Volume 18, Number 5
Repairing Lawyers at Risk
Jennifer J. Rose
The legal profession attracts only the best and brightest-every law student a former class president, valedictorian, or captain of the soccer team-movers and shakers or, at the very least, wannabes. Like gunslingers of the Old West or medieval knights, we are compelled to succeed at any cost; to best one another, denying any frailties, shortcomings, or just plain bad feelings. As we charge ahead, a goodly lot of lawyers fall prey to demons of impairment. Sometimes, that impairment takes the form of drink, drugs, or compulsive behavior; and sometimes it simply grows from within. Whether heredity, stress, or poor choice of friends is to blame doesn't really matter. What does matter is that impairment affects lawyers at rates substantially higher than those of the general population.
There's a certain romanticism about lawyers who abuse substances. Who would've rooted for Paul Newman's character in The Verdict if he'd been a teetotaler? Hunter S. Thompson's 300-pound Samoan lawyer in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, traipsing around with him in a convertible stuffed with every drug known to mankind, created a popular glamour just as much as the white-haired senior partner gracing a Dewar's ad. Even crazy and obsessive lawyers have their peculiar and perverse allure. How many times have you heard someone say, with a sense of awe, "He never sobered up, but he was one a hell of a litigator"?
Things are finally changing, but until recently, real-life lawyers learned quickly to remain mute about certain delicate issues. Mental illness and compulsive behaviors remained dark secrets lest practices and reputations suffer. Impaired lawyers muddled through their lives, frequently wreaking havoc upon others, just because a whisper for help boded weakness. The standard-bearers for truth, justice, and the American way have had to remain strong at all times, even if that strength is spelled D-E-N-I-A-L.
A law student who shows up in class clad in a three-piece suit, toting a briefcase containing only lunch but pretending to be clerking at the toniest downtown law firm. The ultra-hip lawyer who cuts coke with a bar card. A lawyer who is unable to make it through the day without crying between client appointments, putting on a strong face only when compelled. A lawyer who fails to file tax returns because she doesn't have any money after ignoring her clients' cases. These lawyers are real people who were impaired, who were disciplined, and who could've been helped by the organized bar. Each was a good lawyer, too.
I can remember one of my own law school ethics classes back in 1975, which consisted of a lecture by the bar ethics counsel on the evils of marijuana and a disbarred lawyer's tale of how demon rum caused him to steal from clients. Not a single word was uttered about mental health, seeking help, or even impairment. Some of us went out right afterward and got stoned, drunk, or both.
Lawyer impairment has been around as long as lawyers have existed as a profession. The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous started out in 1935, but broad recognition of impairment as something more than a lifestyle choice among lawyers has come about only during the past two decades-around the time it was discovered that lawyers were human beings. Instead of simply ignoring the problem or whisking away the offenders from the landscape, the organized bar now meets the issue head-on with a number of solutions, including education, prevention, rehabilitation, and support.
No other issue of GPSolo has been such a pleasure to produce as this one. Our Issue Editor, Connecticut solo Karen Renzulli Lynch, spearheaded this issue with finesse and elan. Not only did authors submit articles ahead of time, but they also thanked us for asking them to write! With support from the ABA copyrights department, we figured out a way to publish a copyright notice with each article that will make it easier for institutions of higher learning or nonprofit organizations to reprint the articles for informational, non-commercial purposes. The support from the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, as well as by ABA President Martha Barnett, has been simply incredible.
John W. Clark, Jr., past chair of the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division (1995-1996), the kind of lawyer who speaks his conscience, sparked GPSolo's editorial board into producing this issue focusing upon lawyer impairment. John's sobriety has given many others, including me, the strength, example, and encouragement to acknowledge substance abuse. We owe you, John.
Almost one in four of GPSolo's readers will recognize himself or herself in this issue. Every reader will recognize a partner, associate, colleague, client, family member, friend, or judge in this issue. Please don't be selfish with this issue of GPSolo
jennifer j. rose, editor-in-chief of GPSolo, is a lawyer and writer living in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. She can be reached at email@example.com. ving in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.