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A Recovery Story: Overcoming Barriers of Culture and Fear

Denial is a big part of addiction. The step from denial into recovery is a huge one, and for women lawyers it is very large indeed. As a young associate in a private firm, I faced a terrible fear. That fear was about addiction. I had gone straight from college into law school and from there to a job with a reputable firm. Having clerked for this firm the previous summer, I knew that not only would I learn a lot in my chosen area of practice, but also I would never want for drinking companions. It was easy to continue a pattern of drinking that I began early in my college days.

After I had been with the firm for some time, the partners acknowledged tensions that they felt were attributed to issues of gender relations and rapid growth. A consultant was hired to address these issues. What he found, after interviewing all the female attorneys and most of the male attorneys, was a fraternal atmosphere in which a great emphasis was placed on drinking in social settings. He told several other younger female associates and me that drinking was a man’s game at which women would lose if they tried to play. Rather than taking this word of warning seriously, I interpreted it as a challenge; another area within the practice of law where I, as a woman, would have to try twice as hard to prove myself equal to a man.

During the time that I had been with the firm, I had heard comments made which indicated that men and women were still viewed differently in the firm and in the profession. A male partner who left early to be with his children was spoken of as a slack partner. Another female who, after a particularly rough night of drinking, swore she would not drink that way again, was said to be “over-reacting.” I was asked by a doctor whom I was deposing why we had so many “girls” in our firm. I had a client refuse to believe that I was their attorney and not a paralegal until I produced a business card. I once had a senior partner stand up in court during calendar call and announce to the judge that he was there to point out that the firm didn’t just hire “ugly old men” anymore. None of my male colleagues faced such situations. Thus, when I was faced with having to make a decision to stop drinking, which would further differentiate me from the men in the firm, I was terribly afraid.

My fear was compounded by the fact that I was one of the younger attorneys in the office. As a younger attorney, I found the need to fit in and be accepted overwhelming. Participation in social functions was not as much an option as an unspoken requirement. Stopping in for a few cold ones at a local happy hour spot did less to help unwind than to bolster a relationship with a partner or camaraderie with fellow associates. Alcohol flowed at all local bar functions, at softball games, at Christmas parties, and at summer cookouts. The firm had a tradition of dressing casually on the first day of the ACC tournament and spending the afternoon in front of a TV at a sports bar, beer in hand. Almost any occasion could, and would, be turned into a drinking event. For our firm, it reached the point where we had to make a special effort to plan a social event in which attorneys could participate that didn’t involve alcohol.

With drinking being such an integral part of the after-work life of the firm, it was especially difficult, not to mention noticeable, when I stopped drinking. I was approached by nearly every partner and associate, and was very careful about who I let in on my secret. Despite the fact that in the early days of the firm’s existence the partners participated in an intervention on another partner who was no longer with the firm, I was afraid that to be a recovering alcoholic would call into question my professional abilities. Strangely, I had never had the fear that being a practicing alcoholic might cause anyone to doubt my abilities. At least as a practicing alcoholic, I had not been alone.

What also made my decision noticeable was that I entered recovery after I had been with the firm long enough to establish my reputation as a drinker, and a heavy one at that. Somehow I felt that my drinking earned more respect from the partners. They were the ones who, when hung over, announced that they had the “flu” and were going home early. They were the ones who told stories of drunken escapades. I was merely following their example, both professionally and personally. I feared that if I raised concerns about my own drinking they would feel that I was concerned about theirs. In fact, another associate with whom I had been friends throughout law school told me that my decision to enter recovery had caused her to feel that it was necessary to look at her own drinking habits, which she was not prepared to do.

What I also found difficult was that I no longer “fit in” as well as I had when I was drinking. I found myself being excluded by those with whom I had formerly been included because I didn’t drink, which often made them uncomfortable. I wasn’t included with those members of the firm who drank less because I had already proven myself to be part of the party crowd. Because much of my drinking had been done with other members of the firm, and lawyers from other firms, I found myself shut out of most of the social interaction that I had enjoyed while drinking.

There are always obstacles to overcome when a person seeks to enter a program of recovery from addiction. These obstacles include the fear of what other people, particularly family members and co-workers, will think of the person once they admit they have a problem for which help is needed. While this fear of what others may think may be no greater for lawyers than for other individuals, it does take on different dimensions due to the professional nature of our work. In the legal profession, which is still dominated by men, this fear becomes greater when the addicted lawyer is female. When our professional abilities are called into question, whether implicitly or explicitly, women are resistant to taking any action that might be perceived by others or ourselves as a sign of weakness or personal incompetency.

Since entering a recovery program, I have noticed a conspicuous absence of female attorneys. This is despite the fact that over half of my law school graduating class was female, which was consistent with other law schools in the state. I currently know of very few female attorneys in recovery in the large city in which I live. On the other hand, I personally know a couple of dozen or more men in my profession who are also in recovery. At the first PALS conference I went to there were only two female PALS volunteers, now there are over 18. In a profession where so much training and learning is done by example, where the experienced lawyers will take the inexperienced ones under wing, there were when I needed help sadly few female attorneys’ footsteps to follow on a road to recovery. I hope and believe this is changing.

Despite the obstacles and the fear, which may to some seem insurmountable, I can only encourage anyone, male or female, who thinks they may have a problem to seek help. It is out there and can be obtained without risk to your career. Personally, although the decision was one of the most difficult I’ve ever had to make, it was one of the best.

– by Anonymous

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