When Your Colleague Is in Big Trouble

By Andrew J. Rothermel

Addiction touches on every different aspect of society—family, the criminal justice system, health care, and of course, work. We see the stories on television and read about them on the Internet, but it’s a very different experience when it hits home for someone you love or someone you rely on.

In this article, we’ll address how to help spot the signs of alcoholism and drug addiction in your legal colleagues and how you can appropriately help.

Addiction or Substance Abuse?

It is important to understand the differences between substance abuse and addiction. Addiction is a chronic disease such as diabetes and hypertension. It is not drinking too much on a couple of isolated occasions—even if there are negative consequences—or getting tipsy when you go out for drinks with colleagues after work.

In fact, addiction is defined as a pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress occurring at any time in the same 12-month period. To be diagnosed as an addict, a person needs to exhibit signs such as using increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication, taking the substance to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms, or trying to cut down or control substance use with little results.

What Does Alcoholism Look Like in the Workplace?

Alcoholism and drug addiction are often visible in the form of inappropriate behavior that you wouldn’t typically associate with your otherwise professional colleague. The disease has likely progressed if it is showing up at the office and affecting the quality of your colleague’s work. There are specific guidelines that help identify impaired professionals. You will need to look for a pattern of negative consequences established over time.

For example, does your colleague always order alcohol even when others are not drinking? Once they start drinking, do they seem to have a difficult time stopping? Lawyers now in recovery from addiction speak of having taken extended drinking lunches even when they were scheduled for court appearances or appointments with clients.

Pay attention to whether you or your other colleagues find yourself making excuses for this person. If this is the case, you are not helping but only enabling him or her to continue with the addiction.

Characteristics of Lawyers and High-Performing Professionals

Many people mistakenly believe that if someone is high functioning, shows traits associated with success, and appears outwardly healthy that he or she couldn’t be an addict. However, this is an unfortunate and dangerous misperception. Alcoholics and addicts come from all walks of life—including talented, high-achieving, “Type A” personalities often found in the legal profession. In fact, lawyers may exhibit certain characteristics that, although an asset to their profession, can actually become a liability to them in terms of developing an addiction.

A lawyer who is driven and ambitious may move up the corporate ladder more easily than others. However, this characteristic also sets the stage for imbalance, poor self-care habits, and the potential to “work hard and play hard.” Likewise, a lawyer who is independent and autonomous may be a whiz at multitasking and extremely creative. However, because there is little need to supervise such a lawyer, dangerous behavior may go unnoticed—leaving the opportunity for substance abuse without fear of being confronted. Finally, lawyers in positions of authority may leave others feeling intimated about confronting them.

The more you understand how the characteristics of addiction may manifest themselves in a high-functioning professional, the more easily you can take the right steps to find help for your colleague.

The Dos and Don’ts of Helping a Colleague

Now that you’ve learned about what addiction may look like in the workplace, review the following case study to determine what you would do in this instance. Then—once you’ve selected an answer—see our suggestions for dos and don’ts of what to do next.

Your firm has just won a huge case, and a group of you are going out to celebrate. Mona gets an early start on the party and is in high gear by the time the rest of you arrive. Over the course of the evening, Mona gets louder, bolder, and more difficult to manage.

Everyone just rolls their eyes remembering last year’s Christmas party when Mona was table dancing by the end of the evening. You are embarrassed for her but don’t want to be a wet blanket. You could:

  1. Call Mona’s husband to pick her up before things get out of hand.
  2. Confront Mona at the party and tell her to get a grip.
  3. Talk to Mona the next day and express your concern about her behavior and its consequences when she drinks.
  4. Say nothing, it’s none of your business.

Clinicians at Caron Treatment Centers would say the correct answer is C: Talk honestly and candidly in a private space with Mona or employ an objective third party or a professional interventionist to help ensure that she is treated fairly and offered appropriate alternatives. Describe the behavior that concerns you while avoiding passing moral judgment. You can also offer options for help such as a referral to a therapist or a suggestion to speak with an advocate from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (

It’s important that you don’t “look the other way.” Addiction is not just a personal issue; it’s a community problem and a problem for your firm. If efforts to speak with your colleague do not render results, take the next step and speak with your supervisor or a senior member of your firm.

Likewise, don’t enable your colleague. This includes covering up, picking up extra work, concealing poor work performance, loaning money, or generally protecting the addict from the consequences of substance abuse.

Don’t accept excuses or take “no” for an answer. Left untreated, addiction will not go away; it will only get worse and could extensively damage your colleague’s career or even life, and it could create civil liability for your firm.

Andrew J. Rothermel is an executive vice president and chief financial officer at Caron Treatment Centers, a leading addiction treatment center based in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. For more information, please visit or call 800-678-2332.

Copyright 2009

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