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Contributed by Eric Webber, Caron Treatment Centers
For many people, 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic have brought an unprecedented loss of normalcy and control. For many legal professionals, this has also marked the first time in their career they were not expected in court, in a conference room, or at a client dinner. And yet while the official office happy hours faded, new habits began to form that were even more threatening, including the not-so-subtle message that drinking to escape is the new norm.
For example, a lawyer, who once enjoyed a drink at the bar down the street with her colleagues after work, instead started having liquor delivered to her door. A judge did not have as much work to do or anywhere to go—so he began drinking at 3 p.m. and gambling online.
As the pandemic endures, there are two concerning profiles emerging among this professional demographic. Individuals who drank occasionally at office functions and personal get-togethers are now relying on alcohol more regularly to cope with boredom or stress, and individuals who were already problem drinkers have escalated to a full-blown substance use disorder. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 40% of U.S. adults were struggling with mental health and substance use due to the pandemic.
While these alarming profiles developed, an interesting trend emerged at Caron Treatment Centers. More legal professionals began to reach out for help to deal with their destructive patterns of behavior. The Covid-19 pandemic has offered a unique opportunity for legal professionals to proactively take charge of their wellness because many of the traditional barriers have been removed.
Prior to the pandemic, many legal professionals in treatment were drinking frequently at office events or during work-related travel. What started as a seemingly innocent way to socialize or take the edge off after a challenging day turned into a daily dependence that trickled into their personal lives.
For example, one lawyer recounted he would regularly hold it together at work but then show up to his son's soccer games intoxicated. He had convinced himself he could control his use because nobody noticed or said anything to him at work. Meanwhile, his wife became alarmed as she observed him slurring his words and becoming easily angered.
It is also important to understand that destructive behavior extends to an overall lack of self-care. Some attorneys put all their energy into working long hours and there's very little balance with personal or home life. Additionally, they tend to not get enough exercise, sleep, healthy food, or meaningful connection in their lives. What may have appeared “glamorous” to outsiders—think the “Mad Men” lifestyle of tailored suits, boozy client meetings, and business trips—looks significantly darker when it unravels in the real world.
In fact, legal professionals have sought treatment in the past, but there are attorneys who previously would not have sought treatment without a major intervention or as a result of a crisis because the workload and pressure to be visible was so intense. The Covid-19 pandemic has removed some hurdles that previously kept attorneys from seeking treatment.
Pre-pandemic barriers existed in many forms. Attorneys can be their own worst enemies when it comes to self-care. They often work 60-hour weeks or more and are always expected to be on call, especially in the early years of their career. Many could be classified as workaholics. In fact, the same characteristics that help lawyers excel in court and the boardroom allow them to efficiently hide their addiction from others and rationalize to themselves that their condition is manageable.
Add to that the enabling atmosphere of many firms where workplace successes were the crowning achievement—no matter the cost to a lawyer's mental health. Colleagues and assistants covered missed appointments and other minor mistakes, allowing the struggling individual to fly below the radar.
Unfortunately, they often had to experience significant consequences before they would agree to seek help for their substance use disorder. This might entail losing a client, having a spouse file for divorce, or experiencing a health emergency, such as liver disease, related to their substance consumption.
But now in a global pandemic, many lawyers are working at home and are no longer traveling—which fundamentally changes the structure of their lives. They do not have to worry about missing important in-person meetings with colleagues and clients. Nobody knows where they are, and their accountability has significantly changed, if not been reduced.
In fact, the lack of accountability can be both negative and positive. No accountability can cause people to drink more. But it also provides more space to seek treatment and fewer people will notice a leave of absence or it can be attributed to other issues more easily.
Once in treatment, legal professionals address a range of issues. For example, we talk about boundaries, workaholism, co-occurring anxiety and depression, grief, prior trauma if relevant, coping with boredom and unstructured time, and the importance of connecting with others.
Along these lines, a priority focus right now is also on how they will create social support systems when they return home. Isolation and burnout, two of the hallmarks of working from home and managing childcare, are very real issues that many are facing during the pandemic. Add to that a tendency towards perfectionism and the vulnerability of early recovery, and that is a recipe for disaster if one does not plan and have accountability daily.
Therefore, while in treatment, it is critical for them to be able to reflect and analyze their struggles in a program with peers who are compassionate because they understand the client pressure, fiduciary responsibilities, and the stress associated with the profession. In my experience, it is also crucial that through therapy they come to view their identity differently. They learn they have values—separate and apart from their identity as legal professionals.
They start to recognize that in a world where uncertainty is around every corner, they are more than their jobs, the money they make, or the clubs to which they belong. This helps with the stress they experience because they learn to let go of the idea that they can control everything. Instead, they focus on what is within their power to manage, like taking care of themselves and showing up for loved ones and colleagues in a healthy and appropriate way.
As they process these issues in treatment, there is often a realization that if they keep drinking, they will remain numb, and they do not want to live that way anymore. They struggle with sadness and loss as they realize they missed extensive family time or have not contributed meaningfully to society. In addition to being fit to represent clients, we hear more professionals in treatment vocalize that recovery gives them a chance to reevaluate important relationships with loved ones and how they can make a difference in the world.
Once they have finished treatment and are working on their recovery, it is important for them to remember that risk of relapse increases when self-care decreases. Before re-entering the workplace after treatment (even in virtual times), they should have a plan for reducing stress and preventing the resumption of prior risky behaviors. This could include working hours within reasonable limits—which is critically important when home and work life are blurred. Likewise, when they do eventually return to an office, they must have a strategy for attending—or choosing not to attend—alcohol-fueled work-related activities.
My prediction is we will see fewer of these type of events in general as firms see the efficiency of working from home. Hopefully, that will allow more legal professionals to set different boundaries that empower them to take better care of themselves mentally and physically.
While the future of law firm culture remains unclear, it's a fact that lawyers tend to be problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and perfectionists. This is the time to develop a toolbox to deal with the complexities of life—both at home and at work. The good news is that by proactively seeking treatment and wellness right now, legal professionals can establish a foundation to deal with future obstacles and challenges in a healthy and productive way.