August 03, 2018

Solutions for addicted attorneys must start in law school, recovering lawyer says

Lawyer Brian Cuban attributes the beginning of his long descent into alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders and depression to what he calls “The Day of the Gold Pants.”

This was the time in the 70s when Cuban proudly wore to school the Saturday Night Fever-inspired shiny gold pants that his brother gave him. On the way home, a group of kids started making fun of him, then tore the pants off him, leaving him to walk the rest of the way home in his underwear. He never told anyone about the incident, but it precipitated the self-loathing that led to behaviors to block out the shame and trauma from it.

Cuban spoke on Friday at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago at a Young Lawyers Division-sponsored program called “Lessons from The Addicted Lawyer – A Conversation with Brian Cuban.”

“Already broken,” he started at Penn State and realized he could finally get thinner by restricting his food intake and by 1979 had a full-blown eating disorder. He added excessive exercise to his already destructive routine of binging and purging and alcohol consumption.

Deciding to go to law school because it would allow him to continue his self-destructive behaviors, he barely got through and decided to make a new start by joining his brother Mark in Dallas upon graduation. “It was like throwing gasoline on a fire,” he said.

Soon enough, Cuban discovered that cocaine allowed him to love the person looking back at him in the mirror and be convinced that everyone else loved him, too.

“I had to have that feeling again and again and again,” he says, and became psychologically addicted before physical dependence set in.

After failing the Texas bar exam twice, he passed on the third try and started working as a self-described “ambulance chaser” who was walking an ethical line.

Three failed marriages were followed by suicidal depression at age 44 that precipitated a stay at a psychiatric facility.

Looking back, Cuban sees that his behavior was an attempt to make sure “no one sees the real you” and that he couldn’t afford to be vulnerable.

In June 2006, the Dallas Mavericks were in the NBA finals, and Cuban’s brother, Mark, the owner of the team, gave him two tickets for friends, which he promptly traded to his drug dealer for $1,000 worth of cocaine. By then he was long past that first high in 1987 and “it was just pain and shame and chasing these highs that were never coming again.” In a burst of paranoia, he flushed the cocaine down the toilet, then made the same trade for the next night’s game.

That same year, Cuban started dating a woman. After a two-day alcohol and drug-induced blackout while she was away, he agreed to go to back to the psychiatric facility. There he realized he had to recover for himself, not for her or anyone else, and stopped lying. (They dated for 10 years and have been married for two.)

In April 2007 he attended his first 12-step meeting and realized that sitting in that meeting would increase his chances of waking up the next day and loving himself without substances. “I was willing to take that chance,” he says. He has been sober and drug-free ever since.

Responding of how the legal profession can support its members in need, Cuban, who has written two books on the topic, including “The Addicted Lawyer,” and speaks frequently on the topic, said, “It can’t start at the bar, it has to start in law school.”

“Everyone brings the baggage of their life through the law school door, just as I did,” he says. “I have talked to law students and lawyers where I am the first person they ever told about physical abuse, sexual abuse, all kinds of things.”

He advocates putting processes in place to “empower students to not feel that they have to live with that baggage.” He applauds law schools that have on-staff counselors, but also recommends setting up committees on wellness, so students are not afraid to divulge their issues.

Although it’s been estimated that 1 in 8 Americans is an alcoholic, among lawyers the number of “problem drinkers” is 1 in 3, and that means “we have to take charge,” Cuban said.

“On a human level, the gift of empathy,” and the offer of help can go a long way he said. “Let’s all try to use that gift a little bit more.”

Suffering, too? You’re not alone

A 2016 landmark study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs reveals substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems in the U.S. legal profession.

The study reports that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. The study found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems.

The findings of the national study, the most comprehensive ever, represent a reversal of previous research that indicated rates of problem drinking increased as individuals spent more time in the legal profession. When focusing solely on the volume and frequency of alcohol consumed, more than 1 in 3 practicing attorneys are problem drinkers, the study found.

Attorney and clinician Patrick R. Krill, Hazelden’s architect of the project and lead author of the study, said the findings are a call to action.

“This long-overdue study clearly validates the widely held but empirically undersupported view that our profession faces truly significant challenges related to attorney well-being,” Krill said. “Any way you look at it, this data is very alarming, and paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people. Attorney impairment poses risks to the struggling individuals themselves and to our communities, government, economy and society. The stakes are too high for inaction.”

In a feature story in the ABA’s member newsletter, YourABA, Krill and Linda Albert, a representative of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, shared some of the signs that indicate when a colleague needs help and what to do about it.

It can be difficult to identify a person who needs help, said Albert. However, some signs and symptoms to watch for include:

  • A person's behavior changes, he starts coming in late to the office or leaving early.
  • Her work product changes, she decreases production or the quality of her work suffers.
  • He isolates, stop attending work-related functions or communicating with colleagues.
  • She has noticeable mood changes with irritability or apathy.
  • In later stages of problems with alcohol he may come to work smelling of alcohol.
  • When asked if there are problems, she avoids the question or insists nothing has changed.

What to do about it? “We always encourage colleagues to ‘Do something,’” said Albert. “Express to the person that they don’t look well or seem quite right and ask if they need any help or assistance. Call the local lawyers assistance program and they will guide you on the best way to reach out to the person for the best outcome.”

According to Krill, when approaching a colleague about an issue like this, steps should be taken to maximize an environment of dignity, respect, confidentiality, support and empathy. “Accusations, threats and public confrontations are not the appropriate starting point for such a conversation,” he said. “The situation could very well escalate to the point where it is necessary for a firm or lawyer to exercise the leverage that they have to compel a colleague to seek help, but you shouldn’t begin the dialogue with an ultimatum. If you are unsure or uncomfortable with how to approach these issues, reach out and get some advice from a professional.  It will be well worth your time.”

For an ABA directory and contact information for lawyer assistance programs, organized by state, click here.