A Troubling Indifference To A Major Problem In the Legal Industry

Patrick Krill, the author of the seminal study on problem drinking and mental health in the legal profession recently partnered with ALM Intelligence on a confidential survey to get a feel for how law firms view these issues within their walls and the industry overall.  This is on the heels of a new American Bar Association(ABA) initiative getting firms pledging to do more and take specific steps to better deal with lawyer wellness within their domain.

Here is the good news. Thirteen(to date) AM Law 100 and AM Law 200 law firms have signed on to the pledge. Here is the bad news. Only thirteen law firms have signed on. Here is even worse news. Only thirty firms responded to the confidential survey.  Too busy? Indifference?  Don’t think there is a problem within the firm?  Maybe not wanting to know if there is a problem.  Ignorance is bliss. Maybe the stigma plays out like this:

“It’s a confidential survey, but it will surely get out that we think there is a problem in our firm  and clients won’t hire us.”

Maybe the views echo an email that I received from a long time member of the Florida Bar. He believes the problem is overstated and has only seen one problem drinking lawyer in his long career.

Of course, his anecdotal observations are not predictive of the profession overall, and the ABA study tells a much different story. During my shorter time as a member of the Texas Bar, I’ve seen many lawyers in firms large and small who are problem drinkers, dealing with clinical depression and have substance use issues beyond alcohol.

I could have sent him the incredibly disturbing alcohol-related photos texted to me from the most recent annual gathering of Florida Association Of Criminal Defense Lawyers or the emails I received about the flow of alcohol and inebriation in “private rooms” at the ABA Mid-Year in Vancouver. That is not meant to be an indictment of the very progressive Florida Bar or the ABA. Both are doing a lot to change the messaging and culture on these issues.  We are also not a profession of teetotalers.  Years of culture reinforcement does not change in months.

It’s about being a responsible profession and acknowledging and opening our eyes a little wider to acknowledge what is at the tips of our noses. These issues stay hidden when we don’t ask questions. There are solutions. Time for a cliche. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.  Just taking the time to answer that survey was being part of the solution, not an indictment.  It’s heartening to see some firms willing to be part of that solution be we need to do better.

Let’s forget the studies and survey for a moment. Instead, simply pay attention to the people around us.   Think about people in your office. People whose offices you walk by and those you make small talk with. Their lives extend beyond the firm, courtroom and billing pressures  They have childhoods, families, pets.  They laugh. They cry. They love. They marry. They divorce. People in their lives die. Their pets die. They grieve.

Let’s talk about economics. All of these environmental variables can impact both their mental health and the quality of work. It affects risk. There is no such thing as a high functioning lawyer who is struggling. There is only a decrease in functioning that may be imperceptible at first but becomes cumulative until it’s costing both the lawyer and the firm on multiple levels.

These are complex issues that won’t change overnight as a profession, but they can begin to morph into a positive culture at a human level right now one firm at a time and one person at a time.

Let’s start with this. Find that ALM survey you moved to trash and take it. No need to even send it in. You might be surprised by what it tells you about your own beliefs. One person at a time starts with you.

Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption . 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 on 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.