Substance abuse

Substance Abuse CLE Program Helps Lawyers and Law Firms Get Better at Getting Help

Whether you think your firm can benefit from a free CLE course on substance abuse within law firms  or not, consider how comfortable someone at any level of the firm might feel about asking for help with addiction.

One managing partner took that question to heart after a six-hour CLE by Decipher Investigative Intelligence and Caron Treatment Centers, an East Coast substance abuse treatment provider with a program tailored for legal professionals. “We heard from one managing partner who puts AA meetings on his calendar and lists a bunch of others in the area,” said Jennifer Jones, director of new client solutions at Decipher.

In a profession where more than a third of lawyers have a harmful relationship with alcohol, per a landmark 2016 study, the top-down push to destigmatize conversations about addiction is a far cry from the culture of Big Law when Jones’ father was the managing partner of Arnold & Porter. “They notoriously had this garden room in the ’80s where deals got done,” Jones said. “You would have a couple martinis and talk with senior partners about what was working well, what you might do differently, how to approach a client—you didn’t want to miss out on that.”

However, not all managing partners are scheduling standing AA meetings: Jones said a friend at a New York law firm was recently approached by a young associate about how to avoid drinking at firm functions. The advice, passed down through generations, was to put water in a rocks glass.

To help change that culture, Jones and colleagues like Eric Webber of Caron are traveling the country to meet with law firms for the one-day, interactive sessions. In exchange for six CLE credits, lawyers share their experience observing addiction among people close to them and learn about the disease, the warning signs, treatment options, recovery and other topics that help them foster a more supportive culture.

“Policy doesn’t always change culture, but culture will always change policy, so we’re working on building a culture of acceptance, openness, trust, confidentiality, and support in seeking help when help is needed,” Webber said.

Morgan, Lewis & Bockius managing partner Steven Wall has been in recovery for alcohol addiction since 2010, he told CNN in 2019. After seeking treatment at Caron, Wall became a board member and eventually offered to host the first substance abuse CLE at the firm’s Philadelphia office last May. Since then, the team from Decipher and Caron has hosted CLEs at Duane Morris and plans to host one with Morris, Manning & Martin.

Eric Rodriguez, education resource director at Caron, said attorneys are more likely to grapple with substance abuse because of qualities that make them great at their jobs: dedication, selflessness and self-sufficiency. “Lawyers are often looked at as the people with the answer, not the people who need the answer,” Rodriguez said. “For them to ask for help is very difficult.”

In addition to doing right by their employees and attracting talented lawyers and business professionals, law firms’ incentives to pay attention to substance abuse issues are also financial, said Jones. A law firm with 1,000 lawyers may lose $1.5 million per year due to absenteeism—people missing 35 days of work or more—because of addiction struggles among 10% of attorneys (a conservative estimate on attorney substance abuse, Jones said).

The cost of treatment also pales in comparison to the cost of replacing an attorney. With associates costing six figures to replace and some partners commanding more than $1 million, the cost of a month of inpatient treatment at Caron is comparatively low at $40,000. Inpatient care elsewhere may cost between $5,000 and $80,000, according to American Addiction Centers.

Most treatments are paid by health insurance, said Webber, and some firms even pay their attorneys’ deductible. CLE courses also facilitate conversations around taking a sabbatical and helping attorneys get the help they need without shame or fear of professional retribution.

“In 30 days, that person comes back a much better lawyer,” Webber said. ”From a productivity standpoint if you get people sober they’re going to be better at what they do, period.”

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