On October 18, 2017, the legal recovery community lost a tireless advocate and wonderful human being with the passing of Michael Cohen. Michael was the Executive Director of the Florida Lawyers Assistance Program.
I met Michael when we sat on an ethics panel together. I was honored when he agreed to be interviewed for my book. His lifelong dedication to helping lawyers and law students recover from addiction issues personified the last word of the title of my book: “Redemption.” Below is his full contribution to my book on the topic of Lawyers Assistance Programs. Compelling words of wisdom for both lawyers and law students who may be struggling.
In your experience, what are the three biggest mistakes lawyers make with regards to substance use before you see them, that puts their license at risk?
Refusing to admit to themselves that there’s a problem, believing they can handle it by themselves, and refusing or postponing asking for help, even if they know help is available. Let’s take a look at these three responses, one at a time.
Refusing to Admit to Themselves That There’s a Problem
Alcoholic or addicted lawyers don’t start out by sleeping under a bridge or mainlining heroin. As with most substance use issues, early behavior is likely no different than colleagues in undergraduate or law school and, unfortunately, there’s no way to predict who will wind up dealing with the consequences of this disease. The progression of a substance use disorder can take years, during which time the lawyer will often blame other factors for consequences of their substance use (my partners/the judge were too harsh, my spouse doesn’t understand the pressure I’m under, I was late to court because of the damn traffic). Unfortunately, it’s often not until the consequences are undeniable (arrest, bar complaint, report from a judge) that the lawyer may admit there’s a problem with their use of substances.
I Can Handle This Myself
We are taught from day one in law school that we should be able to out-think, out-argue, and out-reason any problem. After all, we’re the advice givers, not the advice takers. This attitude when applied to a substance use disorder is disastrous. We have no frame of reference for dealing with a deadly medical condition — it would be like saying, “Yup, I have this lump growing in my chest, but I should be able to use my legal skills to deal with it.” I don’t know any lawyer who would say that with reference to cancer, or diabetes, or hepatitis, but it is almost always the thought process that takes place when a lawyer finally acknowledges they may be dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction. Part of this is clearly the stigma that still exists regarding addiction, part is the fear of being taken advantage of by admitting a “weakness,” and part is the belief that addiction is an issue of willpower that can be overcome by our legal acumen. Clearly, this approach does not work for most lawyers dealing with addiction.
Refusing or Postponing Asking for Help
For the reasons above (stigma, fear, belief in their own abilities), most lawyers will not reach out for help, even after they’ve acknowledged there’s a problem. Almost every state now has a lawyer assistance program (LAP) that provides free, confidential help to legal professionals dealing with substance use or mental health problems. Every LAP devotes a great deal of time to getting the word out that they exist and that they’re there to help, but lawyers often refuse to seek that help until it is forced on them by a referral to the LAP by law enforcement or the Bar disciplinary agency. Sometimes, this refusal to seek help is based on the belief of lawyers that they can handle the problem themselves, but it is often the belief that by contacting the LAP, they will be exposing their situation to the Bar and other lawyers, which is not the case.
Every LAP safeguards confidentiality as the cornerstone of its existence, and most are staffed by recovering attorneys and volunteers who have dealt with their own problems. In some jurisdictions, like Florida, confidentiality is protected by Bar rule and by state law unless the lawyer is referred to the LAP by the Bar disciplinary agency or Bar admission agency. Obviously, contacting the LAP or a treatment program before the substance use disorder comes to the Bar’s attention can save an attorney’s license, family, and possibly life, but unfortunately the combination of fear and ego often prevents this.
Based on your experience, in general, what are the three most important things a lawyer who is struggling can do as soon as possible to put himself/herself in the best position to continue practicing law even if there are temporary consequences?
Find out what resources are available and use them, engage in the appropriate level of treatment, and stick with the program.
Find Out What Resources Are Available and Use Them
Once the lawyer has acknowledged that a problem exists, the question is “what now?” Many lawyers “choose” to avoid seeking help out of fear that exposing themselves will result in disciplinary sanctions, loss of license, or loss of esteem because of the stigma still associated with addiction. As noted above, we’re a profession that tells ourselves we can handle any problem by using our big brains. Combating addiction is not something that can be done without help, but there are a number of resources available to an attorney who wants to recover. A good first step is to contact the state’s lawyer assistance program. Some LAPs are part of state Bar associations, others operate independently but cooperatively with state Bars, while others have no connection to the Bar association. In all cases, however, the primary concern of the LAP is confidentiality. A lawyer can approach the LAP, be candid about what’s going on in his or her life, and know that the information will be kept inviolate. Most states have Bar rules that prevent the LAP from disclosing any information, and some states (such as Florida) have both Bar rules and state laws protecting information.
In addition to the state LAP, large firm lawyers may have access to a confidential employee assistance program (EAP) which, like the LAP, can assess the problem and recommend treatment options. Unfortunately, the fear associated with seeking help more often than not prevents the lawyer from asking for help while the problem is still manageable. Sadly, it often takes an outside force such as an arrest or Bar complaint to push the lawyer into getting help.
Engage in the Appropriate Level of Treatment
Once the lawyer has worked up the courage (or hit the level of desperation) to ask for help from a LAP or EAP, it is likely that recommendations will be made about how to best address the issue. These recommendations may range from attendance at twelve-step meetings, to individual or group therapy, to outpatient or inpatient treatment. Very often a lawyer confronted with a recommendation, especially for inpatient or outpatient treatment, will respond with, “I have a practice to run. I can’t possibly disappear for 30 or 60 days,” or “I have a family. I can’t go to outpatient treatment three nights a week for the next few months.” What the lawyer needs to understand is that if the treatment recommendation is not followed, it’s very possible there will eventually not be a practice or family to worry about. Treatment may be a life or career-saving opportunity, and disregarding a recommendation made after an appropriate evaluation often leads to further progression of the addiction and more serious consequences.
Stick With the Program
After having the courage to ask for help and engaging in the appropriate level of treatment, the lawyer’s task is to use the tools they’ve been given to remain in recovery. All too often, the lawyer’s (or more accurately, the addiction’s) thought process after completing treatment and putting together six or eight months of abstinence is, Well, I’ve got this thing beat. I know what my problem was and won’t make the same mistakes again. There should be no harm in having a beer or two. This is a natural reaction to feeling healthier, patching up things at home, business picking up, and life in general getting better. However, discontinuing the measures that got the lawyer there (twelve-step meetings, therapy, etc.) will all too often allow the disease to reassert itself and start the long slide back into active addiction. The correct reaction to life getting better is to continue doing the things that turned life around, one day at a time.
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.