Hot on the heels of the publicity for Brian Cuban’s new book, “The Addicted Lawyer: Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow and Redemption,” comes the searing account in the New York Times of the 2015 death of a former IP partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, who secretly battled drug addiction and reportedly died of a bacterial infection that often afflicts intravenous drug users.
Cuban’s book (he is the brother of billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) is, by all accounts, a story of perseverance and recovery; Cuban redeemed his life, although he does not practice law any longer.
But the New York Times article, authored by the Wilson Sonsini partner’s ex-wife, is a harrowing call to arms about the need to do a better job — in the organized bar, in BigLaw, small law, corporate law and everywhere else — of identifying and helping addicted lawyers.
“Last call” — dial-in to a work conference
The Wilson Sonsini partner, identified in the NYT article only as “Peter,” is described as successful, driven and work-obsessed. After a stellar law school career, in which he graduated first in his class, he replicated that success in a legal career that saw him regularly working 60-hour weeks over the next 20 years.
His ex-wife, with whom Peter maintained good relations, found him dead on the floor in his house, near half-filled syringes, a tourniquet, and crushed pills. She had no idea that he was struggling with a severe addiction — reflected in detailed notes the lawyer kept of the times and amounts of his drug injections — although she writes that she noticed wild mood-swings in the months before his death, and voice mails consisting of “meandering soliloquies.”
Most poignantly, the lawyer kept working right up to the end. The last call he made from his cellphone, his ex-wife wrote, was to dial in to a work conference call, even though he was “vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness.”
At Peter’s memorial service, his ex-wife wrote, while a weeping young associate eulogized the partner he had come to know, firm lawyers were bent over their own cellphones, tapping out e-mails — unable to put down their work even then.
The statistics on lawyers and alcohol abuse are grim, and well-known. More than a fifth of all lawyers are problem drinkers, according to last year’s joint report of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Lawyers.
The statistically-robust report drew responses from 12,825 licensed and practicing lawyers from 19 states. But only 25 percent of respondents answered questions about drug use — out of fear of answering, according to the study’s lead author. Quoted in the NYT story, he said that “I think the incidence of drug use and abuse is significantly underreported,” because in contrast to alcohol use, drug use is illegal.
In his book, Cuban describes snorting cocaine in his former law firm’s bathroom, to keep going after boozing it up and using drugs the night before. Other memoirs, like “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” by a former Pillsbury Winthrop lawyer, underscore the reality of lawyer drug addiction.
What is the profession doing to help?
Accounts like Cuban’s and the death of the Wilson Sonsini lawyer spotlight the need for the legal profession to step up its efforts to help. The ABA’s Model Rule on Continuing Legal Education calls for just one credit of CLE every three years on mental health or substance abuse.
Some states, like my home state of Ohio, have moved away from a specific substance-abuse requirement; since rule amendments in 2014, many subjects qualify to meet our “professional conduct” CLE requirement, so a lawyer never needs to have any substance abuse CLE.
Yet, in the days before that change was made, when lawyers still needed to get one hour of substance abuse training every two years, each time I spoke on ethics at a CLE seminar, I observed at least one lawyer going up afterwards to the person who had spoken on substance abuse, and speaking earnestly. These were lawyers in trouble — and we need to do more to help them.
Jurisdictions like Illinois seem to be moving in the right direction, as reported by Chicago ethics lawyer Allison Wood. Under amended rules, Illinois lawyers are now required to take one hour of mental health and substance abuse CLE as part of their six-hour professional responsibility requirement. Both the directive to have at least some substance abuse training, and the size of the PR requirement are laudable.
Law firms also have a huge role to play — there’s room to ask whether firm culture “enables” alcoholism. De-emphasizing the historic link between lawyering and drinking , including at firm events, would help. So would increasing access to law firm employee assistance programs, as highlighted in guidelines here, from Massachusetts “Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.”
And as I have done before, here’s a state-by-state list of links to lawyer assistance organizations. No problem is ever made worse by seeking help.