Why Are Lawyers Afraid To Ask For Help

Not long ago I gave a bar association lunchtime presentation about addiction recovery. As I always do, I spoke about the function and value of the Legal Assistance Program (LAP) in helping lawyers deal with addiction and other mental health issues and get back on track even in the face of immediate consequences for behavior that may run afoul of state bar disciplinary rules.

I related the same talking points that I give lawyers every day who contact me about addiction issues. I urge them not to get caught up in the stigma of the immediate problem versus the inevitable long term consequences of ignoring, hiding or “thinking” (in other words, manipulate) a way out of it. Even in the face of suspension, disbarment, private or public censure, down the road the consequences almost always get exponentially worse beyond career. Deal with it now. Deal with it confidentially. As I gave this advice, I scanned the expressions in the room. Eyes rolled. Arms folded.

After the presentation, a lawyer came up to me snickering. He said he would never use the Lawyers Assistance Program. He was sure it would get out. I asked how he knew that. “Another lawyer told him.” How did that lawyer know that? He was not sure. I asked him if he would walk into court with “a guy told a guy” as his argument. He chuckled and agreed but was still sure it was not confidential. It also seemed that some had no idea that there was an LAP until that moment.

How is this possible? Just the other week, I had coffee with a good friend who works at a major law firm in Dallas. There is a blank stare when I brought up the local LAP. When I described it to him, he said that the last time it had been discussed was an orientation right after he passed the bar years ago. It had not been a topic of discussion at any firm he had worked at since then.

This is the culture of asking for help in the legal profession. Short term stigma. Fear of disclosure and career consequences over long term recovery. Lack of knowledge about recovery resources available beyond maybe AA. Not unusual for a person facing getting sober, but still a barrier. How do we overcome it?

I reached out to someone who is on the front lines of representing lawyers with just such issues. Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami Florida. He primarily represents lawyers who are called before the bar, many of them dealing with addiction issues. He is also the author of the great book, “The Practice, The Brutal Truths About Lawyers and Lawyering”.

What are some of the fears, in your experience lawyers have when it comes to getting help for a substance use?

Other than the fear of admitting to yourself there is a problem, the primary issue I see is lawyers believing that their issue will become public knowledge. It is unfortunate that this fear prevents lawyers from seeking professional help.

Lawyers who work as associates in firms fear their partners will find out and they will lose their jobs, and sole practitioners fear their colleagues as well as current and potential clients will find out.

What I try to explain to lawyers is that they are not the first ones to experience problems with drugs or alcohol, and they would be surprised to know who amongst them has gone down the same road. I hear this when lawyers go to AA or NA meetings and see their colleagues in attendance. Lawyers should also know that privilege is not only between a lawyer and a client, but that professionals in this arena adhere to strict confidentiality.

What are some of the myths lawyers tend to believe in terms of seeking help?

Seeking professional help for an alcohol, drug or gambling issue is the same as a client seeking legal advice. It is confidential. Lawyers who convince themselves that it is not, are often using that as an excuse not to seek help. I can tell you that Lawyers Assistance Programs value their confidentiality with lawyers, and will not even disclose information to the Bar without the lawyer’s consent. The only way I’ve ever learned of a lawyer participating in a Lawyer Assistance Program is because the lawyer made that disclosure to me.

What can the professional as a whole do to lessen the stigma and dispel myths surrounding reaching out of help (as an example, what could law firms be doing better to support lawyers or the LAP’s getting the word down to solos that they even exist)

Much of the stigma is based on the lack of discussion amongst lawyers. Partners and associates will meet to discuss cases and clients and billable hours, but the topic of “is everything okay” is not part of the agenda. I think every law office, private, governmental, corporate, should set aside time to discuss issues of alcohol and drug use. Firms should make it clear that seeking help prior to any issue affecting the practice is going to be met with assistance, and not discipline. Bar Associations, and State Bars should be sending that same message to lawyers who are sole practitioners or in small firms. The fear of disclosure often leads to disaster for the individual lawyer, and the firm. When that fear is dissolved, we will have a healthier and therefore more productive Bar.

There you have it. The true reality is that addiction recovery is not part of the legal culture despite the fact that according to recent studies, problematic drinking clearly is. A recovery culture needs to be integrated from the top down. How do we begin this? Start simple. How difficult is it to bring the local LAP into your firm with a presentation a couple times a year? How difficult is it to bring a lawyer in recovery in to talk about the reality? Do it in place of that law firm happy hour. How difficult is it for local bar associations, especially for young lawyers to pair events with something other than wine tastings and happy hours? Maybe even a recovery event now and then? Time well spent. Culture changes one person at a time.

BrianCubanBrian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. 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 brian@addictedlawyer.com.