Beyond the abyss

By Michael Dempster April - May 2012

One in three lawyers will experience a major mood disorder or addiction during their career. Derek LaCroix has been there and back. But first he had to admit he needed help.

Beyond the abyss Photo of Derek LaCroix Q.C. by Venturi + Karpa.

Once an alcoholic “hanging by his fingernails,” LaCroix is now the executive director of the Lawyers’ Assis­tance Program of B.C., a team that works with about 400 lawyers every year.  He is well-acquainted with the factors that make it so difficult for lawyers to seek help:  Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, depression, marital issues, gambling, ethical or legal issues, or some other difficulty, he says, members of the legal profession have a disturbing blind spot when it comes to their own personal challenges.
 
“Treatment centres tell me lawyers are the most difficult patients,” LaCroix says. Lawyers can reason and rationalize why treatment is not really for them, even when they’re in a program, he observes.
 
Those who accept that they need help, on the other hand, become a counsellor’s dream. When they enter treatment, they will do things properly, the way they’re instructed, he explains. “They’re sponges. They want to learn. So once they get past [the denial], recovery rates are high.” 
 
LaCroix knows the behaviour well because he lived it. He is a recovered alcoholic who has been through detox, relapse, bankruptcy and divorce and been hospitalized for physical and emotional problems. It took a drunken brawl to get him back on the road to recovery. When he squinted into the mirror the next morning and saw two swollen, black-and-blue eyes, it finally hit home.
 
“I had these bad black eyes and because of them, I couldn’t pretend something bad hadn’t happened,” he says. “I look at is as being kind of lucky because who knows how long you can continue to limp through, kind of doing recovery but really not.”
 
Now, says his wife, Maureen, his life experience helps him bring joy and empathy to a job he loves.
 
“In sharing his experience, he helps people recognize that there is help beyond, there is an alternative, a way out of their situation,” she says. “It’s important because sometimes it can seem like they’re caught in a big black hole.”
 
Socially outgoing

Born in Vancouver in 1949, Derek LaCroix was only nine when he bookmarked law as his career. He remembers being intrigued and inspired by John Diefenbaker, a Saskatchewan criminal lawyer who had just been elected Canada’s 13th prime minister.
 
In 1974, he earned a law degree from the University of British Columbia. A strapping 220-pounder, he also played on the UBC football team. While he fancied himself in the more glamorous role of running back or linebacker, coaches made him a starting offensive lineman.
 
The socially outgoing LaCroix didn’t miss many parties. He tasted his first drink at 13 and took to it immediately, but managed to keep any serious problems at bay because of school and sports.
 

"It’s a grind to always have to measure up. I’d say that 90 per cent of people I see these days have very high Levels of anxiety." Derek LaCroix, Q.C.

Matters changed after he was called to the bar in 1975. LaCroix worked as a prosecutor for three years, then started his own firm. Drinking and partying was always part of the mix and by 1982 it had become a problem along with drug use. From 1984 to 1986, he barely practised.
 
A year later he came face to face with reality at the end of someone’s fist. It was April 19, 1987. He made a decision. He dedicated himself to sobriety with the same perseverance that he had applied to law school.
 
He attended Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings every day for years. He invested any spare money and time attending other groups and monthly retreats at a personal growth centre called the Haven, where he now leads groups.
 
He attributes his eventual recovery to this personal and spiritual growth, which is now an important part of a “fabulous” life that he shares with Maureen, his third wife. They’ve been married for 15 years. 
 
The role of personality

LaCroix is the first and only director of the Lawyers’ Assistance Program of B.C. Since 1996, he and his colleagues have helped hundreds of men and women find their way back to health through personalized treatment strategies.
 
Usually, he’s the first contact with the severest cases.
 
A big reward, he says, is helping those in distress to recover and rediscover the “awesomeness” of being in the profession. He’s also intent on spreading the word about why so many people find themselves in distress.
 
It begins with personality, he says. The legal profession attracts individuals with similar characteristics: they are naturally driven, smart, altruistic and community-minded.
 
But those intrinsic values can change quickly, often in the demanding first year of law school when drive flourishes and altruism fades.
 
LaCroix points to U.S. researchers Kennon Sheldon and Lawrence Krieger who have detailed how law students progressively lose their intrinsic motivation beginning in first year. Many students become more extrinsic, interested in prestige, appearance, competition and future salary.
 
“I make it very clear to the students I speak with that they need to be aware of their values,” LaCroix says. “This job is just too hard to do if it’s only about the money.
 
“My friends . . . who see the importance, who respect the profession, don’t do it for money. They still maintain heavy workloads, but they have high levels of altruism and community involvement, are healthy with good family lives.”
 
Remember that connection, he tells students, punctuating it with a sobering statistic: that one in three of them will suffer some kind of major mood disorder or addiction problem, either during school or in their career.
 
Dr. Larry Richard, a Philadelphia-based organizational psychologist and former lawyer, adds another piece to the personality puzzle. He says the legal profession attracts an extremely high percentage of thin-skinned people (see related story.) His data consistently shows that nine in 10 lawyers fall in the bottom half of the population when tested for resilience, which means lawyers are defensive, more readily hurt and normally don’t take criticism well.
 
Richard says increasing stress levels in the profession and a reduced ability to “roll with the punches” is a combination that often crops up as a factor when a lawyer develops problems.
 
LaCroix sees it too. A huge percentage of the distressed people he meets in the lawyers’ assistance program are “incredibly worried” about what other people think of them. 
 
“It’s part of that external or extrinsic validation. If they don’t get approval, or get disapproval, it really bothers them.” 
Lawyers are super-achievers, he adds, admitting he was the same — driven to excel in everything he did and thin-skinned in the sense that he could hardly handle the slightest criticism. 
           
His “inner critic” pushed him and gave him the energy to tough it out. That drive that makes lawyers successful also wears them down, he says. 
           
“It’s a grind to always have to measure up,” LaCroix explains. “I’d say that 90 per cent of people I see these days have very high rates of anxiety.
           
“In my case, I was so horrible, I didn’t even know how anxious I was. If you operate at a certain level of anxiety and worry for a long time, it becomes the norm.”
           
Over the past 25 years, LaCroix has learned techniques to reduce his stress and anxiety. When the day is over, work’s done, he says. He shifts gears, hiking, hanging out with Maureen and dedicating time to causes close to his heart.
           
The couple are heavily involved in Be The Change Earth Alliance, a non-profit group they helped co-found to inspire and support people in making lifestyle changes and re-creating healthy communities. He is also president of the Multifaith Action Society, bringing different faith groups together to better understand one other.
           
Maureen has a master’s degree in eco-psychology, a discipline that helps people connect with nature to enrich their lives. She says her husband doesn’t struggle with his previous addictions, and instead thrives in a life-long study to better himself and serve others.
           
“It doesn’t end for him,” she says. “He’s constantly reading, he has mountains of books everywhere. He’s an avid learner.”
           
She notes that over the years LaCroix has built an impressive peer network of volunteer lawyers (about 300), many of whom he has helped, and who now support others in distress.
           
“What I see in Derek is that he has a great empathy for others . . . an expanded sense of self, where people get beyond their small ego self to recognize the importance of relationships with others.”

Michael Dempster is a freelance writer based in Calgary.
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