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When “Helping” Hurts—A Guide for Law Firms and Families, Part 2 

The LAP recently conducted an interview with a managing partner of a firm who years ago orchestrated an intervention with a leading lawyer in the firm. This example illustrates how a law firm can proactively address an issue of impairment. The following is taken from that interview and told from the point of view of the managing partner. In order to maintain the highest level of confidentiality, all gender-related personal pronouns have been removed. 

We have an attorney who started as an associate and came to us as a young lateral. The attorney worked with us for years without incident. The only thing we noticed was that the attorney partied a lot and bragged about it, but it was nothing too out of the ordinary. I did question the attorney’s judgment when the attorney got drunk at some firm functions early on, but the attorney’s performance was very competent. We had a lot of confidence in that attorney, and so did the clients. After the attorney had been with us for about seven years we were comfortable making the attorney a partner based on excellent work performance.

I never worked with the attorney personally; our practice areas did not overlap. But I always saw the attorney at our firm’s social events. Several years went on without incident, and then I started receiving reports occasionally from younger associate attorneys with whom the attorney worked. The reports at first were that the attorney wasn’t showing up to meetings with them or replying to their emails. They couldn’t get in touch. There was no oversight or supervision. No mentoring was occurring. Assignments would be made and that would be it. When they needed assistance, the attorney wasn’t available.

The attorney’s secretary brought to my attention that the attorney had started changing and cancelling client appointments. The attorney was calling in sick a lot. I would have never known because we really didn’t see a significant drop in billable hours. There was nothing happening other than these reports that would have raised concern.

Then I noticed that the attorney did not look well and appeared hung over, but the attorney would always attribute it to something else. The attorney began looking pale and clammy, with circles under the eyes, and started to look disheveled. Interestingly, I never smelled alcohol. Soon we were all noticing the deteriorating health and learned of significant marital and financial issues. The attorney talked with some of the partners about these various issues, but never mentioned problems with drinking, nor did we ask about it.

About a year before the firm decided to take action, I talked to the then-current LAP chair about what to do. I decided to wait and watch. I didn’t want to be wrong. The attorney was still doing competent work, trying cases and winning them, so I was comfortable knowing clients were not being hurt. I wanted to give the attorney the benefit of the doubt. Everybody liked each other at the firm, but the attorney didn’t have any real social friends within the firm.

The situation deteriorated over the year with more of the same kind of reports, so I approached the partners individually. They had noticed some things as well, though nobody had the concerns I had. To their credit, they did not dismiss my concerns, and when I suggested I would call the LAP, they thought that was a good idea.

I went over the history and the signs with a LAP staff member who confirmed my suspicions and told me that we were going to need to confront the attorney to seek recovery. I was warned going into the intervention, “The attorney will deny it and lie about it. That’s the pattern. Don’t tolerate it.”

We gathered all the partners together and brought the attorney in to talk. The attorney admitted the drinking problem, but thought it was something that could be handled without help. We told the attorney to get an evaluation from the LAP and if the LAP gave a clean bill of health, we would accept it. The attorney agreed to do this and met with a LAP staff person. The LAP concluded that there was a need for in-patient treatment, with the recommended length of stay of 90 days given the condition of the attorney.

We had another firm meeting then, and the attorney reported that the LAP staff person had recommended 90-day in-patient treatment. We all agreed with the recommendation. We told the attorney to follow what was recommended by LAP. The attorney understood our position but respectfully declined because of the financial consequences of taking three months off from work and the cost of treatment. The attorney claimed that family obligations precluded in-patient treatment and was also worried that clients would find out the reason for the departure.

We told the attorney that the firm would lend money for treatment, but the response was that the attorney did not want to be in debt to us. The LAP staffer had alerted us that this was the likely response, so we were ready. We said—and this was the hardest part—that we wanted the attorney to get better, that the attorney was a valuable member of the firm, that we’d lend the money for treatment, that we’d pay for whatever the insurance wouldn’t pay, but if the attorney didn’t go to treatment then there would be no job at the firm. We threw the hammer down. The reaction was anger; in fact, extreme anger. But within a day or two, it sunk in that treatment wasn’t optional. There was no choice and there were no other options. The attorney borrowed money from the firm to cover what the insurance would not cover and went to treatment.

While the attorney was in treatment, the partners obviously knew about it. In order to cover the workload, we had to tell some of the associates about the attorney’s treatment because they were the ones who had to cover the work for three months. It was our understanding that the attorney would be completely incommunicado, so this had to be done. We didn’t have any problems with continuances or the local bar, and we never had to tell opposing counsel anything specific. We said there were some personal issues that were keeping the attorney away from the office. No one asked any questions and we did not tell any clients.

There was a real willingness on the part of our partners to step in and provide help. No one even questioned it. We opted to continue to pay salary and insurance benefits during treatment. Everyone supported that decision and supported the attorney during this time.

When in-patient treatment was finished, the attorney came back into the practice. The attorney continued in a recovery program as well. The attorney doesn’t talk about it much, except on the sobriety anniversary day. The attorney doesn’t come to many firm social gatherings these days. We always drink at these events, so the attorney won’t come to a firm cocktail party, but will attend a firm holiday dinner for a few hours. The loan was repaid, an action recommended by the LAP as an important part of the recovery process. It was an investment for the firm, but an extremely good one. Our attorney is one of our most successful and productive lawyers.

Over the years, I have seen a complete transformation. All aspects of the life of this attorney in recovery seem to be incredible these days. I have no idea how, but somehow the broken family life was repaired. Involvement with children increased. Physical fitness returned. Vacations are taken. Balance has been restored.

The attorney became an incredible mentor to young lawyers. Absence and a lack of instruction or guidance have been replaced by teaching, and very good teaching at that. The attorney is far more reliable and congenial and much more of a team player now within the firm.

The most amazing part is witnessing how a good practice has become an amazing practice. I was concerned initially because of the levels of stress at our firm and in that practice area in particular. It’s stressful for the most stable of us, much less someone coming out of treatment. I worried it was too much to take on all at once. But the attorney stepped up to the challenge, and has had success like never before. The attorney is very skilled at winning really difficult cases, is in high demand, has brought tremendous success to the firm, and has great prospects. We always knew this attorney was an asset that we wanted to get better, and this attorney in recovery has exceeded our expectations in the process.

Best of all, the anger is gone. The anger turned into appreciation. The attorney’s predominant emotion is one of extreme gratitude that everything happened the way it did. We all just have an incredible respect for what has been accomplished. It takes an extremely strong person to overcome alcoholism and battle for recovery.

My advice to a partner at a firm in a similar situation would be that if you see red flags and you’re unsure if they’re meaningful, call the LAP. Advice and guidance are sitting there waiting to be given. I didn’t want to open up a can of worms if it wasn’t necessary. The LAP staff person hit the nail on the head right away and really helped pull it all together for me. The LAP staff person said the LAP was there not just supporting our partner, but supporting the firm as well.

I understand more now that when red flags start to show up at work, that’s usually the last domino to fall. When you see something, you need to take action right when you see it. I should have acted earlier when I started receiving those early reports of the attorney not working with the associates and calling in sick a lot. Pay attention to those kinds of reports and listen to the people who work the most closely with the lawyer.

There was one time about a year after the attorney returned from treatment that I became concerned. I forget now exactly the incident or reason for my concern. I knew that because of confidentiality the LAP couldn’t talk to me, but I could talk to the LAP. So I called and told the LAP staff person about my concerns. The LAP staffer listened and said, “Let me make some calls. I’ll get back to you.” I received a call a few days later assuring me that the LAP staffer had spoken to some of the volunteers who were mentoring the attorney and that there was nothing to worry about. It was suggested that in this scenario I should let the incident pass and not confront the attorney. The LAP staff person said that sometimes a confrontation might be called for, but that in this case with whatever my concern was, all was well. And it was.

Looking back, I feel like I should have done something sooner. But then again, people have to be ready for help. It has all worked out well and I am grateful for the guidance the LAP gave me and our firm along the way.

– 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.

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