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It was gray and wet on a recent Long Island, N.Y., morning. The lecture hall at Hofstra University School of Law was filled with students. On the dais were four VIPs of the New York legal world. On the day’s agenda was the subject of booze. “Here, for the grace of some mystery, am I — a recovering alcoholic who does not drink, one day at a time,” said the leadoff speaker. He was a soft-spoken man of late middle age. If a pin had dropped, it would have been heard. For this was Eugene J. O’Brien talking, president of the Suffolk County, N.Y., Bar Association. “I look back on it now,” said O’Brien, a partner in the Smithtown, N.Y., firm of Hammill, O’Brien, Croutier & Dempsey, “and I see all the signs. “I was a family man, a law student [Brooklyn Law School], an athlete, an ex-Marine. I could excuse myself for those bar fights. I was under a lot of stress.” O’Brien took a long minute to look out over the silent crowd of young faces. “A lot of my classmates lost their tickets to become lawyers,” he said. “In some cases, they died.” The students heard further from Chris T. McDonough, assistant counsel for the State of New York Grievance Committee, 10th Judicial District; Kathryn Meng, president of the Nassau County Bar Association and a partner in the Hempstead, N.Y., firm Cianciulli & Meng; and Ray M. L�pez, director of the Lawyer Assistance Program for the New York State Bar Association. The Hofstra program, sponsored by the Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity, came about due to efforts by the State Bar to give early counsel to budding attorneys at New York’s 15 law school campuses about the occupational hazard of alcoholism. Last December, the State Bar’s Commission on Alcohol and Substance Abuse recognized alcoholism as the most common manifestation of what Meng called “a very stressful profession” “It’s a pervasive problem — not necessarily with you because you’re freshly scrubbed and eager,” McDonough told the Hofstra students. “But it happens.” In O’Brien’s student days, nobody from the real world of lawyers and judges took time to sound a warning in any organized way. He suggested a reason, and suggested further that in some ways little has changed: “The busiest saloons anywhere are the bars around the courthouses.” L�pez told the Hofstra students of his own alcoholism — and more. “I was a garbage-head,” he said, meaning a person who uses any available substance in pursuit of oblivion. “At a young age, I was smelling gasoline. Now I’m an alcoholic — in recovery. “I know some of you are telling yourselves, this will never happen to me. I told myself that at 18, and at 25, and at 34.” Now in his 50s, L�pez added, “I paid very dearly.” Before becoming a certified social worker and joining the State Bar 11 years ago, L�pez lived in a box on the streets of New York City. “Before I was a C.S.W.,” as he put it during an interview in his Albany office, “I was a B.U.M.” Of his special outreach to today’s law students, he said, “Originally, I thought it would be a preventative measure. But as I’ve come to learn, the problem is often already there.” Such is the case with Mark (not his real name), a suburban New York City law school student and a recovering alcoholic. In a telephone interview, he said of his last day of law school classes this year, “One of the professors brought in champagne, and the students brought their own booze on top of that. A number of students had to have their [automobile] keys taken away.” In the aftermath of personal tragedy — the murder of his sister — Mark decided to become an attorney. The decision was ironic, he said, after “dealing with the system, and all the lawyers. “I was already in A.A. [Alcoholics Anonymous] before law school,” said Mark. “But it helped when Ray [L�pez] came and spoke to my professional responsibility class.” Getting into such classes to speak — or assembling a panel presentation on the Hofstra model — has not been a simple matter of L�pez picking up a phone and booking a date. Year after year, three of the state’s 15 law schools still decline L�pez’ request to speak. For his part, L�pez declined to name the reluctant trio. “The attitude on the part of the administrators seems to be that while what we do is important, it’s not teaching law — it’s teaching social studies,” said L�pez. “But I don’t give up. I’ll keep coming back, and coming back. Maybe just to get rid of my calls they’ll have me come aboard.” AN ETHICS ISSUE McDonough, who speaks to law students in ethics and professional responsibility classes about 18 times a year, said cases that land on his desk at the state grievance committee “involve alcoholism much of the time, but that fact doesn’t always come out.” One case in particular, McDonough suggested, illustrates the strong denial factor in alcoholism and other substance abuse among lawyers and judges. “We had a lawyer with an ATM connection to a client’s escrow account,” he said. “Every weekend, he’d go to Atlantic City as a high-roller, and he’d hire an ‘escort.’ If he’d gone to Ray [L�pez] or Gene [O'Brien], he might have his license today. In fact, he might be alive today. “If you don’t get help, you can’t save yourself,” McDonough told the Hofstra students. “If you’re an electrician and you lose your job, you can go out and do something else. But a lawyer isn’t wired that way. Lawyers lose everything — spouses, homes, the respect of friends. “If you have a problem, or see someone having a problem, it’s crucial to get help — early on.” Otherwise, L�pez suggested during his part in the Hofstra program, the denial factor becomes ludicrous with time. There was the elderly judge, for instance, who insisted on saying “Remain seated” to doctors when he walked into alcoholic rehabilitation clinics. Then there was the middle-aged lawyer/junkie: “He was offended at being called a drug addict,” said L�pez. “When he was down, he was on heroin. When he was up, he was on cocaine. But he would only admit to doing cocaine. He made a big point of it. He said, ‘I’m a cocaine-ist, not a drug addict.’ “ AVOID DENIAL Meng urged the Hofstra students to avoid any sign of denial when they interview with character committees of the bar. Problems typical of substance abusers — criminal records and bankruptcies, for example — should not be excluded on application forms. “One of the things they look for is that you’ve not omitted anything,” Meng said of committee members. “Most of us understand that the cover-up is always worse than the crime.” Crimes do happen, as Todd (not his real name) attested during a telephone interview. An alcoholic in his early teens, Todd dropped out of college in 1970 at the age of 19. After “mostly sitting on barstools for 23 years,” he said, and with time out for two convictions on assault and one for DWI, Todd returned to college. Todd put himself through the balance of his undergraduate years by painting houses, a trade that has also financed his subsequent law school years. “I don’t know how I even heard about Ray L�pez, but one day I talked to the dean of student affairs about having Ray come do a presentation,” said Todd. “So then I called Ray, and he said yes. It became an ongoing thing. I needed commitment in my A.A. work, and this was my way.” Last year, Todd graduated from his law school. He is now studying for the May bar examination. “I was going to be an environmental lawyer, yet here I am dealing with all these chemicals as a house painter,” said Todd. “There’s something incongruous about that.” But during a criminal law clinic, Todd was assigned to drug court work as an assistant with the Legal Aid Society. “I started seeing people who were me — 10 years earlier,” he said. “I’m sitting there in drug court one day, and my whole entire life came full circle on me. I’m not saying the room filled up with golden light, but it was overwhelming. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m going to defend the same people I used to drink with. “It’s a way of giving back, not just as a lawyer,” Todd said. “Of course, I have no doubt that I’ll be painting on weekends for quite some time. I have this humongous school loan. “But it just seems to me that this [Legal Aid] is where I’m supposed to be.”

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