The road to recovery for a veteran trial lawyer who confronted his own drinking problem has created an unexpected business opportunity — leading interventions for families dealing with substance abuse problems.
Steven Varney has been sober since 2006. A little over two years ago, he got interested in the idea of helping families organize surprise showdowns that result in getting drug- or alcohol-addicted loved ones into treatment. Varney’s motivation came from facing addiction problems of his own. “I found that in working through my own recovery program, I got enormous satisfaction or fulfillment out of helping other people who are struggling,” Varney said.
The season of holiday parties is upon us, when a social drink here or there can materialize into something destructive in the nicest of families. Varney knows all too well how the good times can turn sour. He also knows that alcoholism does not discriminate. “It doesn’t matter how many friends you or how much money you have,” he said. “Anyone can become addicted.”
For the first 25 years of his career, Varney was a profile of success, at least on paper. After majoring in political science as an undergraduate, he graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1985. His first job was as a litigator with Brown, Paindiris & Scott in Hartford, Conn., where he stayed for 24 years.
During that time, he made partner and handled many high-profile cases, including a lawsuit known as the “Tarmac Hold” case in which a Fairfield, Conn., family sued America West Airlines for being held “captive” on a jet for over eight hours during an airport weather delay. The case eventually settled favorably for his client.
In 2005, Varney left to start his own criminal defense and civil litigation practice, which he expanded to include defense of abuse and neglect charges brought by the Department of Children and Families. After work, Varney coached Little League baseball, soccer and basketball in his community of Rocky Hill, Conn.
While he did a pretty good job of keeping it secret, his alcohol addiction grew worse. “I was on top of the world,” he said. “But my world was crumbling around me. I continued to go on functioning, day after day, denying to myself and my loved ones that I had a problem.”
His own road to recovery was pain-filled to be sure, although Varney hesitates to publicly discuss that path or the impact it had on his own family. He said only that his family held an intervention, which led him to inpatient and outpatient treatment. “I’m living proof that interventions work,” he said.
Although he found sobriety, he also found himself in trouble with state disciplinary officials. In 2010, two clients filed grievances against Varney. One alleged violation stemmed from collecting an unreasonable retainer of $5,000 for a routine case. The other was for not adequately communicating with a client. As a result, his law license was suspended for two years.
Left with a void in his life, Varney did some soul-searching and came up with the idea of handling interventions for others. With the help of a friend, he created a website for his business, which he calls Intervention First.
Things often start with a phone call from a worried family member. After the initial consultation, Varney compiles a longer list of family members and acquaintances who should be involved and works to get them together. The key to a successful intervention, Varney explained, is including people from all areas of the addicted person’s life.
Some interventions take several weeks to organize. More than once Varney has relied on the skills of advocacy he learned arguing on behalf of clients in court to convince unwilling family members to participate. “Sometimes, you get a hold of family members who don’t want to bother. They’ve given up on the person with the drinking or drug problem,” he said. “So that can be challenging.”
Mary Alice Moore Leonhardt, a member of the Connecticut chapter of Lawyers Concerned For Lawyers, knows of Varney’s work and calls it “highly commendable.” Leonhardt is known statewide for providing support for attorneys who suffer from debilitating conditions, including alcohol and substance abuse.
She said substance abuse issues afflict many in the legal profession. She said Varney’s decision to help others as part of his own recovery is a good example for other lawyers struggling with addiction. “By helping other people, you are able to reflect on your own recovery … It helps with your own recovery,” Leonhardt said. “So it’s selfish and selfless.”
In an intervention he completed recently, Varney said he was contacted by the 80-year-old parents of a 58-year-old man who had been drinking heavily for more than 40 years.
“Their son was essentially homeless, he was unemployable for years, and he was being hospitalized on a regular basis for alcohol poisoning and he was falling down and hurting himself,” Varney recalled. “His parents weren’t sure if they could help him, but they were afraid they would feel horrible if something happened to him. And for them, it wasn’t a matter of what would happen to him, but when.”
With that concern in mind, Varney had to work fast. He organized an intervention in a few days’ time. One important participant was the man’s son, a teenager, who hadn’t been in touch with his father for several years.
The group surprised the man at his parents’ house one Saturday, and sat in a circle around him. Instead of confronting the addicted person with threats or ultimatums, the model Varney uses calls for friends and family members to share their love and concern for the person. In this case, each of the eight or so family members told the man why they wanted him to get help.
“The man’s son spoke last, and he said he forgave his father, and he wanted him to get treatment,” Varney said. “And the father agreed. It was an amazing experience.”
He finds the work rewarding on professional and personal levels.
“I’ve had family members come up to me after an intervention and say they were changed by the process, which is something most people don’t ever experience. You sit in a room with a person who is dying from an addiction and tell them how much you love them. It’s really powerful just to get families together and make that happen. Most people don’t ever get that chance.”
The A&E television network show Intervention has made the practice more familiar to most Americans over the past couple of years. Although Varney has no addiction treatment license and has completed no coursework in the subject, after handling more than a dozen interventions (though none involving other lawyers), Varney has become something of an expert.
“I watch the television show and I notice they emphasize some aspects of interventions to pull viewers in,” he said. For instance, the interventions he handles are rarely as combative as those seen on TV. And unlike the show, which often features addicted people who attend expensive rehabilitation centers like the Betty Ford Clinic, “most families don’t have that kind of money for rehab.”
Varney said he measures his success not based on whether someone accepts treatment or gets sober, because that is really beyond the control of anyone but the addict. Instead, his goal is to just get family members together to talk. “My success is whether the families begin to heal after suffering for a long time in the shadow of the addict,” Varney said. “Addiction is a family disease.”
The intervention business does not take up all of Varney’s time. He is also doing clerking work under the supervision of lawyers in some small firms. Moving forward, Varney intends to apply to get his law license restored in January. He said he would balance a legal practice with his newfound avocation of helping people get sober. “That’s my goal,” he said.