General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 7
October/November 2000

In the Solution

GPSolo proudly presents a new standing column, "In the Solution," focusing upon lawyers’ experiences with substance abuse, mental health, stress, and quality of-life issues. For more information, please call the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs at 312/988-5359.

Return to Self-Esteem

By Myer J. (Michael) Cohen

Although chemical dependency is not a moral or ethical deficiency, it is a disease that erodes individual values, giving it the appearance of a moral failing. This disintegration of ethical values is especially devastating when the person affected is a lawyer or other professional to whom the public looks as an example.

In my own case, a 23-year history of dependence on drugs and alcohol led to the loss of my material possessions, my marriage, my family and friends, my ability to practice law, and finally my license. I wish I could say that I woke up one day, realized I had a drug problem, and got help, but the truth is that as long as I was practicing law, I was able to tell myself I was fine. Such denial is a typical symptom of this disease. In 1986 I was arrested for a major felony committed as a result of my addiction. At that point, I had no place left to run and no way to deny I had a drug problem.

I entered inpatient chemical dependency treatment in May 1986 and spent the next six months in that setting. While in treatment, I was introduced to the two cornerstones of my recovery, a 12-step program and the lawyer assistance program. Utilizing the tools and support I’ve been given by these programs, I haven’t found it necessary to use a mood altering substance for more than 14 years.

Why Us?

Having been involved with the recovering (and non-recovering) legal community during that time, I have seen a number of factors that seem to encourage the progression of chemical dependency among our brothers and sisters. Historically, our profession accepts the use of alcohol to celebrate a win or lament a loss (there is a story that Daniel Webster always kept a carafe of wine at his elbow when arguing to the U.S. Supreme Court). We are often in a highly stressed environment, dealing with the emotional roller coaster of trial work, client contact, filing deadlines, and other lawyers who seem to be increasingly less civil to one another.

Finally, even after it is recognized that a lawyer has a drug or alcohol problem, partners, associates, and family members may ignore or avoid the problem, either due to their lack of knowledge about how to help or through a desire not to "lose" a valuable member of the firm or family. The irony is that unless the addict/alcoholic receives help, the loss is not only possible but certain.

Lawyers have been called the most difficult professionals to treat. Through the course of our disease, we utilize our own advocacy skills to convince ourselves and others that we do not have a problem. If and when we do go into treatment, we use those same skills on the treatment team to try and convince them that we’re really not that bad.

In the course of my addiction, my professional standing was the last thing to go. As long as I put on a suit and showed up for court every day (albeit later and later), I could convince myself that things really weren’t falling apart. From my current vantage point, I can see that my professional capacity had been steadily diminishing. I had been losing clients, missing deadlines and court dates, and experiencing severe financial problems that no doubt would eventually have led to trust account violations had I not been arrested. I had lost my family, friends, and associates, and had been asked to leave my office due to my inability to pay the rent. Although a number of us follow this same path, most of us are not ready to admit that we are addicts or alcoholics until we reach the point of arrest or disciplinary action.

Help Is Available

However, once I reached the point where I could no longer deny my problem, I found that help was available. While still in treatment, I became involved with the lawyer assistance program, helping to start two lawyer support groups. These are weekly meetings where recovering lawyers (or lawyers who want to find out more about this "recovery stuff") meet to air out the problems they are encountering both professionally and in maintaining their sobriety. There is a tremendous amount of experience at these meetings; the length of sobriety of the group’s members can range from more than 20 years to less than a week.

It’s a great comfort and source of strength to be able to talk about what’s been going on during the past week and get back advice, support, and practical experience from other lawyers. The most important thing the lawyer assistance program gave me was the knowledge that I was not alone, and that there were other members of my profession who had the same problem, met it, and were overcoming it one day at a time.

Initially, the lawyer assistance program is often perceived by lawyers as threatening and adversarial. One of the symptoms of this disease is a sense of entitlement and the belief that no authority should be able to infringe on our "rights." The perception that we are entitled to practice law, rather than that we have the privilege to practice, is alcoholic thinking. The truth is that the lawyer assistance program may become adversarial only if a lawyer continues to cause harm to himself or herself, the lawyer’s partners, or the lawyer’s clients, refuses to take the recommended steps toward recovery, or is not in compliance with a rehabilitation contract––in which case it may well be that he or she should not be practicing law.

However, for a lawyer that is following the recommendations and is in compliance with his rehabilitation contract, the lawyer assistance program becomes not a sword but a shield. In my case, without the advocacy of the lawyer assistance program, I would likely have been disbarred for my offense, rather than receiving the suspension I did. My reinstatement in Massachusetts and later admission in Florida would likewise have been impossible without the recommendation of the lawyer assistance program, supported by monitor reports, negative urinalysis tests, and personal perceptions of my attorney monitor and other recovering lawyers. I have also learned that even in recovery, there may be instances where, based on my previous history, allegations of impairment may be raised before a court or disciplinary agency. In such cases, a documented record of recovery is the best defense.

Giving Back

Finally, the lawyer assistance program gives me a chance to give back to members of my profession, both recovering and non-recovering, what I have been given. It allows me a vehicle in which to act as a "recovery advocate," arguing for continued funding for professional support programs, community-based treatment programs, employee assistance programs, and similar plans. When the bar is questioned regarding the effectiveness of lawyer assistance programs, I believe that I and other recovering lawyers are the best argument that can be made.

As a result of my recovery, I have achieved a return of my self-esteem and ethical values; have developed (perhaps for the first time) an ability to handle life and professional stress; and have been blessed by the reintegration of my family, friends, colleagues, and clients into my life.

No one says recovery is easy. During the past 14 years, I have lost and regained my license to practice, went to jail for the crime I committed in 1986, have experienced the deaths of friends and family members, have gone through a divorce, and have dealt with two other potentially terminal illnesses. That’s life. Recovery doesn’t guarantee that if you put down the drugs and alcohol, all your cases will settle, you’ll hit the lottery, and marry a rich, beautiful spouse. It does guarantee that no matter what life hands you, you will be able to get through it without resorting to your old habits, and that if you don’t succumb, things will get better. That’s a guarantee I can vouch for.

Myer J. (Michael) Cohen was a practicing attorney in Boston until, in May of 1986, he was arrested for attempting to bring drugs to a client in jail. As a result of his arrest and subsequent plea of guilty, Mr. Cohen was incarcerated and indefinitely suspended by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Immediately after his arrest, he entered chemical dependency treatment in Miami, Florida, and joined Florida Lawyers Assistance (FLA). His license was reinstated in Massachusetts in 1992 and he was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1994. He became assistant director of FLA in 1994 and was named to his current position of executive director in 1995.

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