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When “Helping” Hurts—A Guide for Law Firms and Families, Part 1

Most lawyers, regardless of practice area, are accustomed to solving others’ problems and providing solutions. Lawyers are helpers by nature. While many of us may try to project a certain image, and despite whatever lawyer-joke-du-jour may be fashionable, most lawyers have big hearts and want to help people. It only makes sense that when a colleague or family member is struggling with alcoholism or addiction in any form, we want to help. But if we do not understand the disease of addiction (to alcohol or any other substance or process), our help can become a hindrance.

Do you remember “Opposite Day” as a child? When I was growing up, once a year all the elementary school kids and our teachers had an Opposite Day. It was great fun. The teacher would dramatically pronounce, “OK class, line up at the door,” and we would settle down at our desks. When she said, “Let’s settle down,” we’d all run to the door and line up to go outside to play. It always made for a fun day trying to figure out the coded messages of our teachers and friends.

Alcoholism is like Opposite Day. It turns everything on its head. Helping an alcoholic by enabling an alcoholic to avoid the consequences of addiction may feel like helping, but it actually hurts him and his chance of recovery. What feels to us like hurting or betrayal, actually helps an alcoholic find recovery. Let’s consider some real world examples.

When a non-alcoholic family member is in the middle of a contentious divorce (with lots of fighting at home), we may offer to have the kids stay over for a while and take them to school. When a non-alcoholic colleague has an unexpected family emergency, we may offer to cover for her and handle some work in the immediate short term. If a non-alcoholic friend suddenly became unemployed, we might be willing to lend money to cover living expenses for a few months until he got back on his feet. If a non-alcoholic lawyer recently suffered a personal family loss and is grieving, judges and opposing counsel might go to great lengths to have cases continued. None of these helping impulses is wrong or misplaced. In fact, these are the very types of interactions that build connections and strengthen community, all of which are imperative for maintaining good mental health as a lawyer.

When carrying out these very loving, helpful actions while dealing with an alcoholic or addicted lawyer, however, suddenly “helping” becomes “hurting,” although it does not seem like it or feel like it to the one offering the help. Often, when family and friends try to help alcoholic or addicted lawyers, they are actually—albeit unwittingly—making it easier for the lawyer to continue in the progression of the disease. Whatever form of conventional help (as described above) we provide to someone who is engaged in the disease of addiction, that help often boomerangs and begins to hurt the addicted person (and us) because it allows him or her to avoid the consequences of the disease. The specific word for the phenomenon when help has crossed the line and starts to hurt is “enabling” because the help provided enables the disease to continue unimpeded.

The disease of addiction is progressive in nature; it builds up over time and gains momentum. Over any considerable period of time it gets worse, not better. What started out as the one-time lending of money or continuing of cases gradually turns into a pattern of behavior. Our first response is to give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt: “Joe is in a rough patch. Give him some time.” But usually a precedent has been set, so if Joe is an alcoholic or addict, he knows you are willing to cover for him in whatever way you have done so in the past. So he continues to come to you—maybe more frequently now— for help. This help in turn allows him to continue to engage in the destructive behavior of his addiction while simultaneously avoiding the consequences. The person giving help (or even the law firm that continues to look the other way) has unknowingly and unconsciously become an ally of the disease. Wikipedia describes an ally as, “…people, groups, or nations that have joined in an association for mutual benefit or to achieve some common purpose, whether or not explicit agreement has been worked out between them.” Ouch. For those of us who only sincerely wanted to help, it can be a devastating blow to learn that we have been assisting the disease of addiction, not the lawyer who suffers from it. If we step out of the helper role, the alcoholic lawyer is forced to face consequences and may find recovery sooner. It can be hard to discover we have been actually hurting the alcoholic lawyer’s chance for recovery.

As long as the alcoholic lawyer has enabling devices and people in place, it is easy for him to continue to deny he has a problem, because most of his problems are being solved by those around him. Only when he is forced to face the consequences of his own actions and inactions will it finally begin to sink in how deep his problem has become. Some of these choices are not easy for the friends or families of alcoholics. For example, if the alcoholic drinks up the money that was supposed to pay the utility bill, he is not the only one who will be living in a dark, cold, or sweltering house. The rest of the family will suffer right along with him. If the alcoholic lawyer is a high-profile, high-functioning lawyer with a reputable practice, the law firm may not want to suffer a revenue loss or reputational harm. (Not to mention, it is just plain hard emotionally for all of us to talk about these things.) So the firm as a whole may ignore a known, growing problem until one day a catastrophe happens in a public forum. Often times the firm is left with no choice but to fire the lawyer. But it does not need to happen this way.1

When “Hurting” Helps

So let’s change the verbiage and now discuss what I will call “unconventional help,” which, to be frank, will feel to the helper like nothing less than a betrayal of the alcoholic lawyer friend or colleague. Unconventional help is an action (or a refusal to act) we take in response to requests for help from the alcoholic lawyer that does not shield him or her from the consequences of the disease. In almost all cases, only when faced with consequences is an alcoholic or addicted lawyer able to begin to gain some clarity about the nature of the impairment.

The acts that truly help an alcoholic or addict are those actions (or inactions) which point the alcoholic in the direction of recovery. We may refuse to lend money, except to help pay for treatment (always give the money directly to the treatment center, not to the alcoholic or the family of the alcoholic). We may refuse to cover a case load or to have cases continued, unless it is because the lawyer goes to treatment. We may agree to represent the lawyer in a contempt hearing before a judge or a discipline matter before the State Bar on the condition that the lawyer agrees to get help and follows all directives from the EAP, LAP, or treatment center.2 Saying “no” or setting these conditions can be very difficult for us (the helpers) emotionally, particularly because we can see so clearly what the impaired attorney cannot—the almost sure consequences coming down the pipeline. These actions can be very painful for us to carry out, and our every instinct urges us to try to prevent those consequences and pain that he or she will face as a result. But remember, we’re living in Opposite Day when dealing with alcoholism or addiction. Sometimes when we cannot help an alcoholic up, we need to step out of the way as he or she falls down. It is sometimes only in that falling down that an alcoholic or addicted attorney can then begin to wake up to the situation and ask for help.

It may feel to us like we are hurting the alcoholic when we stop helping. In fact, depending upon how close we are to the addicted lawyer, he may actually accuse us of hurting him or of causing the consequences. If we are very tied to the person emotionally, while we understand intellectually we are not causing consequences, it can feel like we are because we are not preventing them from occurring. It is so important to remember that when the alcoholic lawyer is blaming us or others, it is just the disease talking. Because it is hard to remember this and not take the blaming personally, often the person who has been put into the helping role needs support of his own in order to stand his ground. The LAP offers this kind of support.

If you know an attorney who you suspect may be an alcoholic or addicted, give the LAP a call. We can help guide and support you as you navigate what kind of help to offer.

– By Robynn Moraites

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers, judges, and law students, which helps address problems of stress, depression, alcoholism, addiction, or other problems that may lead to impairing a lawyer’s ability to practice. If you would like more information, go to nclap.org or call: Cathy Killian (for Charlotte and areas west) at 704-892-5699, Towanda Garner (in the Piedmont area) at 919-719-9290, or Ed Ward (for Raleigh and down east) at 919-828-6425.

Endnotes

  1. Please tune in next quarter when we will be interviewing a managing partner who orchestrated an intervention some years ago with a leading lawyer in the firm.
  2. Requiring treatment as a condition of representation is a practice known as therapeutic jurisprudence. There is a growing body of academic research in this area with guidance for lawyers, particularly in criminal practice. See David Wexler’s work.
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