A Lawyer’s Tragic Slide

I  wonder how many looked at my friend and colleague Gary and said nothing as he struggled with addiction.  I often replay the months leading up to his death like a feature-length motion picture.

Summer 2013.  A muggy, hot morning headed over the 100-Degree mark.   Ten minutes into my drive to Starbucks. I can feel the heat overpowering my air conditioning settings. The sweat-stains taking form on the back of my dress shirt.

My quest for my venti-Blonde Roast Coffee takes me past the same bus stop daily.  To the average commuter,  It may have nothing to set it off from any other.  Another anonymous city-hub. There are people waiting to go to different parts of their lives: jobs, family, shopping, and school.

This particular stop catches my attention because to me, it symbolizes more.  I know it as a “way-station” for those in various stages of drug and alcohol recovery and descent. The apartment complex sitting ten yards behind it houses many dealing such issues.  A decades-old, faded and rain-worn, wooden structure complex.  The rent is cheap. It within walking distance of a local AA group. The line also runs close to several sober-living homes.  There are different stories from all walks of life. Fallen lawyers. Blue-collar workers. Service industry employees. Confirmation that addiction does not discriminate.

As I drive past, my head once more turns to take stock of one of my possible futures.  I see a slouching and skin- weathered familiar person waiting for the bus. It is Gary.  Gary is about my age, but at a glance has aged a decade since I last saw him.

I’d met Gary in 2003 (four years before I got sober) when we both worked of-counsel to a Dallas, general practice law- firm.  I was trying to hold my life together. Addiction, failed marriages, and an eating disorder made it difficult.  I had not spoken to him since we had worked a case together about a six-months earlier. The last lawsuit for which I would appear in court as an attorney.  I was the second chair. He was lead.  — A bench trial, contract matter.  Gary was sober and brilliant,  I admired his skill but didn’t envy him. Being in the courtroom made me sick to my stomach. Nausea that at one time only alcohol and cocaine could cure. I couldn’t wait for the case to finish. We had an excellent result.

Then Gary disappeared. He’d had gone “radio-silent” over the years.  A  full voice-mail. I knew what that meant. Gary would go through stretches of stellar representation of his clients. Then came complaints of neglect. Client accusations of being under the influence during legal proceedings. Federal marshalls arresting him on an outstanding drug warrant at the courthouse. A myriad of consequences finally catching up to the problem, including disbarment.

I pull a U-turn, drive up alongside and offer him a ride.  Some quick curbside small talk as I see the bus coming in my rear view mirror.  Asking in a tone of familiarity and friendship as if he had been on a Caribbean Cruise, I said,

Gary! Where have you been? Do you need a ride somewhere?”  

He glances at the bus coming up fact behind me. His facial muscles relax. Some of the lines disappear. He looks more like the Gary I remember.

Great to see you, Brian. A ride would be great, thanks.”

Where ya headed? I asked.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him shift in his seat while his sunburned face began to glisten with sweat.  Searching for an answer.

“Was at a meeting and headed down to my place.  Had to sell my car”  he said.

Great to hear you’re going to meetings. How much sober time do you have?  Are you hungry?  Let’s grab some lunch and catch up.

Thanks, Brian, lunch sounds great.”

“Cafe Brazil sound good?  I love their Taco Salads”, I said

That’s great Brian, love that place. 

The restaurant is only a ten-minute drive. The first five tic by in silence. I struggle to find the right words to tell him what I know. I decide to push the elephant out of the car.

“I read about your disbarment in the Bar Journal. I’m sorry Gary.”

“Yea, there was a misunderstanding over some checks written on my trust account. There was some correspondence with the bar, then I got a default notice of disbarment. My lawyer and I decided not to fight it.”  It wasn’t my fault, but I am ready to move on. I need a change.  I’m moving back to New York.”  I will move in with my family until I get up and going again.

During lunch, we engage in spurts of small talk followed by silence.  We discuss going to AA meetings together before he moves and taking things “one day at a time.  I know his version of his disbarment is bullshit but what’s the point. It’s done.

I pull out my wallet to pay the check. The familiar question comes.

Do have a spare twenty? I am short this week. I will be on my feet and repay you when I get back to New York.”

Sure thing Gary. Don’t worry about it. Not a big deal at all.”

He motions me to pull up in front of an apartment complex I recognize as a sober living half-way house.

“Thanks, Brian, see you at the noon meeting tomorrow?

“Sure Gary, do you want me to come to get you?”

“Nah, I will see you there.”

Then, he’s gone again.  His voicemail is full. He’s tested positive for drugs and kicked out of the sober home.

July 2013: My cell phone rings. A 516 area code — Long Island, where some of Gary’s family lives. He’s moved home.

Gary! Great to hear from you. I wondered if you had moved home. I worried about you.”  I said.

“Yea, sorry about the disconnect. I’ back home and settling in. I have a good support system here. “I have an interview coming up to work as a paralegal for a while. At some point, I will start my practice back up.  I am also licensed in New York.’,

My stomach twists as I digest the ethical issues surrounding the revelation.

“Are you allowed to do that since you lost your license here?  You might want to check with an ethics lawyer up there.” 

No need, it’s all good. 

My stomach contents churn in my intestines like I’ve woken up from an all-night bender.  I was not counting on being in my own ethical bind. Do I have to tell?

November 2013:  I am having a watch party for my appearance on the Katie Show.  I  get a facebook message from Gary. His is coming to the party. He attaches a photo of his plane ticket.  It is the last time I hear from him.

A Facebook message from his ex-wife. The Google explosion of his name tells the story. At age 54, Gary is dead. Hit by a tractor-trailer. He was down the middle of a busy highway. It’s unknown whether he’d been drinking, but it doesn’t matter. He’s gone. He never “got it” in recovery. It’s not that he didn’t want it. He tried. He tried every day.