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Your lawyer’s addiction problem is your firm’s problem

Law firm managers need to educate themselves about addiction, experts say, for the good of the firm and of their lawyers.

Empty class of alchol

Elke Churchman knows this first-hand.

More than 20 years ago, she was working at a large law firm that "did not understand addiction very well at all," she says.

When her performance suffered due to her alcohol addiction, the firm gave her two options: quit or be fired.

"So I quit because I had to and of course they had a going-away party for me," says Churchman. "It was very, very surreal."

Churchman eventually received counselling through the Saskatchewan lawyer assistance program, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, went to treatment and has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous ever since.

"It was a bit more of a tortuous route for me because all the people who were in my purview did not understand addiction," says Churchman, who is now a lawyer with Churchman & Co. Law Office, a small general practice firm in Saskatoon.

Education is key to dealing with this disease in the workplace, she says.

"Law firms need to learn more about addictions and their nature and then facilitate their lawyers who do have an addiction and do want to get better.”

Is one of your lawyers struggling with addiction?

Addiction is a pervasive problem among lawyers, says Doron Gold, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and former practising lawyer who helped develop the CBA’s online course on mental health and wellness in the legal profession.

If there is a problem it will eventually show up in the lawyer’s performance, says Gold. It is important to establish the lawyer’s baseline performance and use that to assess their current behaviour.

"Everyone at your firm is someone you value and someone you have determined to be talented, so you have some sense of them at their best," he says. "The best way to assess if they have a problem is if they are deviating from their baseline – if they are not meeting deadlines, if they are absent, if they are treating people differently, if they are missing court dates."

What to do if you suspect one of your lawyers is struggling with addiction

Ideally, Gold says, a law firm should approach their employee from the "lens of care."

However, he cautions: "A compassionate workplace is not an enabling workplace. An enabling workplace is a workplace that cuts a person slack a lot. Looks the other way and hopes that it all goes away on its own."

A compassionate workplace will hold the lawyer to a standard of performance and behaviour, says Gold. "And if the person is deviating from those standards of the workplace, those in the workplace are entitled to discuss that with that person and set some boundaries around their behaviour and their performance."

It's important to note that addiction is an "accommodatable medical condition," says Gold. "So you can't say to the person, I know you are addicted to cocaine, but too bad, get back to work."

Churchman points out that addiction is a disease. "You should go to treatment like if you have been sick with pneumonia or cancer or another disease."

What to do if the lawyer refuses to get treatment

Gold cautions that managing lawyers must realize that they cannot compel a lawyer to disclose any information regarding their addiction.

"It is still on the individual to open up and disclose what he or she is going through and a lot of people won't. There is a lot of shame and a lot of fear that they will be rejected," he says.

In that situation, the law firm needs to set out its expectations regarding, for example, billing hours and civility to colleagues along with clear consequences for any breaches of those expectations.

Managing lawyers also need to be aware that they cannot force their employees to get treatment.

"If a person doesn't think they have a problem and is in denial about their addiction, they are not going to get help," says Gold.

However, just the act of talking to the lawyer about the law firm's concerns can help them realize that they need treatment, he says.

"One of the most compelling things for a lawyer struggling with an addiction is the fear that their licensure or their position may be in jeopardy," says Gold. "Lawyers work very hard to build a reputation and secure a career that is important to them and the idea that it may be jeopardized by their substance use does focus their mind."

Gold also recommends that managing lawyers reach out to their provincial lawyers' assistance program. His services are free for lawyers, paralegals and their family members in Ontario through the Law Society of Ontario Member Assistance Program.

"Get some guidance from a professional," he says, adding that the managing lawyers can also refer their employees to their provincial assistance program for help with their addiction.

How to deal with the 'culture of drinking'

Churchman also recommends law firm management look at their office culture.

"There is still a real culture of drinking in firms," says Churchman. "This is really dangerous because, although heredity plays a large part in addiction, so does availability and pressure of being part of that life."

For example, she says that in her experience is it socially acceptable to drink alcohol at firm and client events.

"Some articling students have to go on a booze run on a Friday afternoon," she says.

As well, Churchman says that law firms should try not to stigmatize addiction.

"Law firms should facilitate their lawyers going to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and make sure they have the time to do that. They will become better lawyers, better citizens, better people," she says.