Salvaging a law firm partner's career

Issue September 2014

One of the key partners in our firm seems to have developed a drinking problem. For years he was known for a certain, shall we say, exuberance at social events, but within the past six to 12 months his drinking has been affecting his work, which has become sloppier, and the impression of clients, who have commented that his speech is slurred and his thought process seems duller when they call him. He is (when sober) brilliant and capable, and has also been a major rainmaker, so we really do not want to lose him, but we feel like we need to do something, perhaps send him away somewhere to get him to quit drinking?

It is worth conferring with LCL clinical staff to more fully assess what is going on with this colleague, but the idea you seem to be referring to, i.e., requiring him to go to rehab, is certainly a distinct possibility. Some things to think through as you contemplate taking action:

  • Prepare before acting: Before what amounts to an "intervention," we would suggest meeting with LCL staff (or equivalently qualified/experienced behavioral health professionals) to double-check your assessment of the situation, brainstorm approaches to addressing it (including rehab) and, if intervening, move ahead in a way that has been thought through.
  • Cost/insurance: Rehabs are very expensive and, for the most part, generally not covered by insurance. This may not be an issue for a large firm. If, however, insurance coverage were necessary, we can discuss options such as simple detox (usually a few days) followed by a two to three week day or evening program.
  • Choosing a reputable facility: There are many, many rehabs around the country, all of which look great on their websites, but you probably want to choose one that is mainstream and that has been around and respected for decades.
  • No guarantees of success: Even with rehab, which can provide a crucial jump-start, sustaining sobriety requires real motivation, and even among those who are motivated, the relapse rate is high (though the improvement rate is also high, and relapses can be regarded as expectable stumbles on the path).
  • Aftercare: Long-term recovery (and return to previous level of job functioning) is determined less by rehab than by ongoing recovery-oriented attention and activity. The more frequently he attends therapy/counseling, peer support meetings and ancillary stabilizing practices like exercise and meditation, the better the likelihood of a positive outcome. If recovery becomes a secondary priority in the early months, the chances of relapse increase.
  • The firm's influence: Like the alcoholic or addict, if the partners think the problem is solved merely by having sent the lawyer to rehab, old behavior may very well resurface. Ideally, the firm will be both highly supportive (e.g., facilitate allocating time to outpatient treatment) and still require appropriate follow-up, taking action quickly upon signs of relapse. Some firms might choose to involve the person in LCL "Monitoring" (in which LCL documents participation in appropriate ongoing treatment and support groups and provides random alcohol/drug testing), but that will only have a meaningful impact if there is a real response if and when this partner fails to follow through. Lawyers, perhaps especially those who have reached the partner level, may feel that the usual guidelines don't apply to them - going along with that point of view actually heightens the risk that you may ultimately lose this valuable colleague as an asset to the firm.

These are difficult waters to navigate, and LCL is here to help.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Questions for LCL may be mailed to LCL, 31 Milk St., Suite 810, Boston, MA 02109 or called in to (617) 482-9600. LCL's licensed clinicians will respond in confidence. Visit LCL online at www.lclma.org.