The Legal Profession’s 12-Step Problem

When I began my drug and alcohol recovery in 2007, my therapist provided two options, 12-step or residential treatment.  I chose the former and along with therapy have come to lead a self-directed life in recovery achieving what I could not envision on day one.

There is no question that the connections in the 12-step rooms were an important part of my recovery and continue to be.  If I had been given one of the many recovery options we have today, I probably still would have chosen abstinence as the pathway that gave me the best chance of sustained recovery. For me, there was no such thing as a drink without many lines of cocaine and there was no line of cocaine with many drinks. The bottom line, however, is that no-one asked me, they told me. They told me based on what they knew, which was only 12-step.

Even today, I’ve educated my own therapist on things like SMART recovery, harm reduction and the multitude of recovery pathways that didn’t exist when he sent me over to the meeting next door to his office.

It would be easy for me, when a struggling law student or lawyer emails me, to repeat the cycle and say, “get your ass into a meeting” because that is what worked for me.

That is not what I do. I ask what they have tried. I ask what they want to achieve, and what recovery looks like to them. Only then, do I give them resources that if THEY so choose, may an appropriate selection?  I do NOT choose for them. I meet them where they are in the recovery process.

I have lawyers come to me who have been in and out of 12-step for years. It gets worse each time, but the only tool they have is keep coming back, ingrained as the way forward. That may still be the best path for them, but does anyone ask what the person wants? Does anyone ask what the person likes or doesn’t like about the program and address those concerns on a person-centric level, instead of a dogmatic recitation of what they have already heard in the rooms day in and out?

Maybe SMART recovery is something they want to look at? Maybe they should someone about medication-assisted recovery?  Maybe they would rather work a 12-step or peer group recovery online to lessen stigma?  It can be a challenge because in smaller communities there may be no option but 12-step, but that should not translate to a reflexive recommendation. We should still listen.

Maybe it’s none of those, but how do we know if we don’t ask. I ask because it is NOT my recovery and while it’s hard, I must put my implicit bias about what works aside and do what is hard when I am gung-ho to get someone on the path to a better life. I shut up and engage in reflective listening.

I believe, as helpers in the legal profession, we need to do less pushing of vulnerable people into what we think is best and listen to what they want. As a profession high in problem drinking, we have known nothing but 12-step mutual aid since Bill W held his first meeting. We are part of Lawyers Helping Lawyers and Lawyers Assistance Programs. They are wonderful resources and Lawyers Helping Lawyers or the run of the mill rooms may be the best solution. We still should not close our eyes to other pathways to a better life.

As helpers in a profession with crisis levels of problem drinking, we must be willing to put aside our recovery bias, step back and look at the bigger picture. We need to be recovery inclusive to all lawyers, not just those who 12-step is appropriate for. Bill W himself was vocal about multiple pathways. We know his quotes and recite them but its time to truly open ourselves up to the vast possibilities of recovery

And to answer the visceral response that I must be “anti-12-step”. You are dead wrong. I am pro-recovery and that means all pathways to recovery, 12-step included.

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