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Betty Ford and the Challenge to Our IP Profession

By Scott F. Partridge

©2017. Published in Landslide, Vol. 10, No. 2, November/December 2017, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

First Lady Betty Ford once said, “My makeup wasn’t smeared, I wasn’t disheveled, I behaved politely, and I never finished off a bottle, so how could I be an alcoholic?”

For years legal professionals have denied that a problem exists in our midst. Yet the numbers tell a different story. The ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) in conjunction with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation facilitated national research on lawyer impairment. The results of this groundbreaking study reveal the prevalence of substance abuse and mental health issues among US lawyers, judges, and law students.1

The study reports that:

  • 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers;
  • 28 percent struggle with some level of depression;
  • 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety;
  • 11.5 percent have suicidal thoughts at some time during their career; and
  • younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems.

Participating in the study were:

  • a sampling of 12,825 employed, licensed attorneys;
  • 15 state bar associations; and
  • two of the largest counties in one of those states.

Despite the general denial within the legal profession, the results of this study confirm a widely held belief, supported by ample proof, that our profession is in a crisis and our mental well-being is under assault.

Impaired attorneys in all practice areas present a risk, not only to lawyers themselves, but also to their clients, their families, and society as a whole. The untreated impaired lawyer is like a loaded gun cocked and waiting to be fired. Those of us in intellectual property (IP) law can no longer turn a blind eye to the effects and consequences of substance abuse and mental health issues within our own profession. It might be easy for IP lawyers to think it’s the “other” ones, criminal litigators or overworked solo attorneys. But it can and does happen to us, and the price we all pay for inaction is just too high.

In a July 2017 article published in the New York Times, the ex-wife of a successful big law firm attorney recounts her shock at finding her ex-husband on the floor of his bathroom, with his head on a cardboard box.2 All the terrible evidence was there: bloodied tissues, a tourniquet, half-filled syringes, a spoon, a lighter, crushed pills, a bag of white powder, and empty pill bottles. Peter, a patent attorney in the Silicon Valley firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, died a drug addict. His hard work and years of success ended with him being remembered as an intravenous drug user.

How do we prevent these tragedies? How do we catch them in time?

We have started the process of addressing those issues in our Section. This year, we have a new Substance Abuse and Mental Health Committee led by Jeff Kuester and Francine Ward, both experts in this area. Jeff and Francine will be presenting our first program on substance abuse and mental health issues at our Midyear Meeting in Vancouver on February 3, 2018, with a possible follow-up program at our spring conference in April.

We encourage you to join this committee to lend your voices, support, and participation. You can sign up immediately at or contact any one of us directly. This is a big deal, and with your help we are up to the challenge!


1. Patrick R. Krill et al., The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med. 46 (2016).

2. Eilene Zimmerman, The Lawyer, the Addict, N.Y. Times, July 15, 2017,

Scott F. Partridge is chair of the ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law. He is a partner at Baker Botts LLP in Houston, Texas. He specializes in patent, trade secret, and licensing litigation and client counseling in all areas of intellectual property law.


With appreciation to Francine Ward for her contribution to this article.