Attorneys Facing Addiction

It is an unfortunate reality that the legal profession reportedly has one of the highest levels of addiction of any occupation in the country.  Although many states maintain hotlines and other services available to attorneys, it is all too common that addiction struggles advance to the point where ethical violations result for the attorney.

In a recent case, the Indiana Supreme Court addressed a situation when an attorney was disbarred for stealing money from a township to support his gambling habit. The attorney served as town treasurer and wrote dozens of checks payable to himself over the course of several months.  In a subsequent hearing on his disbarment, the attorney accepted responsibility for his actions and made an impassioned plea to the court to forgo disbarment in favor of a lesser sanction.  While the court acknowledged the attorney’s ongoing efforts to address his addiction, it concluded that his actions struck at the heart of public trust in the institutions of government and the legal profession.  The court therefore upheld the original determination that disbarment was the appropriate punishment.

This case exemplifies the very real consequences of addiction in the legal profession.  The attorney’s breach of trust may have been obvious, but the offending attorney’s acknowledgment of his problem and affirmative steps to resolve the issue shows a dedication that is not always present in those suffering from addiction.  The court nevertheless found that the severity of the crime overrode any mitigating factors and upheld the disbarment of the attorney.

It is therefore important that all professionals recognize the real risk of addiction and continuously self-evaluate for signs of potential problems. While personal health is always the paramount concern, it is also important that one’s professional career is at stake and a second chance may not be made available.

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  1. One of the challenges of self evaluation is that addiction is the only disease that tells you you don’t have a disease. The old adage/joke, “how do you know when an addict is lying? He’s moving his lips.” Yet attorneys and executives often don’t know they’re lying because they’re lying to themselves too. One of the reasons hypothesized for attorneys having a higher incidence of addiction and physicians having a high but average (yet they should know better) incidence of substance use disorders is that both professions are populated by type A, high achievers who are strong, independent self-reliant and competitive. All great traits for successful business folks but not great qualities for self care, mental health, mindfulness and self compassion. So it’s hard to self monitor, self evaluate, self regulate. DENIAL is an acronym for Don’t Even K(n)ow I Am Lying. My main point is just that there is no shame in asking for help. In fact research shows over and over that the ability to ask for help not only makes an individual a better employee but increases the likelihood of success for the organization or business across the board. Do not hesitate to ask for help. Especially in gambling addiction the latter stage of compulsive gambling is when an addict is chasing losses. It’s often too late at point to mitigate serious damage. There are so many places to get help, evaluation, feedback and support these days for lawyers and executives facing addiction.

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