make us terrible, terrible patients.”1
Attorneys face other specific problems that make intervention and treatment very difficult. Many lawyers and other professionals are highly competitive and, for good reason, they value their professional reputation. They fear the repercussions of disclosing personal information that might undermine their standing with colleagues, judges, and friends. Many attorneys fear that a label of “alcoholic” or “addict” is a sign of weakness or a concession of defeat. Often, the persona that attorneys pre-sent to professional colleagues and the true person are very different. When the common skills of attorneys (and other professional groups) are combined with addiction, the result is isolation and the anxiety associated with living a double life. Clinicians have recognized this significant barrier to treatment, and it is explained eloquently in a recent study:
“The second significant obstacle in making the decision to seek treatment (40 percent) was a concern regarding a potentially negative impact the decision might have on their professional reputation among peers, judges and potential clients.
“These data present a lonely picture of suffering lawyers. They don’t trust their colleagues to be understanding, and they feel that they must handle these problems on their own.”2
This study points to other serious concerns. As noted earlier, addicts protect their relationship with chemicals by erecting a powerful cognitive defense system that includes justification, blame, and outright denial. If attorneys have a “strong tendency toward self reliance,” as this study suggests, it is easy to understand how addiction capitalizes on this common behavioral trait. After all, self reliance for an attorney is a cognitive process. By believing that they can handle the problem on their own, addicted attorneys rely on a distorted, yet sophisticated, thought process, the sole purpose of which is to convince them that using is a viable option when their outside world is falling apart. As Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members are quick to point out, “you cannot think yourself out of something you thought yourself into.” Lawyers do exactly that when they battle addiction, and they suffer immensely as they try to protect their image by concealing their condition from the world that surrounds them. It is a very serious mistake to underestimate the power of addiction.
Attorneys, Addiction, and Recovery: Exploring the Possibilities
Even though addiction is a serious problem in the legal profession, there are solutions. While studies show that attorneys are difficult to treat, many lawyers have recovered from addiction and they lead dynamic, fulfilling lives. Recent studies indicate that lawyers who commit themselves to recovery show a remarkable recovery rate as compared to the general population. Lawyer assistance programs such as WisLAP are providing resources and assistance, including education, that are breaking traditional barriers to treatment. As the stigma surrounding addiction is confronted, and compassion replaces blind judgment, lawyers in recovery receive fewer professional misconduct complaints and fewer malpractice claims than the general population of attorneys. This fact speaks to the power of recovery and the changes that it can produce.
What is recovery? What does it take to become clean and sober? What works? As scientists, doctors, and clinicians compile data on these interesting questions, almost everyone agrees that recovery is an individual process that requires honesty and the willingness to accept candid feedback that challenges the cognitive defense system that addicts have developed. For attorneys, this process requires treatment from highly skilled clinicians with strong verbal skills and considerable ego strength, who will not be overwhelmed or intimidated by highly intelligent, verbally acute patients. Successful treatment also requires a comprehensive psychiatric assessment that rules out or treats co-occurring disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Finally, strong recovery often involves participating in a community of other recovering attorneys, who can serve as role models and mentors for attorneys in the early stages of treatment. For many recovering attorneys, active involvement in 12-step programs, such as AA, is a key to recovery. All of these tools, in combination, enhance the prospect of meaningful recovery.
Employers confront a unique challenge when a colleague is struggling with addiction. A lawyer who is using presents a risk to the firm and its clients. That lawyer also is in the grip of a powerful disorder that makes it virtually impossible to have a meaningful discussion regarding realistic solutions and outcomes. By providing support and back-up for the addict to meet the addict’s professional obligations when the addict is using drugs or alcohol, the firm can serve as an enabling force that actually facilitates and supports the process of addiction. These problems become more difficult when the impaired lawyer is a high-ranking decision maker in the firm. The fear of confronting the behavior invites silence, as does the fear of overreacting. What are the options?
Here, truth and compassion work together as guiding principles. Often, the most effective way of confronting addiction is an intervention that involves a skilled clinician who is capable of breaking through the addict’s defense system. In an intervention, several people are chosen to sit down and present their concerns to the impaired lawyer in a direct and truthful fashion. Often, friends, family members, and decision makers within the law firm are involved in the process. If the attorney is significantly impaired, treatment options should be discussed. If necessary, the firm should consider a leave of absence for an attorney who needs the time off to pursue treatment. On returning to the firm, the attorney must understand that the firm will not tolerate further using and that it is fair to ask for confirmation of participation in treatment as a condition of continued employment. All of these issues should be negotiated and outlined with the assistance of a skilled clinician and with respect for the recovering attorney’s privacy and autonomy.
What about sole practitioners? Without question, sole practitioners take the hardest hit when they suffer from addiction. Unlike their addicted counterparts in larger firms, sole practitioners tend to not have the resources needed to clean up the mistakes that their addiction invites. In addition, sole practitioners often practice in particularly high-stress areas of the law, such as family law and criminal defense. When left alone with the demands of a rigorous calendar and the drain of an addiction, sole practitioners are ripe candidates for a disproportionate number of professional misconduct complaints and malpractice claims that are directly tied to their addiction.
The legal community can provide assistance. Oftentimes, judges will recognize that an attorney is struggling when the attorney misses’ deadlines or court appearances. In small communities, such behavior is easily identified and often is the subject of courtroom gossip. It is easy for colleagues to back away, do nothing, and hope that the impaired lawyer seeks help. While silence is an individual choice, there is an alternative – it is called communication. It is fair to express honest concern to a colleague, and it is fair to offer help. In this situation, WisLAP is an invaluable tool that can provide guidance and support and, in the proper circumstances, intervene on behalf of a family member or colleague who steps up to confront the impaired lawyer.
How effective is treatment for alcohol and other drugs? The answer to this question often is confounded by rhetoric and, at times, false promises. Many treatment centers proclaim high success rates for their patients. Some treatment providers rely exclusively on a single model of treatment that applies to all of their clients, such as AA’s 12-step model. Facilities that rely on a single treatment model should be avoided because there are no simple, cookie-cutter solutions when it comes to treating addiction. As briefly explained earlier, there are many roads to addiction. People use alcohol or other drugs for different reasons, and thus it logically follows that treatment is an individual process that is different for everyone. Ultimately, the best treatment process is one that allows the addict to rebuild a meaningful life with the necessary support, a sense of purpose, and a commitment to honesty.
Even though addiction is a powerful, destructive problem, there is hope. The scientific community is making daily discoveries regarding addiction, its causes, and its proper treatment. Nationwide, lawyers and other professional groups are beginning to identify and talk openly about addiction and to confront the unnecessary judgment and stigma that stand in the way of meaningful recovery. In Wisconsin, WisLAP provides valuable resources to law students, attorneys, judges, and their families. For every tragic incident that hits the media, there are countless attorneys who are recovering from addiction and making significant contributions to the legal profession. They lead meaningful lives and, in many cases, those same attorneys provide guidance and strength to colleagues who suffer from addiction.
Timothy D. Edwards, Wayne State 1989, is a partner at Axley Brynelson LLC, Madison, and a committee member of the State Bar of Wisconsin Lawyers’ Assistance Program (WisLAP). He has published many articles about addiction and is a regular presenter to law students and attorneys statewide. For these efforts, he was awarded WisLAP’s Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award in 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gregory J. Van Rybroek, U.W. 1990, is director of the Mendota Mental Health Institute and co-chairman of the WisLAP Committee. As a psychologist and attorney, he is a regular presenter for the State Bar of Wisconsin. He also provides private forensic assessments in criminal and civil cases that involve mental health issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Attorneys and Substance Abuse
Prepared by Justin J. Anker, Ph.D., Butler Center for Research
Attorneys are at a heightened risk to develop problems with substance abuse (Beck et al. 1996; Benjamin et al. 1990; Frances et al. 1984; Shore and Pieri 1992). In a study published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry it was reported that the rate of problem drinking for attorneys was 18% compared to 10% in the general population (Benjamin et al. 1990). Evidence suggests that individuals in the legal profession experience problems with substance abuse early in their careers and these problems worsen over time. According to one study, 8% of prelaw students, 15% of first-year law school students, and 24% of third-year law students reported concern with alcohol problems. In addition, 18% of attorneys who practiced for 2 to 20 years reported drinking problems and this increased to 25% for attorneys who practiced for over 20 years (Benjamin et al. 1990).
For example, of the 100 attorneys that entered the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability attorney assistance program, 60% had a malpractice suit filed against them while suffering from substance abuse (Benjamin et al. 1990). Taken together, these data highlight the prevalence and consequences of substance abuse among legal professionals.
II. Primary Factors Related to Substance Abuse in the Legal Profession
Why are legal professionals at a heightened risk to develop substance abuse problems? One possibility is that the legal profession contains fundamental characteristics that may facilitate the development of substance abuse (Benjamin et al. 1990). These characteristics include social influences within the work environment, heavy workloads, stress attributed to working with clients, family issues, and co-occurring psychological illnesses that precede and/or exacerbate substance abuse problems.
Socio-cultural Influences within the Work Environment. Research suggests that attorneys’ work culture may influence susceptibility to substance abuse. Workplace culture is one of the most consistent predictors of workplace drinking (Ames and Delaney 1992; Bacharach et al. 2002; Bennett and Lehman 1998; Kishchuk et al. 1994; Towers et al. 1994), and workplace cultures that accept alcohol use (to socialize or as a means to facilitate business) are more likely to contain employees that are prone to alcohol problems (Bacharach et al. 2002; Bennett and Lehman 1998). Attitudes and norms within the work culture are important determinants of what constitutes acceptable drinking behaviors both within and outside of the work environment (Ames and Rebhun 1993; Trice and Roman 1978; Trice and Sonnenstuhl 1988). These norms can either facilitate or limit drinking behaviors in employees through creating physical and psychological conditions of permissiveness or restriction toward drinking (Janes and Ames 1993; Trice and Sonnenstuhl 1988).
Some reports indicate that the work culture of many law offices is highly permissive of drinking (Silver 2004). In some practices it is acceptable and common for attorneys to drink with clients or colleagues during work hours, to drink in celebration of winning a case, or to drink alone or with a colleague to mark the end of a work day (Ames and Rebhun 1993). In a sample of 559 attorneys, 66% reported social drinking connected to work (Shore, 2001). Similarly, Brooke (1997) reported that 77% of attorneys in the study with self-reported alcohol problems reported drinking alcohol during lunch (Brooke 1997). It has been suggested that members of law firms may drink more than attorneys who work alone due to the greater number of drinking opportunities (Shore 1997). Coworkers in permissive work environments may also unintentionally contribute to problem drinking in their peers by concealing, tolerating, or enabling alcohol use (Ames and Delaney 1992; Roman and Blum 1995). For example, only 30% of attorneys who indicated a personal loss of work-related enthusiasm and efficiency experienced a formal intervention by co-workers acknowledging their poor work performance (Brook, 1997).
Stress within the Legal Profession as a Function of Workload and Time Constraints. An additional characteristic intrinsic to the legal profession that may contribute to substance abuse vulnerability is stress. Stress is regarded as one of the most important predictors of substance abuse in the addiction literature (Sinha 2008; Sinha et al. 2011; Weiss et al. 2001) and research indicates that attorneys and law students experience significant levels of stress (Beck et al. 1996; Kozich 1989). Some theorists have suggested that the exceedingly high number of work hours, the unpredictability of trials, and the heavy workloads that need to be completed under tight time constraints contribute to stress in attorneys (Benjamin et al. 1990; Regehr et al. 2004; Lynch 1997). Attorneys may also experience an extraordinary amount of pressure to win cases. For example, losing a case could be highly publicized and may even result in prison or death for a client (Corey 1992). Attorneys working in the public sector experience higher levels of work-related burnout compared to individuals in the general population (Kessler et al. 1994), and work-related burnout is strongly related to drug and alcohol abuse in other professions (Balch et al. 2009; Cunradi et al. 2003).
Stress within the Legal Profession Due to Exposure to Trauma-Exposed Clients. Research has shown that PTSD is an additional predictor of substance abuse severity (Reynolds et al. 2005). In addition to having a higher prevalence of job-related burnout, attorneys working in the public sector also experience higher levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) compared to individuals in the general population (Kessler et al. 1994). Research also indicates that family and criminal court attorneys experience greater levels of trauma compared to other high-stress jobs in the mental health and social service fields. The need to understand intimate details of a client’s trauma history is sometimes required of criminal attorneys and can lead to the formation of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) (Allegretti 1993; Meier 1993; Silver 1999). Symptoms of STS mimic those of PTSD and include intrusive thoughts, social avoidance and withdrawal, and disturbed sleep (Figley 1995). Despite the high prevalence of this disorder in attorneys (Levin et al. 2011), STS has largely been overlooked by the research community (Elwood et al. 2011). In a study by Levin et al. (2011), criminal litigation attorneys were compared to a group of legal administrative support staff members on several stress-related measures. Compared to administrative staff members, attorneys were significantly more likely to meet the criteria for STS (10% vs. 34%), PTSD (1% vs. 11%), and depression (19% vs. 40%). Furthermore, attorneys with more frequent, prolonged contact with trauma-exposed clients experienced more stress, burnout, and functional impairment (Levin et al. 2011). Similarly, other studies have shown that the number of hours worked by asylum attorneys and prosecutors was related to symptoms of trauma (Piwoowarcyzy et al. 2009) in addition to symptoms of demoralization, anxiety, helplessness, exhaustion, and social withdrawal (Gomme and Hall, 1995). In summary, workload and frequent exposure to tense social interactions may increase stress and lead to increased drug abuse vulnerability in attorneys.
Co-occurring Psychological Illness and Social Relations in Legal Professionals. Research indicates that the presence of a co-occurring psychological illness can drastically increase the severity of substance abuse (Schafer and Najavits 2007). Attorneys with substance abuse are also more likely to have an additional psychological disorder beyond substance dependence. Sweeney et al. (2004) found that among a sample of individuals attending a recovery center specializing in the care of impaired professionals, 60% of attorneys had a co-occurring psychological disorder compared to 46% of healthcare professionals and 28% of nonprofessionals. Of attorneys with a co-occurring disorder, 32% had Major Depression, 14.6% had Bipolar Disorder, and 13.4% had an anxiety disorder (Sweeney et al. 2004).
III. Potential Solutions to the Problem of Substance Abuse in the Legal Profession
Treatment Approaches Addressing Work Culture. The need for a customized approach for the treatment of substance abuse in legal professionals is great given the prevalence of substance abuse in attorneys and the multiple vulnerability factors intrinsic to the legal profession. As discussed earlier, previous reports indicate that the working environment of attorneys is often permissive and supportive of alcohol use (Ames and Rebhun 1993; Shore 1997, 2001; Trice and Sonnenstuuhl, 1988). The primary mechanism used by employers to address concerns of alcohol use is formal written policies; however, if these policies are not enforced employee drinking problems can continue (Bennett et al. 2004). Previous research has shown that team-based interventions designed to prevent permissive attitudes towards substance use in the working environment can effectively decrease the prevalence of alcohol use by individual employees (Bennett et al. 2004).
As previously mentioned, heavy workloads, strict deadlines, and stressful working conditions may contribute to drug abuse vulnerability among attorneys (Benjamin et al. 1990; Regehr et al. 2004; Lynch 1997). Research suggests that rapid identification and treatment of symptoms of stress and depression are important in managing work-related stress (Levin et al. 2011). There is also a need to train attorneys on how to deal with potentially intense client relationships that contribute to stress (Allegretti, 1993). After showing a significant relationship between symptoms of STS, magnitude of workload, and frequency of contact with trauma -exposed clients, Levin et al. (2011) suggested that attorneys experiencing these symptoms could benefit from peer support, increased time spent with leisure activities, development of resiliency skills, and participation in counseling and psychiatric treatment. The authors also suggest that emphasis should be placed on reducing long work hours and limiting the extent to which attorneys are exposed to traumatized clients through job rotations between different types of services (Levine et al. 2011).
At Hazelden, legal professionals struggling with chemical dependency find the personalized care, unparalleled expertise, and peer support they need to rebuild their lives and preserve their legal careers. Our groundbreaking Legal Professionals Program was created to help these individuals identify, share, and address the unique and career-specific issues they may face in treatment and recovery. Facilitated full-time by two attorney clinicians with extensive experience as both licensed addiction counselors and practicing attorneys, the program offers a highly valuable addition to the overall residential treatment experience of our legal professional clients. For more information, please visit hazelden.org/legalprofessionals.
One Lawyer’s Struggle That May Help You:
I Spent Every Cent I Had on Cocaine’: Lawyer’s Struggle Revealed
Angela Morris, Texas Lawyer
Dallas lawyer Brian Cuban speaks at a 2015 addiction recovery conference in Washington, D.C. In his dark days, Dallas lawyer Brian Cuban would snort lines of cocaine in his law firm’s bathroom to keep going, masking the hangover from his night spent drugging and drinking.
In recovery for 10 years for substance use disorders, bulimia, depression and other mental health issues, Cuban, who worked as a solo and of counsel at small firms, stopped practicing law in 2007 and devoted his life to writing and public speaking around the country to help others with drug and alcohol addiction. His new book “The Addicted Lawyer: Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow and Redemption,” goes into extreme detail about problems that started in college, progressed throughout his legal career and led to recovery.
We interviewed Cuban—who graduated in 1986 from University of Pittsburgh School of Law and whose billionaire brother Mark Cuban owns the NBA team the Dallas Mavericks—about his addiction and recovery. Here are his answers, edited for clarity and brevity.
Before you entered recovery, what substances were you using and how did it impact your career?
Jack Daniels was my drink of choice. Cocaine was my drug of choice. I also misused opioids when I could get my hands on it. I went from earning six figures as a lawyer to having one client left and no clients left. I spent every free cent I had—to the point of neglecting other things like bills and student loans—on cocaine. It became the linchpin in my destruction, my loss of a gainful career as an attorney. There were other mental health issues, too. You have to consider: I never wanted to be a lawyer. When I finally reached the point of no clients and went into recovery, getting sober and getting a lot of psychiatric therapy and exploring childhood mental health issues, I came to terms that [being a lawyer] wasn’t for me.
You’ve been in recovery since 2007. What work does it take every day to maintain that?
My family wanted me to go to residential treatment, but I refused. But I did go into 12-step, and for me, fortunately, 12- step combined with psychiatric therapy and medication—I take antidepressants—has been successful for me. I am lucky to have a strong family support structure. That together has helped me in long-term recovery. I do my own version of mindfulness. I think every day about where I am in my recovery, what I can do better and how I can be a better person. What I try to do every day is work with someone who needs help and I consider that very, very important in my recovery. It gives me the gratitude of knowing someone might take that first step. Every time I work with a law student or lawyer, someone in the legal profession, when I hear their story, I learn something new about myself. Every week, taking that new thing I learn, I hopefully improve my recovery.
What are the elements of “lawyer culture” can lead a lawyer toward addiction?
There’s a culture of drinking in the profession that starts in law school. Addicted law students become addicted lawyers. Depressed law students turn into depressed lawyers, unless you get help. The bar association happy hours, the law firm functions, the hard work, the social isolation—and you rely on previously learned coping skills of drinking to cope with that. Even in big law, you are billing all this time and don’t have a life. What happens? You turn to learned behaviors— learned in law school—going out to these happy hours, partying with other lawyers. We don’t learn the appropriate coping skills.
How should the legal profession change to stop this?
It’s a systematic issue that needs to have a systematic response. The response needs to start in law school, and law schools are getting better. Deans of students are getting better in being open to students with mental health issues. Law firms don’t have to be counseling units, but we can make it user-friendly for lawyers to seek help. The easiest thing to do: Get the lawyers assistance programs in to talk to your lawyers more than once a year. Make sure the lawyers and staff know what is available in the employee assistance program. Create a mental health committee that has a point person for lawyers to go to, for staff to go to, without repercussions. What paralegal wants to go report his named partner? What associate wants to go report his named partner? There needs to be a point person where people are comfortable they can go talk without repercussions.
Why do lawyers hide their addictions?
Fear is one [reason]: fear of losing your ability to maintain your style of living, fear of losing the ability to maintain any living, fear of the state bar, fear of your partner, fear of losing your job, fear of losing your client. The list of fear-based reasons is long. Two, vulnerability. Lawyers, as a profession, we have a difficult time showing and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We are trained to take advantage of vulnerability in others. It’s an adversarial process. What’s the problem? One of the constant essentials in recovery is vulnerability; be vulnerable, and explore your feelings.
What should lawyers do instead about their addictions?
Tell somebody. Most addicts or people dealing with alcohol use or drugs hide it for as long as they can. It’s part of it— they are ashamed. They don’t want anyone to find out. I had a Ph.D. in hiding. Reach out to somebody. If you don’t trust the lawyers’ assistance program, reach out to someone in a 12-step; reach out to someone who went through it; reach out to your wife. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. People want to help you. You have to take that first step. That first step is scary: It carries all the fear of consequences. But it’s the fear of consequences coming any way, if you don’t do it now. It’s just a matter of time.
If there’s a lawyer who struggles with addiction who is reading this, what message do you hope to convey to him or her?
Recovery is possible. Redemption is possible. Start now, because today is as good as it’s ever going to get. No matter how bad it seems, no matter how bad it’s gone in your mind or in consequences, redemption and recovery are possible. The stories in my book prove it. My story proves it.