Disciplining addiction

How the ARDC and assistance programs handle lawyers with drug and alcohol problems

How the ARDC and assistance programs handle lawyers with drug and alcohol problems
September 2017
By Sarah Mansur
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

By the time “Bob Smith” was practicing law at a private Chicago firm in the early 1980s, some of his colleagues were aware of his drinking.

“I was a garden-variety alcoholic,” Smith said. “I just drank too much. Of course, I was in denial. I thought nobody else knew, like many people who believe they have a drinking problem.”

Before he finally quit, Smith (whose name has been changed for this article) said he was drinking around a quart of alcohol per day. It was only after two lawyers and a retired judge staged an intervention that Smith agreed to attend Hazelden in Minnesota for treatment. He stayed there for a month and has been sober since July 1984.

A 2016 study sponsored by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, as the group is now known, and the American Bar Association suggest that Smith’s alcohol addiction is not an anomaly among American lawyers.

The study, which surveyed 12,825 practicing attorneys, found that 22.6 percent reported that they felt their use of alcohol or other substances was problematic at some point in their lives. The study also found that lawyers reported mental health issues, like anxiety and depression, at a higher rate than the general population, and that those issues could contribute to addiction problems.

Worse, for all the other problems alcohol and other substance abuse can bring on with family and friends, those problems can lead to professional disciplinary action.

Sari Montgomery prosecuted cases for the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission for 11 years. She now defends them as of counsel with Robinson Law Group. She said it’s rare to find a lawyer who has an addiction problem and doesn’t also have other issues.

“When we see it in a disciplinary context, there are usually multiple factors that are contributing to [addiction],” Montgomery said. “It’s not just the stress from the workplace. That obviously is a big contributor to it but there are usually some mental health aspects as well with addiction, such as anxiety and depression.”

The combative and high-stakes nature of law — and the prevalence of alcohol at social gatherings within the profession — give motive and means for addiction. But addiction is not evenly distributed through the profession. Solo practitioners and young lawyers in the early stages of their careers are particularly vulnerable to these problems, and to the behaviors they create that can take an attorney before the ARDC.

But no lawyer is immune to alcoholism or drug addiction.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a high-powered intellectual attorney or a first-year public defender,” said Smith, who is now active with the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program helping other attorneys facing the same problems he faced. “It can hit you across the board.”

‘High-stakes and high-stress environment’

Malpractice-defense attorney Kathryne R. Hayes of Collins Bargione & Vuckovich said the competition that takes place in the courtroom can precipitate stress.

“I think lawyers, unlike a lot of other professions, are basically hired to win every time,” Hayes said. “And, of course, it’s impossible to win every case. When we don’t win, we take that as a failure, and that puts a lot of pressure on people.”

Mary Robinson was an administrator for the ARDC for 15 years before starting Robinson Law Group. She said one factor that can lead to addiction problems is the “very high-stakes and high-stress environment” lawyers operate in.

“Most of us have an inbred desire to control, and yet we control so little of our existence …Things happen and we are always reacting to crisis,” Robinson said. “Then lay upon that our dedication to the adversarial ways — that adds incrementally to the stress day to day.”

This can lead to self-medication, said Lawyers’ Assistance Program Executive Director Robin Belleau. The Chicago-based nonprofit is a resource for attorneys, judges and law students or their families facing substance abuse, addition or mental health problems.

“So many people use alcohol or drugs to deal with this stress and anxiety,” Belleau said. “And it may start out very innocently. You have a glass of wine to unwind or relax. But if you start drinking everyday and you need it to relax versus wanting it to relax, you really start to cross into a different zone.”

For Smith, the social aspect of drinking contributed to his alcoholism more than the stress of practicing law.

“It was not unusual in that time frame in the 1970s and ’80s to drink at lunch or drink after court on a daily basis,” Smith said.

Robinson said the presence of alcohol at social gatherings for lawyers and law students can also contribute to problems with addiction in the legal profession.

“Once you are a practicing attorney, I think it’s absolutely true that it is very rare to appear at any social function that doesn’t include alcohol. And that’s true in a lot of business environments but I think it’s more extreme in the legal profession,” Robinson said. “The social contribution of law school and the profession is probably significant.”

‘Thrown out into the world’

Hayes said educating future lawyers as early as law school about the profession’s higher rate of addiction and mental health problems would raise awareness and could help young lawyers confront potential issues.

“We all go to law school for three years, learn a lot and then everyone is thrown out into the world. There is not much of an education, as far as I know, about how affected such a large part of the bar is by anxiety, depression, addiction,” she said. “So, if law schools could start addressing it more or sooner, that might help some people out.”

Illinois’ nine accredited law schools each do include information and resources about alcoholism and addiction, either through partnerships with the Lawyers’ Assistance Program or as part of their existing wellness programs or 1L professionalism courses, representatives from each school said. But those resources stay at the schools when the students start their careers.

In 2016, 27 percent of Lawyers’ Assistance Program’s 403 clients were younger than 30 years old and 26.5 percent were ages 30 to 39.

“I can’t help but think that part of it is that these kids are coming out of law school with a significant amount of debt and they are working at jobs that only pay $35,000 or $45,000,” Lawyers’ Assistance Program Deputy Executive Director Tony Pacione said.

These trends are borne out on the national level as well. The Hazelden study found that 28.9 percent of attorneys in the first 10 years of their practice and 20.6 percent of attorneys practicing for 11 to 20 years reported problematic drinking.

The study found the 32.3 percent of lawyers under age 30 reported problematic drinking — the highest rate of any age group they looked at. The second-highest was among lawyers aged 31 to 40, of whom 26.1 percent reported problem drinking.

“Taken together, it is reasonable to surmise from these 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,” wrote the study’s authors, Patrick R. Krill, Ryan Johnson and Linda Albert.

The fact that younger attorneys who are new to the legal profession have higher rates of impairments is startling, said Belleau.

“For many years, people thought that when you are in your 50s, you are tired and worn out and, of course, that’s when all these problems are going to start to happen,” she said. “But now these people are coming out of law school already with significant issues.”

‘More places to hide’

Montgomery said the extra duties taken on by lawyers who manage small firms or solo practices can intensify their stress.

“I don’t mean to imply that lawyers outside of a small-firm environment aren’t also susceptible but I think that’s where we see most of it, is the solo or small firm practitioner,” said Montgomery. “They may not have sufficient support staff, or they may not have other attorneys that they can turn to for advice or support if they are feeling overwhelmed.”

Solo practitioners represent the majority of lawyers who came before the ARDC with addiction issues, according to the commission’s annual reports from recent years.

In 2016, the ARDC disciplined 33 lawyers who were identified as having substance abuse or mental health issues were solo practitioners. Ninety percent of them were solo practitioners.

“There are stresses in any profession and there are stresses in any type of practice of law but the pressures for the sole proprietor are really unique because of the isolated nature,” said Jim Grogan, ARDC deputy administrator and chief counsel. “There are a lot less places to hide when you are a sole proprietor.”

Hayes said the amended Illinois Supreme Court Rule 794(d) is a positive development. The amended rule requires all Illinois lawyers to complete one hour of mental health and substance abuse continuing legal education as part of their professional responsibility Continuing Legal Education requirement every two years. It went into effect in July.

“The Supreme Court rule is a good step in the right direction to get people forward thinking about the issues that lie ahead for a lot of people,” she said.

‘A very unhappy profession’

Belleau attributes lawyers’ high levels of addiction in part to the adversarial relationships inherent in the profession.

“There is pretty much always a winner and a loser, and it can be a very unhappy profession,” Belleau said. “No one shows up in your office in a good mood. They come to you because they have a problem and they need you to solve it. And they expect you to solve it even if the facts of the case are not going in their favor. They really expect lawyers to be miracle workers.”

Belleau said Lawyers’ Assistance Program offers services to deal with mental health issues because psychological disorders can be closely intertwined with substance abuse problems.

She said sometimes people don’t consider low-level depression, stress or anxiety as a mental health issue.

“But those can be very significant because if untreated for too long, it’s going to develop into something bigger and then you may start self-medicating,” Belleau said.

The Hazelden study found that 61 percent of participants reported concerns with anxiety at some point in their career and 46 percent reported concerns with depression.

“Mental health concerns often co-occur with alcohol use disorders … and our study reveals significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress among those screening positive for problematic alcohol use,” the authors of the Hazelden study wrote.

Another aspect of the stress problem, Belleau said, is compassion fatigue — or caring too much that it hurts. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project defines this condition as chronic stress resulting from work or a career that involves caring for others.

“If someone is showing up in your office, day in, day out, hour by hour, just unhappy and depressed, that is going to wear off on you,” Belleau said. “If and until the point when you can put up some good boundaries and have good coping mechanisms, that is just going to rub off on you.”

‘In the same boat’

After completing his one-month stay at Hazelden, Smith recognized that his sobriety would depend on changing his habits and routine.

“What I realized is that, when I came home, if I was going to be successful in turning my life around in trying to become a recovering alcoholic, I was going to have to change my lifestyle and change some of my friends,” Smith said. “If I went back to that same lifestyle, I was going to relapse.”

Part of that lifestyle change meant getting active in the local Alcoholics Anonymous program and participating in interventions sponsored by the Lawyers’ Assistance Program.

The group, Belleau stresses, helps with more than alcohol addiction.

“Every presentation I do, the first question I ask is: How many people have heard about LAP and still only about half the people in the room raise their hand,” Belleau said. “And the second question I ask is: How many people think we only assist with alcohol? Only three-quarters of those half raise their hand.”

When he returned from Hazelden, Smith got involved with the Lawyers’ Assistance Program.

“It was fortunate that lawyers who knew me, who cared about me, said ‘He’s not going to be able to do this indefinitely. It’s going to cause problems,’” Smith said. “And that’s really the function of LAP — to protect clients from impaired lawyers and judges, and then help impaired lawyers and judges.”

The group was founded in 1980 by a group of lawyers who understood the need to provide counseling and resources that could help their colleagues struggling with addiction. Since 2001, Lawyers’ Assistance Program has received a stable source of funding from the Illinois Supreme Court.

“In the beginning, it was a group of very dedicated volunteers who went out and got themselves trained and then started training other volunteers to do the same kind of work,” Belleau said.

Lawyers’ Assistance Program offers free and confidential services to lawyers, law students and judges, as well as their families, that range from counseling and support groups to peer support and formal interventions. The 501(c)3 organization has expanded to include three locations — Chicago, Bloomington and Belleville — and licensed clinicians on staff.

“If the person needs more intensive therapy or residential treatment, we will help them get to that next place and make a referral out to that treatment provider,” Belleau said. “We provide ongoing case management to the client and the family throughout the duration of their treatment. And treatment does not end when they return back from residential treatment. Recovery is an ongoing process so we work with the client and family as long as possible.”

Montgomery said she would always refer a client with addiction or mental health issues to Lawyers’ Assistance Program.

“LAP is really the best resource not just for their direct services but they can also refer lawyers to private practitioners, therapists and outside programs that lawyers can get involved in even if they don’t receive services through LAP,” she said. “I don’t know of any other organization that does both of those things. There isn’t another organization like LAP, really.”

Montgomery said Lawyers’ Assistance Program is also unique because it exclusively serves members of the legal profession.

“Some lawyer who goes to an AA meeting might feel like no one understands what he or she is going through because they are not lawyers,” she said. “That is the great thing about LAP because everybody in there is in the same boat. Everybody in there is a lawyer and understands the pressures.”

‘If I see you hurting’

Pacione said the organization is also working to launch a new program targeting law firms and government agencies, tentatively referred to as “impairment-proofing your firm.”

He said Lawyers’ Assistance Program staff would educate the workforce at a specific firm or agency on how issues of impairment might present themselves in the workplace.

“We would work with the top partners in the firm to help them to identify what their associates may struggle with, and how they can interact with LAP to identify these people that are struggling — how to get them help and how to reintegrate them back into the workplace,” Pacione said.

Belleau said she also wants to see law firms create a position she called a chief assistance officer who could serve as a resource for troubled attorneys or concerned colleagues seeking help.

“So, you have a safe place that you can go to discuss your concerns that would be confidential,” she said. “That chief assistance officer would hopefully then reach out to us and we could come up with a plan.”

Grogan said community involvement is one of the most important ways to address addiction problems facing lawyers.

“There will always be the problem. The problem will always exist for every profession,” Grogan said. “It’s about how does the culture respond to it? If I see you hurting, what steps can I take to help you, help myself and make sure the community is protected?”

He said the goal is to reduce lawyers’ risk of addiction if the problem as a whole cannot be eliminated.

“Community support is so essential in identifying problems and trying to get help,” he said.