Are All Lawyers Stupid Like You?

I remember when I was asked that question and who asked it.  We were in a very small hotel room at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.  The speaker was trying to sell my client 3 pieces of real estate and was objecting to what I thought were some pretty standard clauses in the purchase contract that I was insisting upon.  He was way too loud and sitting just across this tiny table in this tiny room. 

I was already tired, frustrated and annoyed. I had flown to Dallas with my client on an overnight flight. My back was sore. I did not think that my client was all that determined to buy these parcels in the first place.

My only reaction to the asshole’s question was to give his lawyer a dirty look. The intended message was “he is your client, you calm him down.” The lawyer said nothing; he just reached into his pocket for a roll of antacids. 

Over the years I have seen many lawyers pull out a roll of antacids. I carried them myself for a great many years. They spent the night on my dresser, next to my watch and wallet, ready to go into the pocket of my suit jacket the next day. There was always a back-up roll in my desk.

Lately I have read a lot of articles about stress and lawyers. Much of it addresses young lawyers who are trying to balance their personal and professional lives. Lawyers tell ourselves that we have to work longer and harder to be successful.  If you make that decision, then I see no reason to stress about it. 

You would expect high levels of stress in some professions, like surgeons and police officers. In my experience for many lawyers the stress seems to come from one of two places: paying the bills or the interactions with other lawyers.  

Most lawyers do not work in big law firms in big downtown high rise offices. Most lawyers work alone or in small practices.  The “average” yearly income for a lawyer in the US was under $120,000 per year which means that a great many lawyers earn a lot less.

Law school does not really prepare you for the business side of a small law practice.  There is often a disconnect between what an attorney would like to charge and what the market will bear.  Most of the really important things that I learned about the economics of a successful small firm, I learned from other lawyers by watching what they were doing successfully.   

The business side of a law practice is an omnipresent reality that lawyers at both small firms and large ones cannot escape. If the cash register is not ringing, or ringing enough, it can certainly add to any lawyer’s stress.

Sometimes I think that lawyers view too much of the practice of law to be basically adversarial. Too often an attorney will look at the attorney on the other side of the case or negotiation as an enemy combatant.

I could usually tell in the first phone call or meeting with opposing counsel whether they were seeking common ground to settle or staking out their turf.  Sometimes the decision is client driven; more often I think it is the lawyer’s personality that dictates their approach. 

I understand that litigators can be somewhat combative by nature.  Every time two lawyers oppose each other in a courtroom one of them will be the loser. And nobody wants to be the loser, ever. They do not cover losing very well in law school either.

Sometimes an opposing counsel can be just a pain in the ass. They do not respond to e-mails or return phone calls. They are just time wasters who slow down and back-up cases and that also adds to the stress.

Lawyers shoulder a lot of responsibility. Clients count on lawyers to keep them out of jail, get their taxes right, plan their estate, secure custody and visitation rights for their children and a lot more. These are weighty matters and add to the stress that so many lawyers seem to feel.

As I said, I seem to be reading more and more articles lately on the subject of lawyers and stress. Lawyers do recognize the problem of stress and the effect that it has on their practice and their lives. Stress at work can cause stress at home and when they overlap they often feed on each other.

Some lawyers exercise to deal with the stress. I frequently went out and swam for a while the day before a hearing. Swimming is good for stress and if you are doing laps you can tune out everything but your own thoughts.  I also did Tai Chi for a while, but I could not shed my type-A personality enough to get real benefits from it.

Despite the rise in articles about lawyers and stress, there seems to be a deafening silence about the way a great many lawyers actually deal with it; self medication. 

In 2016 the American Bar Association together with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published a study that indicated that one in three practicing lawyers are problem drinkers, based on the volume and frequency of alcohol consumed. That is more than double the amount of problem drinkers among surgeons and other “high stress” positions.

And before you dispute that one in three lawyers is much too high, consider that this study does not include lawyers who self-medicate with marijuana, cocaine, uppers, downers or opioids. If the number of lawyers who are “impaired” every day is less than one in three it is not much less.   

The ABA and state bar associations publish information about the problem on their websites and will make referrals to treatment programs.  Some states have programs for other lawyers to step in and take care of an attorney’s cases and clients if an attorney checks into an alcohol or drug rehab program.  But that is just a band-aid and it does not deal with the real problem.

People who have a drug or alcohol problem lie. They lie to their family, clients and partners.  That may sound obvious, but I could not find articles that seemed to treat this fact with appropriate alarm when applied to lawyers. 

What happens when an in-house counsel gets a lengthy memo on a potentially expensive tax issue from an attorney who just copied a memo he wrote two years ago without checking to see if the rules or regulations had changed, because he was too “impaired” last night to do the research?  

What is the potential liability to a 100 partner law firm if 30 of the 100 are “problem drinkers”?  And how does the stress the attorneys feel flow down to paralegals and support staff?

On any day in many courthouses around the country there may be 100 cases on the morning motion calendar. That might necessitate the appearance of 200 lawyers. If 60 out of those 200 lawyers are “impaired” is it any wonder that the calendars are crowded and cases move along at a snail’s pace?

Like a lot of people with a drinking problem the legal profession as a whole is in denial about this. There was some press when the ABA study was released in 2016, but very little in the way of action since. 

Alcoholism and drug addiction are treatable. I would have thought there would have been more of an affirmative outreach for lawyers to get lawyers who need help into treatment, rather than just posting a phone number for a treatment center.  Lawyers should see the effects of the drinking in their colleagues more than anyone else.

Aside from the pure human decency of helping people in need of help, the fact that so many impaired lawyers may be practicing every day and the impact it must surely be having is mind boggling. If lawyers do not act to clean up their own profession, then the most important part of any law practice, clients’ trust, will be lost. 

It would be foolish for lawyers to allow that to happen because they failed to address the “problem drinkers” among them squarely and practically. It would be so foolish that people might start calling lawyers as a whole “stupid”.