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How to Help An Impaired Lawyer
By Alice Tanner, JD, Intervention Specialist

I attended the California State Bar convention where I gave an MCLE presentation on chemical dependency/substance abuse.  I always enjoy speaking with lawyers afterwards, hearing the stories of colleagues they know or suspect are battling this disease.  Some have tried to talk to their friend or colleague, but it hasn’t worked.  They are frustrated, confused and feel helpless.  How do they “get through” and why haven’t they been able to already?  Because of my profession as an intervention specialist, I am not so concerned with the identification of the disease (most of us know an alcoholic/addict when we see one), or why lawyers are perhaps more prone to develop the disease (i.e. lawyers and judges are overachievers who carry an enormous workload (stress) for weeks, months, years on end making the tendency to ‘escape' from daily problems through the use of drugs and alcohol prevalent and attractive).  I am most concerned with what people can do to be helpful to that person or their family.  With lawyers (and other professionals), it is particularly difficult to reach them.  But why?  The reason is quite simple . . . and obvious.  DENIAL!!

Lawyers are skilled at denial.  Like other professions, their professional survival depends on their competence as perceived by peers and clients. This in turn creates pressure to appear invincible and deny signs of addiction. They fear that if they admit a problem and go into treatment that they will be hurt professionally. Oblivious to the fact that their drinking/drugging has been hurting themselves, their clients, their families and their reputation for years, they continue to spiral downward.  Further, the profession is adversarial in nature and lawyers develop an arsenal of skills to avoid being pinned down on their denial. When confronted with the consequences of their chemical use, they succumb to the "paralysis of analysis"--debating the definition of addiction or steering the discussion to somebody else's chemical use. 

But beyond the normal denial shared by other professions, the denial encountered in the legal profession is more massive than in any other.  Why?  Well, think about it.  Don’t worry, you don’t need to think too much.  It’s because the legal profession is the only profession in the world that demands and rewards denial.  Deny the charges.  Deny the complaint.  Deny the allegations.  Fight to the end.  Shove responsibility off on the other party.  Limit (minimize) liability.  Rationalize and justify the consequences, your client’s position.  Find the legal loophole, the technicality, wiggle out of it.  The glove doesn’t fit!!!!  Need I say more??  Oy . . . .  I’m exhausted.  Now, recognize that this is what lawyers will do for a client.  Think about the lengths they will go to protect their own rice bowls.  Their own nests.  Their own image.  Is the picture becoming clear?

Something WILL happen to interrupt this downward spiral fueled by denial.  It’s called an intervention.  It can be the unplanned, ugly kind (arrest, public/professional embarrassment, divorce, suspension/disbarment, jail, health problems, financial ruin, death). Or it can be a planned, professional intervention.  Most of the time people have tried to talk to the alcoholic, but it has done little or no good.  Left untreated, the disease will advance and the consequences will get worse until an ugly and sometimes unrecoverable consequence (intervention) happens.  And, they do happen.  Look at your local newspaper.  Every day there is an article about an ugly, unplanned intervention on a drug addict or alcoholic, some of them lawyers and judges.  I urge people, most particularly the family, friends and colleagues to seek professional help before it gets this bad.  Where?  Consult a professional interventionist or chemical dependency specialist.  The time and cost is nominal; the benefit, saving a career . . . and a life, priceless.