Each year, there are an estimated 97,500 deaths due to the effects of alcohol. As compared to other professions in America, lawyers are nearly twice as likely to struggle with alcohol abuse, according to the Lawyer Assistance Program.
In response to this upsetting statistic, members of the Brooklyn Bar Association say that this month’s CLE meeting, entitled “Don't Shoot the Messenger: A Tattler's Tale; Ethical Considerations and Impaired Lawyers,” was one of their most important events of the year.
“What we've learned from the statistics is that the legal profession has a higher incidence of both alcoholism and depression,” Hon. Sarah Krauss, acting Supreme Court justice in Kings County Family Court, explained. “So this whole idea has come up from the grassroots, from people in recovery, who saw that they needed to help their colleagues.”
The high incidence of alcoholism among lawyers results from several factors, the most significant of which is probably work-related stress. While lawyers might be used to helping people solve problems, they often have a hard time seeking help themselves. Furthermore, a lawyer’s work environment often involves social drinking, which can encourage the problem.
One who develops a dependency on alcohol often has a hard time admitting that there is a problem and seeking help. “Denial! Denial is by far the biggest problem,” Judge Krauss said. “The attorneys think that they are the problem solvers and how can they have a problem. They think, 'How can I have a drinking problem? I just drink like everybody else. Everybody in my profession drinks.'”
Even when lawyers, and especially judges, are ready to look for help, they are often afraid to for fear of being stigmatized. Recognizing that many are hesitant to confront their issues and risk jeopardizing their job or reputation, the Lawyer Assistance Program emphasizes confidentiality.
“I know judges, elected judges, that won't go for help because they are so afraid of what might happen if it gets out in public,” said Eileen Travis, the founding director of the Lawyer Assistance Program. “We do keep everything completely confidential. That’s not only our promise, but it’s the law.”
Alcohol-related problems are not limited to lawyers and judges. Law school students are also at high risk of developing problems due to the stress of school and passing the bar exam. If a law school student has issues with alcohol abuse, this could hinder him or her from being admitted to the bar.
Lawyers and judges who know or suspect that their colleague has a problem have a duty to report them; otherwise, they could be held liable and potentially be debarred themselves. As confronting other lawyers can be difficult, members of the Lawyer Assistance Program performed a couple of helpful skits at this month’s event.
The first skit demonstrated how to bring up an issue within a law firm, which can be complicated, especially when an inexperienced lawyer notices a problem with a more experienced lawyer. The second skit was a mock intervention, which was performed in order to show that interventions don’t need to be scary.
Alcohol-related problems among lawyers have become so prevalent that there are now three Lawyer Assistance Programs in New York alone, as well as programs in all 50 states and five in Canada. Lawyer Assistance Programs exist in England, Scotland and Wales, too.
Lawyers, judges, and law school students who think they might have a problem with alcohol, drugs or depression – or know someone who has a problem – should contact the Lawyer Assistance Program for help at (212) 302-5787 or www.nycbar.org. It is free and confidential.
In the March 26th edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, it was incorrectly stated that lawyers have a duty to report other lawyers if they know of or even suspect a lawyer has a drinking problem or risk being disbarred themselves. A lawyer has a duty to report another attorney's alcohol abuse only when one has knowledge that the alcohol abuse has led said attorney to engage in conduct that adversely reflects on that attorney's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer, engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation, engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice, unlawfully discriminate in the practice of law, or engage in any other conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness as a lawyer. An attorney who suspects or knows that another attorney has a drinking or substance
abuse problem is encouraged to call the LAP at NYCBA (1-212-302-5787) or the NYSBA (1-800-255-0569) to get free confidential assistance.