Why Are Lawyers Afraid To Ask For Help

Not long ago I gave a bar association lunchtime presentation about addiction recovery. As I always do, I spoke about the function and value of the Legal Assistance Program (LAP) in helping lawyers deal with addiction and other mental health issues and get back on track even in the face of immediate consequences for behavior that may run afoul of state bar disciplinary rules.

I related the same talking points that I give lawyers every day who contact me about addiction issues. I urge them not to get caught up in the stigma of the immediate problem versus the inevitable long term consequences of ignoring, hiding or “thinking” (in other words, manipulate) a way out of it. Even in the face of suspension, disbarment, private or public censure, down the road the consequences almost always get exponentially worse beyond career. Deal with it now. Deal with it confidentially. As I gave this advice, I scanned the expressions in the room. Eyes rolled. Arms folded.

After the presentation, a lawyer came up to me snickering. He said he would never use the Lawyers Assistance Program. He was sure it would get out. I asked how he knew that. “Another lawyer told him.” How did that lawyer know that? He was not sure. I asked him if he would walk into court with “a guy told a guy” as his argument. He chuckled and agreed but was still sure it was not confidential. It also seemed that some had no idea that there was an LAP until that moment.

How is this possible? Just the other week, I had coffee with a good friend who works at a major law firm in Dallas. There is a blank stare when I brought up the local LAP. When I described it to him, he said that the last time it had been discussed was an orientation right after he passed the bar years ago. It had not been a topic of discussion at any firm he had worked at since then.

This is the culture of asking for help in the legal profession. Short term stigma. Fear of disclosure and career consequences over long term recovery. Lack of knowledge about recovery resources available beyond maybe AA. Not unusual for a person facing getting sober, but still a barrier. How do we overcome it?

I reached out to someone who is on the front lines of representing lawyers with just such issues. Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami Florida. He primarily represents lawyers who are called before the bar, many of them dealing with addiction issues. He is also the author of the great book, “The Practice, The Brutal Truths About Lawyers and Lawyering”.

What are some of the fears, in your experience lawyers have when it comes to getting help for a substance use?

Other than the fear of admitting to yourself there is a problem, the primary issue I see is lawyers believing that their issue will become public knowledge. It is unfortunate that this fear prevents lawyers from seeking professional help.

Lawyers who work as associates in firms fear their partners will find out and they will lose their jobs, and sole practitioners fear their colleagues as well as current and potential clients will find out.

What I try to explain to lawyers is that they are not the first ones to experience problems with drugs or alcohol, and they would be surprised to know who amongst them has gone down the same road. I hear this when lawyers go to AA or NA meetings and see their colleagues in attendance. Lawyers should also know that privilege is not only between a lawyer and a client, but that professionals in this arena adhere to strict confidentiality.

What are some of the myths lawyers tend to believe in terms of seeking help?

Seeking professional help for an alcohol, drug or gambling issue is the same as a client seeking legal advice. It is confidential. Lawyers who convince themselves that it is not, are often using that as an excuse not to seek help. I can tell you that Lawyers Assistance Programs value their confidentiality with lawyers, and will not even disclose information to the Bar without the lawyer’s consent. The only way I’ve ever learned of a lawyer participating in a Lawyer Assistance Program is because the lawyer made that disclosure to me.

What can the professional as a whole do to lessen the stigma and dispel myths surrounding reaching out of help (as an example, what could law firms be doing better to support lawyers or the LAP’s getting the word down to solos that they even exist)

Much of the stigma is based on the lack of discussion amongst lawyers. Partners and associates will meet to discuss cases and clients and billable hours, but the topic of “is everything okay” is not part of the agenda. I think every law office, private, governmental, corporate, should set aside time to discuss issues of alcohol and drug use. Firms should make it clear that seeking help prior to any issue affecting the practice is going to be met with assistance, and not discipline. Bar Associations, and State Bars should be sending that same message to lawyers who are sole practitioners or in small firms. The fear of disclosure often leads to disaster for the individual lawyer, and the firm. When that fear is dissolved, we will have a healthier and therefore more productive Bar.

There you have it. The true reality is that addiction recovery is not part of the legal culture despite the fact that according to recent studies, problematic drinking clearly is. A recovery culture needs to be integrated from the top down. How do we begin this? Start simple. How difficult is it to bring the local LAP into your firm with a presentation a couple times a year? How difficult is it to bring a lawyer in recovery in to talk about the reality? Do it in place of that law firm happy hour. How difficult is it for local bar associations, especially for young lawyers to pair events with something other than wine tastings and happy hours? Maybe even a recovery event now and then? Time well spent. Culture changes one person at a time.


BrianCubanBrian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at brian@addictedlawyer.com.


Is Law School An ‘Adderall Nation’?

Anecdotally, all one has to do is look through law school message boards or talk to current students and recent grads to get a feel for how prevalent Adderall use both prescribed and illegally obtained is for both law school and bar exam study.Empirically there is data on the topic.  The study, “Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being” published in the Journal of Legal Education and co-authored by another contributor to The Addicted Lawyer (David Jaffe), found that 14 percent of students responding reported they had taken a prescribed drug without a prescription within the last 12 months, and 79 percent of those students reported the drug taken as Adderall followed by Adderall XR, Ritalin, and yes, there it is… cocaine.

Here is Ali’s story and observations on Adderall use. Ali is a millennial West Coast attorney not long out of law school. She starts with her bar exam observations.

Ali says:

When I took the bar exam, we were limited as to what we could bring into the testing area. A small zip-lock bag that could hold identification, a pen or two, and individual tablets of medication. A memory that stands out was taking a look around after finally sitting down in the massive convention center exam room and seeing a sea of colors through those zip-lock bags: the unmistakable hues of Adderall, categorized by dosage. Everywhere I looked, the vast majority of those around me had at least a couple, ‘just in case.’

 

Seeing every exam taker’s personal stash out in the open only served to echo and what was the norm in the law library around finals time: You could walk up to any given study group in the library and it was almost guaranteed that at least one person in the group either had a prescription for Adderall or knew somebody who did and merely bought that person’s pills and shared with the group. Adderall was such a staple of studying in law school that it was easy to forget the fact that all of us who partook without a prescription weren’t only doing so illegally, but were also dosing ourselves with an addictive substance — an unwise choice for the subset of law students already prone to addictive tendencies and substance issues. And while I personally knew a few classmates who had a legitimate ADD diagnosis requiring a prescription for Adderall, those people were the minority.

 

For me, I survived law school finals during my first two years without ‘needing’ an Adderall prescription of my own. I outlined early and often and also had the self-discipline to stay in the library for long hours studying. When I would bum a few pills from a classmate though, studying seemed to fly by. Adderall made the outlining, note organization, and repeated reviews easy to do, and it made me confident in doing it. Moreover, Adderall is a stimulant, which also made it a perfect sidekick to study groups where we could debate hypotheticals for hours on end.

 

While initially these side effects were more fortuitous, by 3L year, Adderall was almost mandatory for my study group. Rather than a study aid, the effects of the drug served as our required motivation that once came naturally. By this point, I had secured my own prescription, too. I never took the required test and was never diagnosed with ADD by my longtime family doctor. ‘Just to get me through graduation,’ soon turned into, ‘Just to get me through the bar exam.’

 

When I returned to the small law firm I clerked at as a newly licensed attorney with a crazily disproportionate workload, I hadn’t gotten legal work completed without the help of Adderall in over a year, and I was convinced I required it in order to stay on top of work.  My tolerance had also gone up, which meant I was taking more pills than prescribed and running out of my script early each month. Luckily, the attorney in the office next to mine had his own prescription; we’d often have to pool our resources.  Unlike law school though, my workload never got lighter. Like any first-year associate in a litigation setting, the competitive and adversarial atmosphere was intimidating deep down, but taking Adderall always made me appear confident and in control.

 

In practice, this meant that I attributed a lot of my hard work and success to the fact that I had help in the form of a pill. This had a terrible downside, though. If I forgot my Adderall at home or ran out of pills, I would often find myself staring at my calendar and to-do list seemingly frozen and not knowing where to begin.  I didn’t think I could accomplish the work and meet my deadlines without taking a pill. As a person who always has had a stellar work ethic in school, this was an unfamiliar feeling for me, and an undoubtedly unhealthy one at that. After only being in practice for one year, taking Adderall as often as I did had also caused me to lose 25 pounds when I did not have 25 extra pounds on me to lose. Mentally, Adderall wreaked havoc on my natural self-confidence and work ethic. I now looked physically unhealthy as well.

 

After changing jobs, lowering my dosage, and getting sufficient experience to keep the courtroom jitters away, I was able to wean myself off of the high dosage I was prescribed. To date, I still always keep a script filled, ‘just in case,’ but no longer working in a job environment where my coworkers and direct superiors also used the drug (and its cousin, cocaine) took a lot of my personal focus away from thinking that I needed to be taking Adderall daily to succeed and I am doing well without it.

 

I know old classmates and coworkers who came out on the other end of the spectrum, though. A prior coworker ended up graduating not just from Adderall to cocaine, but from cocaine to crack. Another classmate is currently in outpatient treatment.

The casual use of Adderall that I was introduced to in school became a much more slippery slope than I had imagined. And while I eventually did call it quits on taking the pill every day, not everybody has been able to do this and the pill itself has been proven to be very addictive.