When lateraling from one employer to another, do you see any downside to not disclosing a past drinking problem?
—A Beltway lawyer
Dear Beltway lawyer:
Short answer: Yes, I do. Before I lay out some reasons why I actually think it might make sense to disclose a past drinking problem, however, let me start by saying that it is ultimately a person and situation-specific issue. Different people will arrive at different conclusions about what is right for them, and I can respect that. I have worked with some law firms that are wonderfully supportive of their lawyers who have struggled with substance use and mental health problems, and I have worked with other law firms that don’t make such individuals feel supported in the least. Some in our profession (and society) remain harshly and ignorantly judgmental of those who have struggled with addiction, so I very much understand the impulse that one may have to conceal or otherwise keep such matters private.
All of that said, here are some of the reasons why I tend to come down on the side of disclosure:
The burden of inauthenticity: Let’s face it, our profession likes to drink—a lot. There are almost certainly going to be times when you are expected to be in alcohol-centric situations, and it is reasonable to believe you will be asked, possibly with regularity, if you’d like a drink. For some, it may feel inauthentic—almost like living a double life—to constantly be offering vague, elusive or varying explanations for why they are not partaking. If being open about having overcome a problem with alcohol helps resolve that inner tension, as well as reducing the peer pressure to drink, the resultant and broader benefits to one’s overall mental health could be substantial.
The threat to your recovery: If your drinking problem is in the past—and that’s where you want to keep it—you need to be doing things on an ongoing basis to support and nurture your recovery and well-being. Therefore, you need to carve out adequate time for those self-care activities, and to otherwise be placing greater emphasis on a healthy lifestyle than many of your colleagues are likely to understand. If you are not able to clearly and openly communicate that you have needs around your well-being, you may find yourself not giving those needs the primacy they deserve. Boundaries will erode, balance will disappear, and you may find yourself succumbing to the old and unhealthy habits that facilitated the onset of your problem drinking in the first place.
The value of candor: There is something to be said for being a straight shooter. Honesty goes a long way toward cultivating a positive perception of your professional integrity and personal character, even—and perhaps especially—when it means revealing something about yourself that others may perceive as a weakness or flaw. While it’s understandable to fear a prospective employer taking a dim view of your past struggles, you shouldn’t underestimate the flip side of the coin: the value that some might place on your willingness to be honest and open. Also, lots of lawyers have drinking problems, but far fewer have done the hard work to overcome them. Doing what you needed to do to get and stay sober is something to be proud of, and points to an inner reservoir of courage and determination that should be viewed as an asset.
Finally, on this point, if your new employer finds out that you actively misled or deceived them about your history, I don’t need to tell you that the result could be disastrous, especially if the reason for lateraling in the first place was directly related to your drinking. Under those circumstances, hiding the truth is an ill-advised strategy that will leave you with a thoroughly unstable and insecure foundation upon which to grow at your new firm.
The importance of a good fit: If you are considering a job at a new firm or other employer, don’t minimize the importance of whether they are a good fit for you. All of you. In the pie chart of our lives, our employers often—and unfortunately—get the biggest slice. If you can’t be your honest and authentic self in that environment, or if there is a significant disconnect between what you need to do to support your recovery and what you need to do to be part of that firm, I would suggest you keep looking. If a particular employer makes you legitimately uneasy about disclosing your past drinking problem, or being “found out,” maybe it’s just not the right place for you. Trust me, the opportunity to practice law and live an integrated life that doesn’t undermine your well-being is out there. It’s worth taking the time to find it.
Have a question? Send it to email@example.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.