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Making it personal: The effects of alcohol and substance abuse in the legal community

Special to the News Columns

Judge Faye AllenSince I joined the bench as a county judge in the Ninth Judicial Circuit in 2005, it has been my mission to do my part to enhance the legal profession. Fortunately, there is not a lack of opportunities to participate in educating and mentoring legal practitioners, law students, and others. When the chair of The Florida Bar Registered Paralegal Enrichment Committee asked me to present during the summer meeting of the 2019 Florida Bar Convention about substance and alcohol abuse in the legal profession, I was delighted to accept her invitation and pursue my mission by addressing these important issues.

Although I looked forward to participating, my initial thought process was that I would outline my presentation in general terms. I would address awareness and statistics, without including real life stories relating to alcohol or substance abuse behavior in the profession. After all, also joining the panel was none other than Professor Jane Dwyer Lee. She and I had worked together in the past to educate students on alcohol abuse and awareness, and I knew she had a compelling personal story. Alcohol misuse and abuse had tragically impacted her life, resulting in the death of a loved one and ultimately leading to her conviction on a charge of DUI manslaughter. Unfortunately, as a younger woman, Jane Dwyer Lee served five years of incarceration. Her story, and her willingness to tell it has impacted numerous audiences and would be integral to our presentation.

At the outset, I was quite content to contribute to a talk about alcohol abuse while remaining safely out of the glare of any scrutiny of people, places, or things that I had any personal knowledge of. I knew about Professor Dwyer Lee’s story — how alcohol contributed to a destructive lifestyle and I see the evidence of the same behavior in cases I preside over. Regrettably, the professional community is not immune from destructive alcohol and drug abuse. I am reticent to say that from the moment I came to the conclusion to limit my input I knew it was solely because I was uncomfortable (definitely), and fearful (somewhat), about becoming too personal. Even though I would absolutely never mention specific people by name or title, thus carefully protecting all identities — quite candidly, I did not want to “overshare” in the presentation.

Why was I reluctant to share any knowledge I had about behavior that would enlighten a legal audience about substance or alcohol abuse in the legal profession? This question could generically be asked of most people, because all too often, we are reluctant to speak about professionals who abuse drugs or alcohol. The reasons are varied. Some people are afraid of offending anyone, some are afraid of repercussions to them or their jobs, others may not wish to speak candidly for fear of facing their own abuse or addiction. Some people simply do not wish to seem weak, or conversely, judgmental. My reasons were twofold: (1) I did not know in great detail of any individual’s substance or alcohol abuse or misuse; and (2) I did not want to publicly share my reservations in communicating with any legal professional who I heard might be abusing alcohol or using drugs.

In a 2015 study on lawyer impairment, in collaboration with The Betty Ford Hazelten Foundation, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs conducted a comprehensive survey of 12,825 licensed and employed lawyers to assess alcohol use, drug use and symptoms of depression. The results showed that 20.6% of respondents scored at a level consistent with problematic drinking, 28% of respondents reported experiencing mild or higher levels of depression, 19% of respondents reported mild or higher levels of anxiety, and 11.5% reported having suicidal thoughts at some point during their career. Even more alarming is that the results show that younger lawyers are at an even greater risk for alcohol abuse. Here is a compelling conclusion … if one/fifth of the legal profession experiences problems with alcohol, everyone in the legal profession has a problem with alcohol.

These results are more than red flags, they are neon pulsating red lights indicating that every lawyer and judge must take ownership of these outcomes. Lawyers and judges are under an inordinate amount of stress, as are law students. In fact the pressure begins in law school with stressors such as long study hours, student loans, and the pressure to excel in the top percentage of the class to attract the best employment opportunities. After graduation comes the pressure to pass the bar exam with potentially more loans during the bar study period. For those who are fortunate enough to land a job quickly, the challenge then becomes billing hours, achieving favorable results in cases and making the boss happy; all while contending with adversarial parties. Along with professional tension are personal and family concerns, which have their own set of stressors. It is little wonder, then, that attorneys are under such a burden that we experience depression at an alarming rate, and we suffer from problematic drinking in great numbers.

As we began preparing our presentation, Prof. Dwyer Lee and I were pleased to have attorney Bruce A. Blitman, a certified county, family, and circuit mediator, from Palm Beach County join our panel. Blitman has done much toward bringing awareness to issues of mental health in the legal profession. I found myself encouraging him to include a more personal story in his presentation because I thought it would make his comments more meaningful. So, I reconsidered my own presentation.

Nobel Prize recipient Marie Curie said, “[n]othing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Ultimately, I decided my presentation needed to include a real life story that I thought would help the audience to understand just how critical alcohol abuse is in our profession. The story I shared involved an attorney who would come to court smelling of the odor of alcohol. I noted that courtroom personnel would quite enthusiastically address the evident impairment of a party litigant, but no one wanted to talk about the lawyer’s evident impairment, other than anecdotally. The lawyer’s story had an undesirable outcome. Now I question if the outcome would have been better if someone had been willing to address the attorney and perhaps refer them to the completely confidential Florida Lawyers Assistance Program. In sharing details of a personal story, I hoped the audience would see my own passion for bringing awareness and healing to the reality that these issues plague our profession.

Substance and alcohol abuse have a far reaching impact on the legal community. Fully acknowledging this has become a personal matter for me. I encourage every legal professional to learn more and to adopt a personal plan of action for how you should address an attorney, law student, or judge who exhibits evidence of alcohol or substance abuse. Such a plan should include a suggestion to immediately seek treatment. We cannot afford to be silent.

Judge Faye Allen is an Orange County judge. She has handled assignments in the criminal and civil divisions of county court.