Volume 19, Number 7
October/November 2002


Identifying the Alcoholic Client

By Nancy C. Wear

Of the many ways to lose a client, probably none is more effective than telling the person "You are an alcoholic"; "You have a problem with liquor"; or "You got arrested because you were drunk."
Because many, many people abuse alcohol, you are bound to meet some of them in your practice. If you do not learn to identify, assess, and advise the client who is a problem drinker and may be an alcoholic, you cannot adequately serve that client-and may unwittingly do further harm. Identifying the problem drinker doesn't require a medical diagnosis of "alcoholism." If you know the symptoms, you can effectively represent the client but leave the medical or psychological fine-tuning to others.
Drunk-driving defense is one obvious category in which attorneys expect clients to have persistent alcohol-related legal problems. Because many indicators of alcoholism formally documented in DUI cases also are present in other cases, examining the drunk-driving client in some detail can teach us a lot.
Keep in mind that a first-time arrest for DUI can involve both the rare or infrequent drinker as well as the alcoholic. The circumstances of the arrest reveal a good deal about the client's real situation with alcohol.
o Tests: A high breath or blood-alcohol reading without many outward signs of intoxication is a reliable indicator that your client is not a neophyte drinker. A blood or breath reading of .20 combined with an ability to walk a straight line or touch a finger to the nose should raise a flag. Habitual users not only develop a high tolerance for alcohol (it takes more booze to get a buzz) but also teach themselves to function superficially well after a substantial quantity of liquor.
o Facts: The when/where/how of the event can tell you a lot. Be wary of the following: a one-car crash, the arrest of a high-income person coming from a low-income tavern, bar-hopping on a weeknight, a daytime DUI arrest, having been denied service in a bar or ejected from the premises.
o Behavior: Did the offender respond with violent threats or actions toward the arresting officers, rescue workers, or a companion or spouse?
Sure, there may be innocent explanations for all these circumstances. But they are highly atypical for nonalcoholics.
A prior arrest for drunk driving is a persuasive indicator that the client is an alcoholic, but a prior conviction, in view of most states' recently toughened drunk-driving laws, should convince you that your client is at least an alcohol abuser. The cost, inconvenience, and embarrassment of a drunk-driving conviction are now so onerous that a casual drinker would never voluntarily repeat the experience. Penalties include pre- and post-conviction license suspensions, heavy fines, mandatory probation and jail terms, many community service hours, expensive alcohol counseling, and a permanent criminal record. Who but an alcoholic would risk a second DUI arrest?

What Can You Do?
If any of these circumstances fit your client, the time to act is now. Tell the client, even as early as the initial interview, you suspect he or she is an alcoholic. An attorney's suggestions are often heard where the pleas of parents, friends, and spouses have been ignored. Be aware of your power, but exercise it judiciously. Facts about alcoholism and its progression, combined with candor in explaining the disease, options for treatment, and consequences if the problem is not addressed, are tools you can use effectively even if the client appears to be in complete denial. Your neutrality is an asset; unlike a spouse or other family member, you are not interested in eliciting remorse ("I promise not to do it again") or an admission from the client ("I am an alcoholic"). Nor are you preoccupied with the "morality" or "immorality" of alcohol use or abuse; you want to win the case for the client, or at least to lessen the scope and extent of negative consequences.
Recommend an evaluation by professionals at a hospital or a treatment center. You can provide a brief list, with phone numbers and addresses, for those in your locale. If such an evaluation (which may take hours or days) is not economically feasible or not an option for some other valid reason, give the client the local telephone number for Alcoholics Anonymous (listed in the white pages of your phone book). Almost all treatment programs will introduce participants to AA and its 12-step program as well.
It's also a good idea to keep on hand a few copies of a current list of days, times, and locations of AA meetings to give the client; these are available at most AA meeting locations. If you can, help the client select a convenient meeting to attend that very day. You can't guarantee that the client will actually do it, but concrete suggestions are more likely to be followed than vague exhortations to "get help."
Some clients, even those who admit their powerlessness over alcohol, may be resistant to suggestions about treatment. Start by pointing out that any positive pretrial action the client actually takes is likely to have a favorable effect on the judge. And clear eyes and steady hands can go a long way with a jury. Some lawyers even make adherence to a treatment plan a condition of continuing the representation.

Acting "As If"
In most cases, however, it is unnecessary for you to break through the client's denial-keeping the client alive, out of jail, not rearrested, and employed so your fee is paid is quite a lot. It is enough for the client to follow your directions, even without feeling or expressing enthusiasm for them. At this point, you want the client to act "as if" she really wanted to get sober, whatever her inner feelings may be.
Acting as if happens to fit the goals of treatment very well and lets you concentrate on the legal work, maintain boundaries with the client's life, and minimize your disappointment if the client does not escape consequences that can include probation, fines, license suspension, unemployment, and prison. On the other hand, a client who does embrace recovery can help you mount the most effective legal case, although you may get no credit for this improved situation and its accompanying feeling of well-being.
Drunk-driving defense is only the most obvious area of legal practice where you should and frequently can recognize alcohol as a major factor in the client's life. Alcohol often is a central feature in family law cases, where either or both of the parties may abuse alcohol or other substances, affecting the entire family. And no one knows for sure how many bankruptcies, breaches of contract, or torts unrelated to auto accidents happen as a result of someone's alcohol abuse.
Representing an alcoholic client requires you to do your best to assess the client's involvement with this legal but often lethal drug. A client's acknowledgment that "I am an alcoholic" may have no long-term validity and is unnecessary to your effective advocacy, but your evaluation and recommendation for treatment could save your client's life.

Nancy C. Wear is a sole practitioner based in Coral Gables, Florida. A former prosecutor and police officer, she is a specialist in criminal and civil appeals and can be reached at ncwear@earthlink.net.

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