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Bar News - May 18, 2016

New Lawyers Column: Word to the Wise: Donít Drink and Advise


It seems stupid to have to tell a lawyer she shouldnít drink, or do drugs, and then advise a client, draft a will, or, worse, head off to court. But, you see, lawyers, especially young lawyers, have a problem. They drink a lot. So, I have to tell you; donít drink and advise. But, what do you do if you know someone who does? What if you have a friend who drinks and advises?

First, lest you think Iím making something of nothing, letís get the statistics out of the way: lawyers abuse alcohol at a rate three times higher than the general public, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. One of every five lawyers has a substance abuse problem, with the highest rates of problem drinking among lawyers under age 30, who have a problem-drinking rate of 32 percent, or nearly one out of every three. These numbers donít include drug use, which is harder to measure, as lawyers donít participate in surveys recording illegal behavior, but New Hampshireís 426 heroin deaths in 2015, and 36 for 2016 in Manchester alone, with victims ranging in age from 15 to 89, donít lie. Some of you are using.

But, what do you do if you donít have the problem? How do you become part of the solution? Step one is education, the first tenet of which is that substance abuse is a disease, not a character flaw. Before you say, ďDuh, we know that,Ē you should know I have impeachment evidence.

A recent NH Bar News survey shows just how dumb New Hampshire lawyers are about substance use disorders. A Bar News poll asking, ďWhat would you do if you recognized that a colleague was suffering from depression or an alcohol use disorder and might need some help?Ē received the following responses from you: 6.1 percent would contact the Attorney Discipline Office to protect the public; 10.2 percent would ignore it, because adults can handle their own issues; 20.4 percent would contact the NH Lawyer Assistance Program anonymously and 63.3 percent would talk to the person and offer to listen.

If we, as a Bar, really understood that substance use disorders, like depression, are a mental illness, weíd see the foolishness of our responses. Damn, Bill has multiple sclerosis, better call the Attorney Discipline Office. Iíve noticed Susan seems sicker since the chemo, but she can handle her own problems. That new associate has diabetes, Iíd better talk with him because nothing controls insulin production like a good chat.

Youíll note I didnít joke about calling NH Lawyer Assistanceís Cecie Hartigan at (877) 224-6060. Thatís a good idea. Sheís trained to help. But, before we talk about what else you can do to help, letís understand a bit about why the problem exists.

Letís start in law school, where no one is taught about stress management, or health and wellness. The hyper-competitive environment normalizes heavy drinking to address layers of stress from high student debt, a shrinking job market and smaller starting salaries than ever. Society even normalizes the idea of the heavy-drinking lawyer. Doesnít every TV trial end with two lawyers sharing a scotch?

After graduation, young lawyers prioritize success and accomplishment over balance and personal well-being, in part because they see the behavior modeled for them by older lawyers, but also because they are forced into taking jobs they might not really want to service loans. They defer positive actions that reduce stress, like having a family, due to ever-increasing financial concerns. Many young lawyers turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. And, frankly, itís easy to have too many at lunch because ours, for many types of lawyers, is an isolated profession. New Hampshire also has a high percentage of solo practices, which brings more stress and isolation.

I know you think lawyers are smart and would naturally turn to positive outlets for stress, but the truth is that lawyers, just like everyone else, need to be taught how to make good choices.

So, what can we do to help young lawyers? Weíve first got to get rid of the stigma associated with substance use disorders. Law students with problems donít seek help because they are fearful of not being admitted to the bar or not being hired. Practicing lawyers fear their reputations will be destroyed and their careers will be over. Would you be afraid your career would end if you sought treatment for diabetes? In other words, part of the solution starts with us changing our own mindset. Many lawyers fear that despite its claims, the LAP might not really be anonymous. That fear is less real if the stigma is less potent. But, it is anonymous, as are AA and NA and a host of other treatment programs, and it should be a choice to keep an illness private, not a necessity.

We can also help by encouraging more education, not only about substance use disorders, but also stress management, throughout the legal career cycle. This means health and wellness classes in law school and CLEs at NH Bar Association meetings. It means adding wellness programs in your workplace.

Call your alumni office and tell them to add a stress management class. Call the Bar and tell them to add a CLE. And if you want high attendance at a wellness, stress management, CLE, give ethics credit. Spearhead a wellness program in your workplace. Studies show they increase productivity.

There are a lot of ways to recovery and not all of them involve expensive rehab. The first step is seeking help and not letting worries you canít control stop you. Understand, it doesnít cost a fortune to quit; it saves you one.

So, what do you do if you have a friend who drinks and advises? You do something.

Kirk Simoneau

Kirk Simoneau is a trial lawyer with Nixon, Vogelman, Barry, Slawsky & Simoneau. He is a member of the NHBA New Lawyers Committee and the HOPE for NH Recovery Board of Directors.

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