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Dealing with Addiction in a Law Firm Environment

Posted by Tom Mariam on Sep 20, 2016 11:28:25 AM

The Importance of Openly Acknowledging Addiction at Firms

By Tom Mariam

A recently released joint study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs revealed that 21 percent of licensed, employed lawyers qualify as problem drinkers. That shocking statistic jumps to 31.9 percent for lawyers under the age of 30. Those numbers far exceed the percentage of all Americans who have a drinking problem: 6.8 percent.

The legal industry figures are perhaps even more shocking when you add in licit and illicit drugs, including sedatives, marijuana, stimulants and opioids: 74 percent of those who used stimulants took them weekly.

Alcohol addiction — along with related substance abuse — is a long-standing problem in the legal profession. It’s one that impacts legal marketers as well as lawyers. It’s also an issue that has historically not been raised to the surface at most law firms.

However, one leader in the legal industry, Lisa Smith, has brought the issue of alcoholism at law firms to public attention through her own chilling life story. Ms. Smith, who started her career as an associate at a major New York-based firm and later became the director of marketing and client development at two other leading firms, has written an award-winning book, “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” about her experiences — and how they can help others who have fallen prey to addiction.

“It’s a real issue for lawyers,” says Ms. Smith, now deputy executive director and director of client relations at her firm. “But people in legal marketing are just as susceptible as lawyers.”

That susceptibility can be exacerbated by the work environment at a law firm. Part of that environment is the pressure of serving current clients and developing new business. Another part is the culture where addiction “has a stigma attached,” says Ms. Smith. “It is not something people talk about. It is brushed under the rug at law firms.” She adds that her biggest fear during her “self-medication” period was that her firm would find out about her habit.

Ms. Smith believes that alcohol and drug addiction are problems that need to be acknowledged openly at law firms for the good of all employees.

Ms. Smith recommends that “part of everyone’s orientation into a law firm should be a need to know about addiction. Addiction coexists with depression and mental health issues. Mental health issues are a lot more public now. Hopefully, we can be more open.”

Opening a dialogue on alcoholism and addiction is an important step in combating the problem.  The lack of openness regarding addiction at law firms further fuels the problem by hiding co-workers who might have dealt with this problem and could be a helpful resource. In the wake of the lawyer addiction surveys, has taken strides toward achieving this goal by running a series of profiles of lawyers admitting they were alcoholics. Ms. Smith hopes others will also share their personal experiences, as she has been doing. “I want to make people feel less alone. Life was lonely for me.” For instance, this summer Ms. Smith addressed the Metro New York LMA chapter’s CMO SIG, where many of her professional colleagues are members.

It is also important for law firm professionals to know that there are places they can go outside their firms where they can get professional help to deal with their problems. One way to turn away from alcohol addiction and feel less isolated is to find something else to focus on besides work, such as the writing workshops Ms. Smith attended. “It’s important to find some space where you are not solely involved with the firm,” Ms. Smith advises. Another is to take advantage of programs that offer medical support — in Ms. Smith’s case, this was a psychiatric hospital with a detox unit.

Ms. Smith has been sober for 12 years since she decided to tackle the addiction that had been plaguing her life. Now, with no more secrets about alcohol and drug dependency to hide, she wants her colleagues to know, quite simply and powerfully, “it feels good not to be doing it anymore.”


Tom Mariam heads communications and public relations for the international law firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP.  He also co-chairs the Communications Committee for LMA’s Metro New York Chapter, where he was named 2015 Member of the Year.



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