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Rehab For "Terminally Unique" Lawyers

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It was a running joke on my university campus: To collect donations from young, healthy students, the blood bank regularly sent a truck that made the rounds on campus, stopping "everywhere except at the law school," the nurses said. "It's not worth the time and effort, because the blood will evaporate before we make it back."

Whether it is because they are members of a stressful, high-stakes profession or because personalities with a penchant for addictive disorders are drawn to the law, studies have shown that lawyers have twice the addiction rate of the general population and are three times as likely to be depressed.

As if that weren't enough, lawyers are also notoriously reluctant to seek help for these problems. "Lawyers are uniquely treatment resistant," said Dr. Link Christin, adjunct professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota and director of a new rehabilitation program, the Legal Professionals Program, specifically designed for lawyers, at the Center City, Minnesota-based Hazelden treatment center.

„Terminally unique"
"Terminal uniqueness" is recoveryspeak that refers to the reaction common among newcomers to the program of Alcoholics Anonymous that "these people are nothing like me... my problem is different..." Isn't a program targeted at a special profession a violation of the basic AA tenet that no one has a "special" drinking (or drug) problem?

"The Hazelden philosophy is that none of our patients are special or unique or better than any others," Dr. Christin said. "When the lawyers come in we make a point of letting them know that they are not special and not different; the lawyers go right on their units with everybody else. But on the other hand, every patient here is an individual and they're faced with their own individual obstacles. They might have a medical condition that our medical staff has to treat, they might have a dual mental health problem and have to work with our mental health experts, or they might have family situations that are unique, so we have our Family Program work with them.

"Here we have patients who are in a profession that is licensed, that is monitored, there are ethical rules, and you have to abide by fitness and character rules of the bar in order to be a lawyer and to stay a lawyer. So you've got a lot of rules and constraints to deal with when you get out of treatment, in terms of either starting or moving forward in your career, and that is really where this program focuses. This is a profession that is highly stressful and highly regulated - how can you both practice law and be successful in your recovery? How are you going to leave Hazelden and effectively practice law?"

Strengths prized in lawyers often obstacles to recovery
California attorney and author Harvey Hyman is president and CEO of Lawyers Wellbeing, Inc., a company he founded after practicing law in the Bay area for 25 years, to help his colleagues struggling with depression or chemical dependency.

"I'm very happy to hear about this program, and I wish them [Hazelden] the best of luck with it," Hyman said. "There is no doubt that lawyers are much more difficult to treat. They think that they are special, different from others, too smart to be addicted. On top of that, they've been trained to argue against everything and everyone, and they are extremely critical. They'll use their brains to pick apart the program and everyone and everything associated with it, and this poses a unique challenge to anyone who treats them. Lawyers also live in their heads and are rational to the extreme. They are not used to and have great difficulties getting in touch with their feelings, which is a huge part of getting and staying sober."

The legal disciplinary boards also tend not to be as strict as other professional boards, like those of pharmacists or medical doctors, where members are sometimes forced into treatment or monitoring programs, Dr. Christin said. "Lawyers on their own also tend to be very confidential, very private, very afraid of their reputations and of the stigma of being called an alcoholic or going into treatment, and I think they're very afraid that their reputation is going to be damaged if it becomes public that they go to treatment. So in very simple terms, I think lawyers are extremely treatment resistant and are afraid of going to treatment."

Are addicts attracted to the law?
The high rate of addiction and depression among lawyers begs the question whether these problems are due to the high pressures and stress of the profession or whether individuals with addictive personalities are attracted to the legal profession.

"There is no easy answer here, it is probably a combination of both" Dr. Christin said. "I think people who are attracted to the legal profession often already have a personality conducive to addiction. They tend to be people that are competitive, problem-solving, intellectual, some of the traits that are very consistent with addiction. And once they get into law school, from law school on, they're put into an environment that does, I think, help to explain why the rate of addiction is higher. That environment is very confidential, secretive, competitive, and adversarial. It tends to be very intellectual rather than feeling, it encourages you to isolate and not share, because you don't want to be seen as weak and vulnerable, and I think once you then get into a law firm or a situation where you have a constituency of your partners, your clients, of the other side, of judges, of unbelievable deadlines, of problem-solving - you are dealing with problems all day, and even if you do solve the problem your clients are not always satisfied - it is a situation that can provoke enormous stress. You combine that with isolation, and I think that gives you some clues as to why the legal profession is off the charts in terms of its addiction rates."

A crisis that law schools must respond to
Hyman, a graduate of Georgetown University Law, said the evidence on alcohol and drug abuse in the profession shows a crisis that the legal educational community must respond to. The ABA estimates that 20% of all lawyers have an alcohol dependency or abuse problem, and depression is a huge problem. The average depression rate among U.S. adults is about 6.5%, among lawyers the rate is 20%, and 40% among law students. „The evidence about lawyers, law students and depression and alcohol and drug abuse is just astounding" Hyman said.

Law and medical schools are still "way, way behind in terms of adequately educating their students about addiction and in fact about any kind of mental health issues," Dr. Christin said. "I think it's a shame because it means that these doctors and lawyers coming out - not only do they lack self-awareness, but they're not adequately educated either about their clients and their patients. Certainly there are individual law schools that are doing a better job than others and are starting to educate their students about the importance of balance and wellness, I'm not giving a blanket statement about all law and medical schools. I think people are finally beginning to realize the importance of this. Addiction just got rated the number one disease of all diseases, and I don't think these schools have caught up in educating their students about the facts of these diseases."

"Law schools are nursing ground for alcoholism"
Hyman, who has written a book on lawyers and substance abuse, is working on designing course materials for law schools on depression, substance abuse and stress among lawyers and how to cope with it in non-destructive ways. He wants to see structured courses given to all law students on these issues. "Law schools are nursing ground for alcoholism," Hyman said. "Programs like the Hazelden program are wonderful and there will always be need for that, but it would be better if we could begin at the other end by teaching students what is basically good self-care."

"Law students are known as being the hard drinking group among students," Dr. Christin said. "Law firms are the same way, not as much now, but the whole culture of practicing law has always been, you live hard, you work hard, and drinking and addiction is a little bit a part of the legal culture. We're not that far from the time when lawyers had a lunchtime martini and at the next table were the judges, and everyone had bars in their offices; it's really been part of the culture for a hundred years. To recognize a profession that has higher addiction rates and is more afraid to come to treatment and to try to figure out a way to reach out to them... it's an experiment we're excited about."■
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The Hazelden campus in Center City, Minnesota. Photo: hazelden.org