In The Solution
How to Help an Impaired Colleague

By Meloney C. Crawford

For many people, events such as divorce or the death of a loved one can cause upheaval in a life that had been running on a steady and uneventful course. A single event may start a plunge into depression or anxiety or result in alcoholism or chemical dependence. When these crises happen to lawyers, errors in judgment resulting from impaired thinking can create an avalanche of consequences affecting their careers and the well-being of their clients—and sometimes ending their lives.

The demands of legal practice, ranging from difficult clients to shrinking revenues, make lawyers particularly sensitive to these “bumps in the road.” Studies have shown that the prevalence of alcoholism in the legal profession is nearly twice that of the general population, and studies from Washington and North Carolina indicate that 19 to 37 percent of lawyers suffer from depression, with 25 percent of them experiencing physical symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Unfortunately, the traits that help make effective lawyers—an ability to argue and see all sides of an issue, and the need to be right—also allow for greater levels of denial, and the practice of law provides some attorneys with support staff and financial resources to accommodate their addiction. When lawyers are unable or unwilling to help themselves, it remains for friends and colleagues to provide aid and assistance, but that frequently does not happen. Is it lack of compassion or failure to recognize an ethical duty? When talking about helping impaired colleagues, comments from other lawyers range from “It’s none of my business” and “I wouldn’t know what to look for” to “I wouldn’t want to cause trouble for a colleague.” Ironically, many lawyers who are ordinarily articulate hesitate to reach out to a struggling lawyer because they are not sure what to say.

Reevaluating our stereotypes and misconceptions about impairment in the legal profession is a first step toward getting troubled lawyers the help they need. In addition to the extreme example of a lawyer who staggers or passes out in the courtroom, the impaired lawyer may be a new lawyer who has been feeling sad and tired for some time and has stopped socializing with his peers. Although he never misses important appointments, he finds it difficult to concentrate and dreads hearing the phone ring. The impaired lawyer may be the one who wins an important trial, goes out to have a few drinks with her friends to celebrate, and plays video poker because she feels lucky; she wins $60, then loses her next few bets, but stays late and bets more, trying to catch up. It may be the partner who returns from lunch and logs on to the Internet to surf a few porn sites and chat rooms, losing more than an hour when he initially planned on a short break. The impaired lawyer may be a senior attorney who is becoming increasingly forgetful about details and names, while insisting that he can still carry a full case load.

The average lawyer is uniquely positioned to help a colleague without becoming an expert diagnostician, simply by relying on common sense to determine when to express concern to a friend or colleague if something seems wrong. At a time when many lawyers complain about the loss of civility in the profession, we can all take action on an individual level. Don’t over think the approach or try to mimic the staged interventions on television. A casual chat over coffee is often more effective than a formal lunch.

If you are uncertain how to start the conversation, you can use this formula: “Sandwich” your concerns between two statements that express your care for your friend. Use specific examples of the behavior that worries you. Has your friend been drinking more than usual? Does he or she seem down, withdrawn, or depressed? Be willing to listen and avoid judgment, generalizations, or accusations. End with reassurance and a suggestion that you will be available to help. Make a plan and follow up.

The conversation might go something like this:

You: “Anne, I’m glad we could get together. It seems like lately I don’t see you very much. There was a meeting of the Diversity Committee last week, and I was surprised you weren’t there—you’re passionate about that issue.”

Anne: “I was at my office late, trying to get caught up. It seems like I never can.”

You: “It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed. Has anything changed at the office?”

Anne: “Not really. My assistant is great, but I’m not sleeping well and I just can’t focus on work the way I used to. I promised a client that I’d get back to him on a matter last week, and he called again today asking about it. I feel terrible.”

You: “I don’t blame you. It sounds like this might be something you can’t get over by yourself. Let me help. I know a counselor who works with a psychiatrist. . . .”

What if the conversation becomes more complicated? Some people may respond with anger or denial. Stay calm and be clear about how their behavior has changed over time and the problems it has created—specifically, how it has affected their work, their health, or their relationships. Resist lending money as a simple solution: Many addicts and gamblers will only use loans to continue their use.

Alternatively, your friend may share that he has been so depressed lately that he has thought about suicide, or that she doesn’t know what to do but has been the victim of domestic violence. Do not try to handle a crisis situation on your own, but take steps to make sure your friend is safe and have him or her agree to get professional help. Make the call for your colleague, if necessary.

Maybe this seems like more than you can handle, or maybe you are not particularly close to the troubled lawyer. Perhaps your professional relationship at the moment makes it inappropriate to approach him or her at this time. You can still help.

Most states now have some form of lawyer assistance program, and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP; www.abanet.org/legalservices/colap) can help you locate one near you while providing a host of resources, including a national help line for lawyers (866/LAW-LAPS) and a separate help line for judges helping judges (800/219-6474). Lawyer assistance programs provide free and professional assistance—including assessment and referral—for lawyers experiencing impairment from addiction or mental health issues. Most, but not all, LAPs are completely confidential and assured by statute. You can find out the confidentiality of the LAP in your state by calling it. Generally, you can call to discuss your concerns about an impaired lawyer without placing the lawyer in jeopardy of being reported to discipline. You can even choose to remain anonymous. In addition, many states now provide coordinating law practice management advisors who assist with the “nuts-and-bolts” issues that impaired lawyers may have, including finding someone to take over cases or seeing that client files are returned to clients.

The impaired lawyer does not have to remain hidden or ignored. Impairment becomes progressively worse without outside help, but recovery is possible for those who receive treatment, saving careers and lives. A moment of your compassion and concern can open an avenue of hope for an impaired lawyer.


  • Meloney C. Crawford, JD, CADC III, NADC II, is an attorney counselor with the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program; she may be reached at meloneyc@oaap.org.

    Copyright 2010

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