When the tragic death of former Justice David Lewis of the Texas 5th Court of Appeals was first publicized, there was a lot of speculation around what happened. We now know. His death was due to the ravaging effects of alcoholism and artery disease. He was only 66 years old. A tragic end to a once distinguished career. One thing that caught my eye was from the sworn testimony regarding his conduct on the bench:
“…. before Lewis joined the court, he was “healthy” and had “a strong legal mind.” But that changed.”
I have to wonder if that statement was influenced by the myth of the “high-functioning alcoholic” with regards to the “change” in his conduct prior to it becoming an obvious problem from the standpoint of job performance.
The reality is that alcoholism is a progressive disease. To believe that a lawyer (or judge) can perform at the same level and give the client full value of an hour billed daily while not in recovery is a form of denial and avoidance. More often than not, the decrease is noticeable to others, but nothing is said for a myriad of reasons. Eventually the house of cards and the conspiracy of stigma-induced silence collapses and there is no way to squeeze “high-functioning” through the pinhole of recovery. By that point, there may be a malpractice suit. The state bar becomes involved. The privilege of practicing law is taken away either temporarily or permanently.
To get a broader perspective on the topic, I reached out to Brian Tannebaum. Brian is a criminal defense a lawyer in Miami who specializes in representing attorneys before the bar when facing allegations of misconduct. As you might imagine, this often involves substance-use issues. In full disclosure, Brian is also a contributor to my book. Here is what he had to say about the myth of the “high-functioning alcoholic”:
“High Functioning” is a term used by both addicts and those who know addicts. When someone refers to an addict as “high functioning,” they are usually describing someone who drinks to excess or uses drugs but appears to be in control. An addict who is a lawyer and refers to themselves as “high functioning” believes they can drink to excess or use drugs and still do everyday tasks — like go to court, meet with clients, and write pleadings, and not get caught or appear “drunk.” A lawyer who is “high functioning” is not someone who is “OK” at the level in which they are using alcohol or drugs. They are in need of serious help, as they believe that they can go through their day high or drunk and perform at to the required levels of competency and ethics.
Brian also has personal experience witnessing impaired lawyers in the courtroom:
I’ve been in court and smelled alcohol. It’s an uncomfortable moment when you’re not sure where the smell is coming from. Then when you realize who it is, you ponder what to do. Is the lawyer drunk? Did they just have a drink at lunch, or worse — breakfast? It’s hard to decide what to do if the lawyer isn’t stumbling and you don’t want to make an incorrect judgment. I think the best way to handle it is to pull the lawyer aside, express that you’re not looking to cause the lawyer trouble, but that you’re looking out for the lawyer’s well-being, and that someone else in court that smelled the alcohol may not be as understanding (i.e., the bailiff, or other court staff).
I also reached out to a lawyer in recovery to provide his perspective on the culture of the “high functioning” addicted lawyer. Caleb Kruckenberg is a criminal defense attorney in recovery from alcohol. He says:
In my experience, the legal community has a very unhealthy attitude about alcohol (and substance abuse in general). People go on about how they “work hard/play hard,” and we all just take it as a given that being a lawyer is very difficult and the only way to cope is by drinking excessively.
I always drank as an adult, but didn’t really begin in earnest until after I graduated law school and entered the work force. I don’t blame anyone else for my drinking, and I take responsibility for my behavior. But I also found a very supportive environment for my addiction. No one looked twice when I got exceedingly drunk at happy hours, or parties, and my coworkers would just laugh it off when I went in to work hungover day after day.
When I couldn’t ignore that I had a real problem with drinking (for example, because I could no longer take a day off from it, or have any real ability to stop once I began), I kept up my denial with a lot of help from the drinking culture of all the lawyers I knew.
I remember sitting in court in the morning and having the same conversation with other defense lawyers, over and over. We were so hung over and probably alcoholics (ha ha), but we were “functioning” so it wasn’t a big deal. That’s what made us tough — we could go day after day and never lose a step. We didn’t drink at work, so obviously there wasn’t a real issue.
When I finally got honest with myself and got sober, I realized how much drinking had affected me at work (and in so many other ways). I know other people had to have noticed that I had problems, but nobody ever called me out or made it an issue. There’s no question in my mind that I’m twice the lawyer now than I was when I was drinking heavily.
But it was also hard for me to not only get sober, but be open about being sober, because I felt like I had left the club. In some ways, it was easier for me to brag about how much of a functioning alcoholic I was, and how I could peel myself off the floor and still do my job, than for me to tell people I’ve known for a long time that I don’t drink any more.
I think the only way to change this is for people like us to be honest. There are no functional alcoholics. Alcohol is either a problem or it isn’t. And I managed to use my “functioning” as an excuse to keep drinking.
“Be honest.” That is, of course, a crucial part of recovery. It is also an important part of a culture of silence and avoidance in our profession when facing these issues. When you see your colleague who you know or suspect is dealing with alcohol or drug issues, are you “being honest” in what you tell yourself or tell him or her? What will you say? We are a profession in crisis from a problem drinking standpoint. We all have to take ownership and speak up. Even at the cost of embarrassment and consequences. It only gets worse in a conspiracy of “high-functioning” silence.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.