Nearly one in five attorneys will personally develop a substance abuse problem of some type. The adverse effects of alcoholism and addiction extend not only to the afflicted attorney and his or her family but also to colleagues, clients and the profession at large.
Although Lawyer Assistance Programs are available in every state, this valuable resource is often overlooked for a number of reasons. The alcoholic or addict is generally in denial and resists help because he or she does not think it is necessary.
The afflicted attorney’s colleagues often do not intervene even though the warning signs of the disease are obvious. For example, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that a substance abuse problem may be at play when an attorney is consistently late for work, takes long lunches, has a hint of alcohol on the breath, misses court dates and appointments with clients. No doubt, the topic is uncomfortable to raise. Furthermore, attorneys can often fit the profile of a Highly Functioning Alcoholic which often leads colleagues to conclude that since the attorney performs at a reasonably high capacity in most instances, there really isn’t a problem. Now we have two people in denial.
In the event that an impaired attorney commits malpractice or an ethical violation, the law firm and individual attorneys may have duties under RPC 5.1.
Those suffering from alcoholism and other addictions can remain in denial for years (especially if the person is high functioning). Even once a problem is admitted, other obstacles to seeking help may exist. First, many attorneys are ultra self reliant. They are accustomed to helping clients and countless others but may not be able to ask for or even accept help for their own problems - especially when it comes to mental health issues. The stigma of alcoholism and drug addiction also can become a barrier to seeking treatment. In addition, it is possible that the person needing help (as well as his or her family or colleagues) may not be aware of the resources that exist.
The ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs is an excellent resource for those seeking additional information.
TSL offers the CLE program IMPAIRED LAWYERS/IMPAIRED PRACTICE to bar associations, law firms and other legal organizations. The session qualifies for one CLE Ethics Credit. Call 609 923 1017 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional details.