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In the busy, stressful careers of lawyers, work events and life events regularly overlap. This occasional column byThe American Lawyer will tell the stories, both happy and sad, of how people struggle to deal with the complications that arise when work and life converge. His name is Paul Weber. He is an alcoholic. Nine years ago he was a homeless drunk who had lost his law license, split from his wife and abandoned his three daughters. He panhandled, collected cans, and crashed, when he could get there, in an abandoned house in Peabody, Mass., on Boston’s North Shore. Weber, 56, knew the house was vacant because he had worked on the foreclosure proceedings when he was still functional enough to practice law. Weber’s story, extreme as it is, illustrates how hard it is for any alcoholic to admit weakness and reach out for help. For lawyers, the barriers are often greater. According to the American Bar Association, studies estimate that between 15 percent and 18 percent of all American lawyers battle with alcohol and drug abuse problems, as compared to 10 percent of the general population. Among those who end up before disciplinary boards, the percentage is even higher. The havoc caused by impaired lawyers has reached the point where the State Bar of California will soon open the country’s first drug court to oversee the cases of attorneys with substance abuse problems who are suspected or accused of misconduct. But despite an increasing awareness and despite the fact that all 50 states offer some kind of assistance program aimed at helping impaired attorneys get into recovery, many lawyers in need never come calling. “Lawyers are very reluctant to seek help and very reluctant to acknowledge they have a problem,” says Bonnie Waters, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps members of the legal profession in Massachusetts who suffer from addiction, mental health and other personal problems. “The number one problem we have is lack of utilization. We can help a lot more people than we’re helping.” Weber, who started drinking as an adolescent, was a prime candidate for help before he’d even begun his legal career. By 1973, when he graduated from Suffolk University Law School in Boston and went to work as a public defender in Essex County, Mass., he could not get through the day without alcohol. For a while, he says, the drinking boosted his confidence and did little to slow down his career, which included a stint in the local prosecutor’s office and then private practice with his wife and father, a retired city solicitor. By the early 1980s, Weber had built a business that served multiple purposes. Criminal defense work fed his passion for the courtroom, while barter payments of cocaine fed his need for a stimulant to counteract the effects of too much booze. Real estate work brought in big bucks. “I was making a lot of money,” he says. “I thought everybody wanted to be me.” That delusion held steady for years — despite considerable evidence to the contrary. “I was starting to lose clients,” says Weber. “My home life was awful. My wife asked me to leave because she found out about my girlfriend.” But Weber could not acknowledge that he needed help. “How do you suggest to someone who’s making a couple hundred grand a year that he has a problem?” he asks. “Lawyers have been trained, in law school and since law school, that they’re special, that they’re smarter than others. I was sick enough to think everything was all right.” Whatever his rationalizations, Weber’s drinking did have a negative affect on his work. “I missed a lot of court appearances,” he says. “I was always late. Why I was never sued for malpractice is beyond belief … . I don’t have any specific memory of screwing up anybody’s case, but I can tell you that, by definition, the condition I was in, I had to screw up cases.” That’s pretty much what happened one day in 1987, when Weber showed up to handle a court appearance after several days of binge drinking. By 11 a.m., feeling desperate for some cocaine to help him stay on his feet, Weber slipped out during the morning recess expecting to make a quick trip to his dealer (and not remembering that he already had a stash in the car). He never made it. Weber slammed head-on into an 18-wheeler. Rescue workers had to pry him from the totaled car using “Jaws of Life” hydraulic tools. His blood alcohol content was so high that the medical staff couldn’t administer anesthesia before performing emergency surgery on Weber’s crushed left leg. Charges of driving under the influence were ultimately dismissed, Weber says, because they hadn’t been filed until several months after the accident occurred. Not that a drunk driving conviction would have made much difference. The accident effectively brought Weber’s career to a standstill — though it did nothing to curb his drinking. After spending around four months in the hospital and two in a physical rehab facility, Weber was released. With his car totaled and with his mobility restricted by a half-body cast, Weber, living alone for the first time in his life, relied on a sympathetic taxi service to deliver his daily ration of booze. When the disability checks ran out a few months later, Weber lost the apartment. His existence over the next four years was a focused quest to feed the physical and emotional craving for alcohol. “I was a street drunk,” he says. “I was the guy on the corner shaking the cup.” To some of his street friends, Weber became the legal eagle they turned to in a pinch. “There was a certain segment in the underclass who’d clean me up and take me to court with them,” he says. Weber doesn’t recall most of those court appearances. In fact, he doesn’t remember much that happened between the 1987 car crash and the frigid day in January 1992 when an acquaintance found Weber blue in the face on the floor of the abandoned house in Peabody and called for help. Weber was hospitalized and then sent to a detox center. Weber had gone into rehab at least 17 times between 1982 and 1992. With this trip, he finally found the strength to stop drinking. “I’ve been sober since,” he says. It’s hardly been easy or without tremendous struggle and moments of despair. Weber’s law license had been suspended for several years, not because of client complaints, but because Weber had failed to pay his dues. When he began attending meetings in a traditional 12-step program, Weber’s sponsor was adamant that Weber work toward getting his license reinstated, as a key part of the recovery process. Weber thus faced a state bar disciplinary committee that instituted a two-year program of monitored probation. Its many requirements included attendance at weekly meetings of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL). Weber went into those meetings with a bad attitude. “I just stumbled in the door one day very unhappy,” he says. “I came with a chip on my shoulder … . I had become a pariah and surly … . I wasn’t ready to do this … . I felt I was dead. I didn’t want to live. I was a walking dead person. I didn’t have the courage to kill myself, but I didn’t want to live.” Weber’s temperament didn’t surprise LCL director Waters. “Lawyers are really trained to come up with their own solution,” she says. “By the time they get to us, they’re usually in very dire straits.” Over the course of several months, the 12-step program and the meetings with his peers had a humbling — and healing — effect. “I became a totally changed person,” Weber says. “I started to find and discover who I was. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to get my self-respect back.” Weber, who had spent several months on welfare, ultimately won reinstatement of his license and began to practice again, doing domestic and criminal work, a lot of it pro bono. As he became increasingly involved in assisting other alcoholic lawyers and doctors, Weber felt the need to branch out from law. “I wanted to enhance my ability to be able to help fellow professionals who were suffering from alcoholism,” he says. “My days of being a hotshot million-dollar lawyer are over. I wanted to do the type of law I wanted. I wanted to devote my life to helping others in the same fix. All that led me to social work.” So, at age 53, Weber went back to school. This May he was awarded a master’s degree in social work from Salem State College in Salem, Mass. Unfortunately, Weber wasn’t able to attend graduation. Instead, he was dealing with his latest life challenge — kidney cancer — which was diagnosed in the late winter. “It’s a terminal-type thing,” Weber says matter-of-factly. The spreading cancer and its depleting treatment have left Weber unable to do much actual work. Instead, he mostly shuttles between medical appointments, helps facilitate programs at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, and attends 12-step meetings. Helping Weber throughout this latest ordeal have been his three daughters, now young adults. Reconciling with the girls, whom he effectively abandoned for five years, was the hardest part of his recovery. At one point, he didn’t even recognize his youngest daughter, Amanda, who was 6 when he left the family. Shortly after he stopped drinking, Weber, at the urging of his 12-step sponsor, went one Saturday to watch Amanda play soccer. With several games going simultaneously, Weber wandered around with no idea which girl was his daughter. He finally spotted his ex-wife, but he still couldn’t single out Amanda. “As I was walking around that field, the truth about Paul Weber and alcoholism came to me,” he says. “I just walked around that place feeling miserable. I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t know what my daughter looked like.” For Weber, rebuilding relationships with his daughters after doing so much damage to them has been his most satisfying accomplishment. “In those 15 minutes [looking for Amanda], I had seen how destructive one drink of alcohol was,” he says. “It had denied me taking care of my kids … . Basic forms of life take care of their young. And I didn’t.” It would be tempting to feel pity for a man who’s received a death sentence just at the point in his life when he has finally risen above the adversities that derailed him for years. But Weber’s remarkably composed attitude about the cancer invites no condolences. The lessons he learned as he pulled himself up from the gutter are guiding him through this latest — and probably last — chapter of his life. For him, the cancer hurdle has served less as a setback than as a challenge for which he’s well prepared. “The impact of the cancer has been enormous,” he says, “but mentally and emotionally it’s minuscule compared to what we’ve been talking about. All of the things that I’ve learned in getting sober have applied. I’m not thinking about dying all the time. I’m thinking about how much more can I get done.”

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