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He was a partner in a major D.C. law firm with a wife, kids, and a house in the suburbs when he hit rock bottom and lost everything. “I was basically destitute,” he says. “I was a partner in a major law firm. I was a big deal who drank himself into oblivion.” When he finally realized that he needed help, he made a phone call to a counseling program offered through the D.C. Bar, and “it literally saved my life,” he says. Now, with his life back on track, he spends his time helping other lawyers struggling to overcome their own demons. To some, the D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program is a first step, a place to turn to when the stress of life is mounting. For others, the program is a last resort after hitting rock bottom. But for lawyers, judges, and law students facing addiction, mental health problems, or even work-related stress, Lynn Phillips and her army of volunteers are the voices of help. Established in 1985, the program offers free and confidential counseling and referral services for a wide variety of mental health issues including depression, stress, workplace dissatisfaction, emotional issues, and substance abuse problems. QUANTIFYING THE NEED Studies have shown that at any given time about 15 percent of U.S. lawyers have a problem that threatens their ability to practice law. Two-thirds suffer from substance abuse, while the rest have mental health issues. While about 7 percent to 10 percent of the general population suffer from substance abuse at one time or another, in the legal profession, the number is as high as 15 percent to 18 percent, according to the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. Lawyers and other highly educated professionals are especially susceptible to substance abuse and stress-related problems because of the demands of their jobs, according to Phillips, the executive director of the D.C. program and a professional counselor. “There is a real connection between chronic stress and susceptibility to substance abuse, depression, and other stress-related conditions,” Phillips says. “For lawyers, the stress is never-ending.” Phillips and her staff see between 80 to 90 people a year in their offices and have had countless phone consultations with others needing help or advice of some kind. Sometimes the problem is as simple as learning time-management skills or calendar-keeping, but more often than not, the problems are serious substance abuse or mental health issues that require counseling and/or treatment. All 50 states now offer some type of lawyer assistance program through the American Bar Association that provides either counseling services or referrals to treatment programs. All of the programs are free to bar members, and some even maintain a revolving fund to pay for treatment if a lawyer does not have health insurance. Virginia’s program, Lawyers Helping Lawyers, has about 100 to 130 active cases a year. Yet Executive Director Susan Pauley says she expects that number to double next year now that Virginia’s program has expanded to include impairment due to mental health as well as substance abuse. Maryland’s Lawyer Counseling Program deals with the full spectrum of mental health and substance abuse issues from alcohol, drug, food, and sex addiction to grief counseling, according to Carol Waldhauser, the assistant director of the program. She says that Maryland has about 150 open cases each year. ‘WE HAVE BEEN THERE’ What makes these counseling programs work is that they rely on a core group of volunteers, all of whom are fellow lawyers and many of whom are in recovery themselves. As working legal professionals, the volunteers not only add perspective but also understand about professional responsibilities, deadline pressure, the long hours lawyers work, the adversarial roles lawyers play, and the rules of conduct and disciplinary procedures they can face. The volunteers work individually with program participants, offering support and advice day and night. They do everything from helping them find and accompanying them to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to working to resolve trouble with the bar and even talking to family, friends, or employers. They differ from AA sponsors in that while sponsors focus solely on the individual and their sobriety, the volunteers help with all aspects of a person’s life and treatment. “It is about the program, but it is much more than just the program. We have been there,” explains the former partner mentioned above. He has been volunteering with the D.C. counseling program since the program helped him more than a decade ago. For him, the downward spiral began after law school when he started practicing law. Drinking was a big part of it, he says. When you are out with colleagues, when you are entertaining clients — alcohol is always involved. While he was never a big drinker in college, he says that he learned how to make the perfect martini and learned enough about wine to become the head of the wine society. But what began as social drinking quickly escalated to the point where he was drinking around the clock. “I was neither totally sober nor totally out of it,” he says. The first job that he lost was his partnership in an international law firm, and with it, he lost his house. But he never attributed the losses to his drinking, he says, adding that alcoholics are good at coming up with excuses. With no job and no place in which to live, he decided to try his luck in Paris, where contacts there were unaware of his problem. But the change in geography did not change his drinking habits. After a year in Europe, his wife left him, and he lost more jobs in rapid succession. “Nobody said they fired me because of my drinking,” he says, “but it was a direct result of that.” Finally, in what he calls a moment of clarity, he decided to return to Washington, where he proceeded to sleep on friends’ couches and unsuccessfully tried to control his drinking. It was 1991, and he had been drinking for about six years. One day, he says, he came across an ad or an article about the bar counseling program but he was clueless as to its purpose. He thought they offered cut-rate car insurance or cheap law school books, he says, but he called the number thinking they could direct him to a doctor. The executive director at the time invited him to stop by the office and immediately diagnosed him as an alcoholic. There is a test you can take to figure out if you’re an alcoholic, he says. “I either failed it totally or passed it totally. Every question I answered, I was an alcoholic.” At first, with the program’s help, he entered into outpatient treatment with the promise that if he took a drink he would enter into a more-intensive treatment program. He started treatment with great enthusiasm, but still believing that AA was for other people. “I was too proud to go to AA,” he says. “In my view, they were a bunch of gutter drunks. They are not like me.” However, a few months later, he took a drink and within days he was in Suburban Hospital’s inpatient treatment program. After several years and a couple more relapses he finally did what he needed to do years before. He finally realized that he was powerless against alcohol and accepted AA. Now he attends a meeting every Monday night at 6:30 in Parish Hall at St. John’s Church near Lafayette Square. While the meeting is not just for lawyers, it is a meeting where lawyers feel comfortable, he says. Another volunteer who gained her sobriety almost 24 years ago believes that the volunteers serve as role models as well. “It is important in this profession to have another lawyer who has been there who is successful,” she says. Experts point to the idea that since lawyers essentially formulate arguments for a living, they can easily come up with reasons why someone in another profession would succeed when they would not or how their case is different. “Lawyers can be very hard-headed and stubborn,” says Pauley of the Virginia program. In the D.C. program, Phillips relies on about 40 to 50 volunteers, all legal professionals, some of whom have been with the program since its inception and many of whom are in recovery themselves. Others have seen family members struggle with drugs, alcohol, or mental illness, and some volunteer just because they want to help. “I get more out of it than they do,” says the female volunteer, who now heads a family law practice. She believes that helping others helps her with her own sobriety. In her case, substance abuse ran in the family. Yet it took the urging of family and friends for her to see the symptoms in herself. What finally propelled her into AA, she says, was the desire to prove to those around her that she didn’t have a problem. It was only once she started going to the meetings that she realized she did. A lot of people believe it’s shameful to admit you have a problem, she says. “They have been through three years of law school, worked as a lawyer, and they cannot control something as simple as drinking.” She says she was like many other people who believed she could control her drinking. After all, she didn’t drink every day. She was a binge drinker; once she started, she could not stop. One of the myths about alcoholism, she says, is that if you don’t drink on a daily basis, you’re not an alcoholic. ENTERING THE PROGRAM People needing help come to the counseling program in a number of ways. The majority enter as a self-referral. They finally realize they need some kind of help, Phillips says. Others come as a result of seeing or hearing about a presentation made at a law school or a firm. And the rest, Phillips says, come at the urging of colleagues, family, the court, or bar counsel. Even when people are referred to the program through a third party, the service remains confidential. “We are absolutely obligated not to report,” Phillips says, “so that people will come to us.” In order to maintain an individual’s confidentiality, the program’s office space is located on a different floor from the rest of the bar association and has its own entrance and phone number. She adds that D.C. Bar policy is that participation in the program will not be grounds for disbarment. While the program aims to prevent people from having problems with the bar, it can also help after serious problems arise. Despite the program’s confidentiality policy, with an individual’s written consent, Phillips can let the bar know that he or she has completed a treatment program, which can help with reinstatement. The D.C. program offers four different kinds of help. Individuals can talk with a professional counselor over the phone, can be assessed by a counselor and referred to a treatment program, can work with a volunteer, or can receive one-on-one counseling from a program counselor. When family or firm members call about a loved one or colleague, Phillips can facilitate an intervention, but she cannot approach a third party. It is much better for the individual to hear from the affected parties, who can provide concrete examples of questionable behavior and situations, than through an intermediary. Yet the program can assist with interventions by helping someone at the firm like a managing partner take the person aside for a talk, or even by gathering firm members around a table to confront the individual personally. In addition, the program will help to get the person into treatment. The hardest part about the recovery process, Phillips says, is the first step — making the phone call.

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