This is part two of a three-piece series on substance abuse in the legal profession. Click here to read part one. Stay tuned to Legal Current in the coming weeks for posts two and three.

Recognizing, preventing and resolving problem behaviors

Firms must know how to identify addiction and mental health disorders, and should have a plan in place to encourage treatment. Like many diseases, addiction and mental health disorders will become progressively worse if left untreated and are best managed with early intervention. Firms should ensure staffers know how to monitor for signs in themselves and others.

Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Isolation
  • Change in regular patterns
  • Disappearing at unexpected times
  • Changes in physical appearance, such weight loss or gain
  • Red eyes
  • Mood swings
  • Lateness
  • Strained relationships
  • Unsteady gait
  • Increased irritation

Law firms would be wise to invest in a resource that provides training on recognizing and confronting the signs. Approaching a high functioning lawyer about their substance use disorder can be difficult.

Lawyers in these straits are often deep in denial, as their efforts to conceal the problem have convinced them as well as others that they can “handle it.” Further, professional and personal reputation is vital to their self-worth and success, and they often fear that seeking help will cause clients and colleagues to think less of them.

Firms need to combat this perception by first establishing a confidential path to disclosure for both self-reporting and alerting management to colleagues who are exhibiting troubling signs.

Partners and management should stress that a healthy person is a productive person and that seeking treatment will ultimately improve workplace effectiveness. They should also make it abundantly clear that admitting to a substance-abuse disorder will not result in retaliation.

If possible, they should issue this policy in writing, in a firm newsletter or email, or hold a short meeting on it with appropriate literature. This is perhaps the most basic of recommendations, but it can have the most impact. If lawyers fail to follow through with treatment or are unable to maintain recovery, the firm then has the option to prevent them from practicing.

Supporting those who enter treatment and protecting those who express concerns about fellow lawyers are tremendous first steps. But steps must also be taken to change a workplace culture centered for decades around “working hard and playing hard.”

This takes time. Firms can make small changes, such as planning events that don’t revolve around alcohol, offering classes in exercise and meditation, and reducing the number of hours lawyers are expected to bill.

Personal prevention

While firms and national organizations do their part to bring about change, lawyers must also do theirs. The release of the task force’s report has spurred many professionals to examine their own behaviors. The report offers tips for creating and maintaining a healthy mindset in stressful careers. The best approach for lawyers is to practice self-care and find a good work/life balance.

A good first set of steps is to disconnect from technology whenever possible; set realistic boundaries when it comes to taking on additional work and clients; take vacations and other paid time off; and make time to exercise and eat properly.

Some law firms are beginning to create spaces for exercise, meditation and yoga, and to make more nutritious dietary options available. The simplest precautions are often the most important.

For lawyers who have undergone treatment and remain in recovery, it is important to remember that the risk of relapse increases when self-care lapses.

Before re-entering the workplace after treatment, recovering lawyers should have a plan for reducing stress and preventing a return to prior risky behaviors. This could include working a more reasonable number of hours and having a strategy when attending – or choosing to avoid – firm-sponsored events where alcohol will be served.

To help lawyers succeed, firms should partner with experts to create a gradual and accountable return to work.

Thankfully, national organizations such as the American Bar Association are beginning to recommend standards for firms and law schools to face the issues of substance abuse and mental health.

To create healthier work environments, we need to de-stigmatize addiction, depression and anxiety. We also need to help all attorneys understand that a sound mind and body are the most important keys to a long and successful career.


This series was authored by Link Cristin, executive director of the legal professionals program at Caron Treatment Centers. The article was originally posted to Westlaw Practitioners Insights M&A ($) site.

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