A panel titled “Substance Abuse and Dealing with Addiction” at one of the biggest parties of the year? The dichotomy was not lost on the attorneys and handful of musicians attending this Saturday morning South by Southwest event—part of the continuing legal education track—and they moved in closer to the speakers for what was described as “a more personal conversation.”
“This is where we get human,” said Ken Abdo, an entertainment attorney with the firm that sponsors SXSW’s CLE programming. “A lot of us put on our litigator faces, but this is where we get real about the lives that we lead and the challenges that particularly present themselves to our profession.”
The State Bar of Texas had its own representative on the panel, Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program Director Bree Buchanan, who gave an overview of TLAP, which provides confidential help for lawyers, law students, and judges who have problems with substance abuse and/or mental health issues. Because the audience was a mix of Texas and out-of-state attorneys, Buchanan explained that every state has a similar program to help attorneys with these problems. The State Bar of Texas, she said, created TLAP because it wanted to take care of its members and also protect the public from attorneys who might be impaired.
Panel moderator Harold Owens—senior director of MusiCares Foundation, the charity arm of the GRAMMY Organization—asked Buchanan to give an update on the seriousness of attorney addiction issues. She discussed the 2016 landmark study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, which found that lawyers experience more substance abuse and/or mental health problems than other professions as well as the general population. (An article on the study was published in the March 2016 issue of the Texas Bar Journal.)
“The most surprising fact that came out of this study,” Buchanan said, “is that the rate at which [alcoholism] is affecting our young lawyers is astronomical.”
The conversation then turned to the issue of attorneys getting help with their addictions. Dina LaPolt—a transactional attorney in Hollywood, California, who has been sober for 18 years—explained that many attorneys’ personalities are at odds with admitting they have a problem. Owens agreed, noting that the phrase “terminally unique” applies to lawyers in this sense.
“Attorneys are a bunch of know-it-alls,” LaPolt said “And the whole basis for recovery is letting it go. To tell a lawyer to ‘stop talking, just listen,’ you might as well just throw a grenade in the pile.”
Buchanan echoed this concept, noting that lawyers tend to think they’re “special” or different from normal people, which can make them wary of recovery. Even though they should be encouraged to give it a try, Buchanan said it’s important to also recognize the aspects in which lawyers are a little different, such as their propensity for trying to hide their problems, which might be more common in women.
“I think that women are still dealing with a lot of glass ceiling issues,” Buchanan said. “They’re even more concerned about showing anything that could slow them down. So I think there’s a likelihood that they will try to hide it.”
Because it can be very hard for lawyers to get sober, LaPolt said community support is key. California has an important organization called the Other Bar that holds events and meetings for lawyers and judges who are struggling with addiction and recovery. “When you get a bunch of lawyers in the room who have one common purpose, and we all put our minds to it that we’re going to help other people—this is a remarkable constituency of people.”
Although TLAP doesn’t track the progress of most attorneys who use its services, the program does keep up with those attorneys who are going through the grievance process for reasons related to substance abuse. Buchanan said that it can take a couple of years to start seeing change.
“They are really resentful when they start,” she said. “It’s rough; it’s a big commitment. But it’s an amazing process. They start to see what happens, that they have a community who lifts them up and supports them. It gives them a way to be sober in a really difficult profession.”
Anecdotally, Buchanan added, the success rate of compliance seems to be very high when lawyers can get help, likely because “their career is on the line.”
An audience member asked the panelists how to deal with a colleague who seems to have an addiction. Buchanan stressed the importance of not diagnosing or judging this person but starting out by saying that you care about them and are worried. Then, she said, lay out what you have observed and say, “That’s just not like you.”
“Don’t be surprised if they blow you off,” Buchanan said. “This tends to be a process.”
Next steps might include seeking help from your law firm, which can consider reaching out to interventionists, or lawyer assistance programs, which will have volunteers call the colleague and share their own stories.
LaPolt suggested an alternative of not approaching the person but leading by example. Hang out with sober colleagues who can be the attraction to a new lifestyle. “There’s a sparkle in your eye when you’re clean and sober,” she said. “There’s nothing like it.”
Buchanan noted that in a culture where reputations are so influential, it’s imperative to let people feel safe to expose their struggles.
“We’ve got to take some of the stigma and the shame out of this. We need to create a community where it’s OK to talk about it.”