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What to Do If a Colleague Is Struggling With Substance Use

There remains a lot of misunderstanding about substance use disorders. Despite common misperceptions, however, they are acknowledged universally by the medical community as diseases with neurobiological underpinnings. Some folks may be at higher genetic risk for addiction. Substance use disorder can also arise due to environmental and social factors, such as PTSD and major depressive disorder.

Substance use disorder is not curable. It can, however, be managed well. Unfortunately, lawyers often have trouble seeking treatment, typically for the following reasons:

  • There remains a stigma associated with the disease
  • Lawyers tend to be self-reliant and want to appear so for colleagues and clients
  • Potential ramifications, particularly involving licensing, can incentivize lawyers to keep things hidden as much as possible.

So, how can you help a colleague who may be struggling? The first step is to know the signs and how to approach them.

Spotting Struggling Colleagues

Symptoms of substance use disorder include compulsive use, craving, and using despite its harm. The amount of use often increases over time. Because someone with substance use disorder cannot control their intake, they may have trouble:

  • Maintaining good attendance and performance benchmarks
  • Being in social situations where their use would be obvious (i.e., missing client meetings, frequent rescheduling, etc.)
  • Mood swings, outbursts, and irritability
  • Financial problems, both personally and professionally

However, these signs are not always present. Other symptoms also occur. It's important to note that none of the above qualify us as attorneys to diagnose any medical condition. Any diagnosis should be left to physicians and licensed tratment counselors.

A Duty to Report

However, just because we can't diagnose anyone does not mean we can ignore suspected impairment or substance use disorder. Rule 8.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires attorneys to report any conduct that calls into question a lawyer's fitness to practice law. There is an exception, however, for attorneys that are involved in lawyer assistance programs.

That often means that the best way to help a colleague is to encourage participation in such a program.

Discussing Potential Problems

Many lawyer's assistance programs recommend three different approaches to discuss substance use with a colleague. The right approach depends on the severity of the illness and other circumstances.

If your colleague:

  • Is functioning, then a private, one-on-one informal conversation may be appropriate. This is a non-confrontational, supportive discussion intended to get the colleague to open up about any potential issues or the reasons for the concerning behavior. The idea is to allow a colleague to open up, without interrupting, and suggest options such as working with a licensed counselor or a lawyer assistance group.
  • Appears to have a serious problem, then a group meeting may be appropriate, particularly if one-on-one discussions have not helped. For this, you may want to get the assistance of a lawyer assistance program. Because of the confidentiality associated with lawyer assistance programs, this does not mean that the attorney will face disciplinary action.
  • Is causing harm to themselves or others, then a more formal intervention may be necessary. Because this can be an emotional situation, having a professional in attendance is recommended. This could be through your local lawyer assistance program or through a private service. This conversation needs to address specific misconduct and inappropriate behavior, along with the negative consequences that resulted from those actions. It should not, however, be confrontational, angry, or threatening. Nor should you use terms like "alcoholic" or "addict." Instead, clearly and calmly present your arguments and your sincere desire for them to overcome whatever is causing the problematic behavior.

A Difficult Situation

These conversations are not easy. Some trepidation when talking to a colleague about their substance use is understandable. If it helps, you can contact your local lawyer assistance program for advice on what to do and how to handle the particulars.

Otherwise, the general advice is to be kind and supportive while fulfilling your ethical obligations to your clients and the profession. This is done by getting the person in question the help they need.

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