The Reality of High-Functioning Substance Abuse Among Lawyers
The morning before I got sober, I downed nearly a bottle of red wine and snorted a few lines of cocaine as part of my regular routine getting ready for work. As I headed to my law firm, I felt sick, afraid, and alone. Now, more than 13 years later, thanks to important recent research and reporting conducted on lawyers, substance abuse, and mental health, I know I was wrong about being alone.
More than 20 years ago, I became an associate at a big New York City firm and almost simultaneously spiraled into alcoholism and drug addiction. I attribute this to my genetic predisposition toward addiction, my then-undiagnosed depressive disorder, and the intense and exhausting demands of my job. Many people can handle the pressures of a 24/7 work-hard-play-hard environment, but I am not one of them.
Though I knew I was in serious trouble for 10 years before I got sober in 2004, the stigma of alcoholism and drug addiction in law firms played a significant role in my decision not to seek help. When I finally bottomed out, I was using drugs and alcohol around the clock. Somehow, I never lost a job or even received a negative performance review. My hours were odd, my office was a mess, and I frequently worked from home, but the same could be said for many lawyers who weren’t in the throes of addiction. I checked myself into a hospital for a medicated detoxification only because I thought I might die.
At the end of my stay in the detox unit, it was strongly suggested that I next head to a 28-day rehabilitation facility. I refused to go. I was unwilling to tell my law firm the truth of my illness. As a compromise, I attended outpatient rehab two nights a week. I returned to the office just a week and a day after checking into the hospital. My doctors were rightly concerned about my decision, considering I had just been diagnosed with a chronic brain disease. I have been extremely fortunate to remain sober since checking out of that detox, particularly in this profession.
Aspects of law firm culture beyond work pressures can prove challenging for people contending with substance-abuse issues, even when they are in recovery. Having spent more than 25 years working in law firms, I can count very few events at which alcohol was not served. We use it to entertain clients, form bonds among team members, and blow off steam at the end of the week. Does anyone want to feel left out at those important firm functions? While I am encouraged to see firms starting to examine the free-flowing nature of alcohol at all events, this practice cannot be expected to change overnight.
We need to have structured, consistent, and ongoing conversations about mental health and substance abuse in the legal profession. Attorneys and staff alike need to learn from their first day that there is confidential help available to them, both in the form of firm employee assistance programs (EAPs) and the lawyer assistance committees (LACs) of the bar associations in all 50 states. It is critical for people to know where to go when they feel overwhelmed, are experiencing a challenge in their personal life, or find they are looking to drugs or alcohol for relief and escape.
During the course of my career, I have seen plenty of people in law firms and other professions take leave for surgeries, medical treatments, and, of course, to have kids. Never have I seen anyone take a leave to go to rehab. When I was presented with the opportunity, I feared it would be seen as a weakness, not an illness, in an environment where strength, reliability, and stamina are prized. Now I want to use my voice and my story in any way I can to help break that stigma around addiction. I’d like to see the day that addiction will be treated just like any other medical condition, and the person who finds himself or herself where I was 13 years ago feels comfortable saying, “Yes, thank you; I will accept this help and go away to treatment to get healthy.”
Lisa Smith is a lawyer and a writer based in New York City. Her memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, recounts her descent into and recovery from high-functioning alcoholism and cocaine addiction in major international firms. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and Rutgers School of Law.