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Dear Patrick:

I think my supervising attorney is what you would probably call a problem drinker. Please advise.

—A Reader


Dear Short and to the Point:

I don’t envy you. Fortunately, though, my envy isn’t what you were looking for, and I do have some advice: start looking for a new job. Whether you need to ultimately take that new job is something we’ll get to, but definitely start looking right now. It’s generally advisable to maintain options throughout your career, but they’re a must-have in situations like this.

Now, you haven’t given me a lot of background to work with. What kind of work environment or size law firm is this? What’s the general vibe around substance use and mental health? Is he or she actually impaired—and is work being affected—or do you just observe him or her drinking too much at social functions? Do you otherwise like your job? Is it a hostile or low-morale environment because of the drinking?

In the absence of that information, what I can give you is some broad-stroke feedback on the general issues.

Well-Counseled-Bug

First, having a problem drinker as a co-worker is always a challenge, whether he or she is supervising you or not. Addiction is often referred to as a “family disease” because of the negative and painful impact it has on everyone in the addicted person’s orbit or, more appropriately, blast zone. Applying that perspective to the workplace, having a peer who’s a problem drinker would be a lot like having an addicted sibling: awful, but generally more limited in its global effect on your life.

When the problem drinker is your boss, however, you’re now dealing with the far more chaotic and destabilizing environment, like the one experienced by the children of addicted parents. (Sidebar: That chaos can be so penetratingly detrimental that there is a support group called Adult Children of Alcoholics that provides a forum to individuals who desire to recover from the effects of growing up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family.)

Assuming you’re still in the earlier stages of your career, you still have “growing up” to do in the profession, and these are very much your formative years. Pause and ask yourself whether you want that formation to take place under the wing of a potentially unstable mentor who is probably moody, unpredictable, unreliable, and otherwise at risk for modeling unsavory behavior. In the event you are wrestling with that question, I’ll settle it for you. You don’t. I don’t care what the short-term upside might be, the long-term drawback is shortchanging your professional development and undermining your full potential as a lawyer, and a person.

Albert Schweitzer famously said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” I’m generally not a big quote guy, but that one is so fundamentally on point. Don’t underestimate the influence that your supervising attorney’s example is bound to have on you if you don’t address the situation. Trust me. I’ve counseled a lot of lawyers who, once they finally got well and untangled themselves from dysfunction, were able to see with clear-eyed retrospect that their problems had been learned behaviors that took root in their professional life. Don’t allow that to happen to you.

Clearly, the fact that this person is your supervisor raises some tricky political issues. Having that type of power dynamic at play is what typically keeps younger professionals from objecting to unfortunate and sometimes even abusive behavior of more senior attorneys. That’s one of the long-standing and structural problems plaguing our profession, however, and the sooner we move away from that the better. (Have you started looking for a new job yet?)

What I want you to do next is pretty straightforward.  First, document your concerns. Second, confide in some friends or colleagues about how this is impacting you. Third, consider attending an Al-Anon meeting, or talking with a professional to get some support and counseling from people who understand what you’re going through and can help you process it. (Al-Anon is a resource intended to help the families and friends of alcoholics, whether or not the alcoholic recognizes the existence of a drinking problem or seeks help.) Once you’ve done all of that, get as close to having another job lined up as possible, and then broach the subject with management, another senior attorney, or whomever the appropriate person might be in your particular work context. Make it clear that you are not trying to rat your supervisor out, but rather you are concerned about his or her own well-being, and about how your supervisor’s drinking is affecting you and your practice. Also make it clear that the situation is not sustainable for you.

Without knowing more specifics about your circumstances, I can’t say whether it makes sense to also talk to an employment lawyer, and I’ll leave the legal angle to your own discretion. Once you’ve tended to your own psychological and emotional needs around this issue, seek a remedy for the situation and be prepared to bolt if the remedy isn’t forthcoming. You’ll likely have numerous jobs in your life, but you’ll only have one you. Prioritize accordingly.

Have a question?  Send it to wellcounseled@gmail.com, and I’ll see you back here in two weeks.

Patrick R. Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information.