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Bar News - July 6, 2007

Work-Life Balance: Should You Intervene to Help a Colleague in Trouble?


Your colleague came in late today, again. Yesterday he left the office early.  He has missed some court appearances during the past six months, including two in the last month.  You are worried and you wonder if he has a problem with alcohol, since you frequently see his car outside the bar down the street.  What do you do?


You have three options: one, you can do nothing; two, you can try to talk to him about your concerns; or three, you can enlist the help of a third party to intervene on your behalf. 


The word “intervention” means “to come in or between by way of hindrance or modification,” according to Merriam-Webster.  The idea is that you are acting to affect the behavior of another person, a behavior you believe is adversely affecting him or her personally, professionally, or in both ways. 


The purpose of this article is not to advise you on whether or not to intervene, but to provide information about intervention as a possible way to help a colleague who appears to be troubled and struggling with substance abuse.


First, it’s helpful to note that this is not an issue of imposing your morals on another, but whether there are adverse consequences as a result of someone’s drug or alcohol use or other behavior. “While some people debate the definition of alcoholism, there is a simple way to think about it,” explains  Stephanie Marshall, of Resource Management Consultants, Inc., an Employee Assistance Program that works with the NH Bar Association and other NH businesses. “Alcohol abuse means that someone continues to use alcohol in spite of negative consequences to health, relationships or work,”


How do you know if a colleague is impaired?  There are common warning signs:


  • Declining work performance.
  • Erratic productivity.
  • Missing filing deadlines and court appearances, and repeatedly requesting continuances.
  • Not returning phone calls or responding to correspondence.
  • Mood changes such as irritability or angry outbursts.
  • High tolerance for alcohol.
  • Patterns of absence from work.
  • Smelling like alcohol (perhaps from consuming alcohol the previous night).
  • Drinking excessively at work/social functions.
  • Legal consequences, such as a Driving Under the Influence conviction, drug conviction, and/or loss of a driving license.


There are no hard and fast rules for a layperson to observe in determining whether someone has a problem with alcohol or drugs, but the behaviors listed above certainly may be symptomatic.  And while the scenario beginning this article features a man, there is a high incidence of abuse among women as well. 


The societal and professional sanctioning of alcohol use at some work functions can further muddy the waters.  Alcohol and drugs may be used to decrease stress, to help people relax, to make them feel good for awhile, or to momentarily escape their troubles.  Such use may not always be problematic. 


The negative effects of substance abuse may vary.  “Alcohol abuse can be a slow decline, and not as precipitous as cocaine or other drugs, where you go to the mat fast,” notes Hon. John Maher, the retired Probate Court Administrative Judge who founded Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a support group for NH lawyers struggling with alcohol or drug abuse problems.


Courses of Action


If you do nothing about your errant colleague, there may be no consequences that affect you, or that you are aware of, at any rate.  And doing nothing may be entirely appropriate given your relationship with the person and the gravity of your concerns.  But consider that you may be enabling someone in a behavior that will worsen in consequences over time.   


If you think your colleague is approachable and amenable to help, a caring approach can dramatically ease the isolation, frustration and personal difficulty someone dealing with a debilitating addiction may be experiencing.  You can express your concern, mentioning what you have observed—and then offer support and resources.    


If you confront your colleague and he listens to you, you may be able to direct him to those resources: his doctor, for instance—or drug or alcohol treatment organizations, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or one of NH’s two confidential resources for lawyers.  They are: 


The Lawyers Assistance Committee, an NHBA committee comprised of volunteers that help lawyers facing difficulties professionally or personally, particularly when a lawyer becomes overwhelmed and paralyzed with work issues.  These volunteers help individuals craft common-sense responses to get them moving in a productive direction. 


Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a group independent of the Bar,  assists lawyers facing alcohol or drug addiction issues.  Both organizations offer confidential help.  (Note: The efforts of these two all-volunteer organizations are currently in the process of being merged into a new successor, the Lawyers Assistance Program, which will add staff capacity to these volunteer efforts.  John Maher serves as the chair of this program, created under a new Court rule, and attorney John Tobin is the vice-chair.)    


The doubts you have about personally approaching your colleague may be entirely justified. A personal intervention can cause “an open wound in the relationship,” notes Maher.  People are often reluctant to “upset the applecart,” through a personal intervention, he says.  Therefore, personal intervention is not always helpful. 


Third-party Intervention


In this case, there is a third option.  Both Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers and the Lawyers Assistance Committee will approach someone without disclosing who has made the referral.  In other words, you can send a third party to intervene.  Those who refer include spouses, court clerks, judges, and other lawyers.


Asking a third party to intervene may be difficult.  There are many reasons that keep people from stepping in on behalf of their colleagues, states Tobin. “Making a call of behalf of someone else may seem like snitching on them, and there is a strong cultural bias against that.  But it’s really a way to help.  Also, since NH is such a small state with a small bar, there is fear that confidentiality of the caller will be breached.”  Tobin says that volunteers are exempt from the rule that ordinarily requires lawyers to report misconduct by other lawyers.


What happens in a third party intervention and is the practice effective?  Sometimes an intervention results in a person’s seeking and receiving help, and sometimes not, or at least not right away.  The attitude of the person may range from “hostile to respectful,” says Maher, who has met with people referred by others. Sometimes people are ready to acknowledge that they have a problem and are ready to address it, and sometimes they are not.


“Sometimes people are relieved that a disinterested party cares about their situation, and they feel they can vent and have an objective discussion about how to proceed and use the intervener as a sounding board,” comments Tobin.  “A personal intervention is ideal when people who know and care about each other can speak directly about this difficult topic.  That’s a better approach than a committee, any day.” 


So if circumstances aren’t right for you to speak up, perhaps calling in a third party can provide the help which a colleague needs.  In the end, it’s your call.

My thanks to retired Judge John Maher; John Tobin, Chair of the NH Lawyers Assistance Committee and Executive Director of NH Legal Assistance;  and Stephanie Marshall, of Resource Management Consultants, Inc. for their generous assistance with this article.

Substance Abuse/Addiction Resources

NH Lawyer’s Assistance Committee – 603 224-6060 or 603 206-2216

NH Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers – 603 674-1539

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and

Lawyers Assistance Program:

ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs (COLAP) has updated links on additional resources:

Betsy Black, J.D., A.C.C., is an accredited life coach and lawyer who’s left the practice of law. Contact her at or call her at 603-228-6195.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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