Business man with head in sand.

Dear Patrick:

How do you help a lawyer with a drinking problem who doesn’t want to acknowledge it or stop? Is it even possible to help them?

Dear Jennifer:

Some of the more harmful myths about addiction and recovery are that people need to “want it themselves” or “hit rock bottom” before they change. While these ideas may hold true for some individuals, their wisdom and universality has been greatly overstated—and relied upon—to the detriment of countless people who could have otherwise had their struggle and pain interrupted sooner. So yes, there are things you can do to help a lawyer with a drinking problem who doesn’t want to stop.

The first step is to understand their thinking and anticipate their responses.

To start, there’s a good chance the lawyer you are asking about is far too fearful to acknowledge he or she has a drinking problem. Whether it’s their colleagues or their clients, lawyers are overwhelmingly reluctant to let anyone in their professional universe know about a personal problem that could make them appear incompetent, unreliable, untrustworthy or otherwise not up to the job. Sometimes their fears are exaggerated and out of touch with the reality of their situation, but sometimes they are not. The legal profession, as an industry, is behind the curve in terms of openly dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues. Historically, we’ve judged and stigmatized, like it’s our job.

Second, denial is a marquee feature of addiction and, intentionally or not, addicted lawyers can take that denial to another level. We are so comfortable reframing arguments, obfuscating truths that don’t serve us, and turning logic on its head for a living that we don’t always notice when we’ve started doing it to ourselves. Lawyers with addictions are likely to craft and buy into their own version of reality, and it’s likely one convincing enough for the most discerning of juries to bite. (The key, for your purposes, is not to find yourself acquiescing or subscribing to their distorted self-view, no matter how persistently it may endure.)

Third, know that irrespective of what is truly driving lawyers to overlook both their own internal warning lights and the concerns of others, there are some very common and almost universal reasons why they are likely to say they are not in a position to change or get help. Those reasons, you guessed it, are almost always about work. Depending upon the size of their practice and the scope of their caseload, most employed attorneys will cite an inability to step away from their responsibilities as a threshold, insurmountable barrier between them and treatment.

I regularly speak to attorneys and judges from all over the country who are beginning to think about getting help—oftentimes at the insistence of an employer or spouse—and the No. 1 reason why they say they just can’t do it is work—their clients, their caseload, their business, their practice. They insist it will all fall apart if they step away and tend to something as trivial as a chronic disease. The truth is usually that they’re scared, in denial, or both, but in a profession known for its intense demands, work makes a nice scapegoat, and it usually enjoys great deference.

OK, so now that you’ve hopefully got a little more insight into the psyche of the lawyer you’re describing, some of the things you can do to help him or her should be coming into relief: Empathize, don’t judge. Take steps aimed at reducing the fear this person might have about acknowledging the problem. Start some open and supportive conversations meant to demonstrate that you (and hopefully others around this person) wouldn’t think less of him or her for admitting a problem and trying to solve it. Don’t allow yourself in any way to validate the person’s denial, as you’d just be enabling the addiction. Anticipate the excuses this lawyer will make and barriers he or she will cite, and be ready with a response.

Looking the other way when it comes to addiction is common in the legal profession. If you are able to avoid falling into that trap, and instead remain steadfast in your recognition of this person’s problem and desire to help, you are already making great progress. Hold the individual in question accountable for all of his or her behaviors and words. Don’t cut the person slack, cover for him or her, modify expectations, or otherwise make accommodations that might shield the lawyer from the implications of the drinking problem. You’d be amazed at how motivationally enhancing it can be when everyone around the addicted person stops making excuses and stops letting the person trample over boundaries.

You may also want to consider attending Al-Anon meetings yourself. Designed for people who have been affected by another person’s drinking, these meetings can provide excellent guidance in setting your own boundaries and dealing constructively with someone who has a substance use problem.

Of course, there is always the possibility, for which you should be prepared, that no matter what you or anyone else does, this person may never quit drinking, or do so only temporarily. The literature of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most popular recovery modalities in the world, describes such a person and scenario this way: “The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.”

Clearly, that’s a grim hypothetical outcome. The more proactive and willing to intervene you and others around the problem drinking attorney are, however, the less likely it is to occur.

Have a question? Send it to wellcounseled@gmail.com.

Patrick R. Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information.