Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 12, 2020

‘Life is better on the other side’

Substance abuse help available to often-reluctant legal professionals

Bradford Health Services’ Legal Professional Program is located in the company’s Limestone Ridge facility in Warrior, Alabama. - Photograph provided

Alabama family law attorney Kim Davidson was about a week away from the day she was planning to kill herself when she returned home from work to find a group of lawyers and judges waiting for her.

Over time, Davidson’s colleagues had noted changes in her behavior that suggested she was caught in the grip of substance abuse – she was missing appointments, lying to co-workers and using anger to keep people at a distance – and they were there to intervene.

Davidson was going to have none of it.

“I went down in a blaze of glory,” she says by Zoom from her home in Alabama. “I called the police on the people who were in my house.’’

Despite her fiery opposition to entering treatment, Davidson checked into a Bradford Health Services inpatient facility the next day. While there, she learned she was not alone in her affliction, but rather was in considerable company among attorneys.

Reports estimate that while 10% of the general population has problems with an addiction, the corresponding approximation for legal professionals is 15-18%, the American Bar Association reports.

Long hours, intense responsibility and constant pressure to solve other people’s problems often go hand in hand with a legal career, Davidson says, and these pressures can take a toll on the health and lives of judges and attorneys.

“I was a single mom in private practice, and I needed to work harder, do better and build my practice,” Davidson recalls. “To cope, I’d come home and drink, but instead of drinking one or two, I’d drink three or four.”

Following surgery, Davidson added painkillers known as Lortabs to her regimen. “I could take a Lortab and drink a couple of beers and then work until two or three in the morning,” she says. “I was on a hamster wheel.”

Davidson’s hamster wheel eventually became unhinged. Although she had successfully hid her addictions for six months, her life and career were collapsing, and she saw only one solution.

“I had planned to kill myself as my son was starting ninth grade, and on July 15, 2006, I walked into my house, and a group of people offered me a different path,” Davidson says. “I was one week shy of what I thought was the best decision I could make.”

A lack of hope is common among addicts, says Bonnie Watson, substance use disorder program director at Focus Treatment Centers in Chattanooga.

So is reluctance to enter treatment, she adds. In addition to concerns about losing their job and family, many people want to avoid the stigma they say is attached to struggling with a problem that’s beyond their ability to manage.

“Being vulnerable is a huge deterrent for a lot of people when it comes to admitting there’s an issue and entering treatment,” Watson says. “Many people are worried others will place them in a category, or make assumptions about them and their disease, that’s not reflective of who they are.”

Davidson says convincing an attorney to enter treatment is like trying to catch a feral cat. She attributes this to not only concerns about hitting the pause button on their practice or becoming divorced, but also pride.

“If you tell a doctor they’ll lose their license if they don’t enter treatment, they’ll go, but a lawyer will argue with you and file lawsuits if you try to suspend them,” she says. “They will fight to be right, even though they’re miserable.”

To avoid entering treatment, many addicts will try to forge their own path to recovery, Watson acknowledges, but this journey tends to lead deeper into the tangle. “In my experience, individuals are not able to recover on their own. Sometimes, they will simply substitute one maladaptive coping skill for another.”

Believing their life can never change, many addicts suffer in silence, Watson says. But the availability of treatment ensures hope is a light that never fades.

“You hear a lot of stories in which drugs or alcohol led to someone’s demise, but there are also a lot of people who have success stories as a result of going through our program.”

Focus Treatment Centers offers intensive inpatient services followed by a period of outpatient services. During that time, the program’s counselors work to knock over giants.

“Different things work for different people, and we try to understand our patients’ individual needs and tailor their recovery plan accordingly,” Watson says.

Part of this process involves determining the trauma and stressors that led to the patient’s substance abuse. The program’s counselors then try to develop alternate coping skills that will be conducive to their long-term recovery.

Watson says Focus Treatment Centers takes a “whole person” approach to care that involves individual and family counseling, as well as psychoeducational classes in which patients learn meditation and relaxation techniques.

“We also incorporate the idea of sober fun,” Watson adds. “Many of the patients who come to our facility have been using for so long that it’s hard for them to imagine doing anything they love sober.”

One of the most vital components of the program at Focus Treatment Centers is the group setting, which pulls patients out of self-imposed isolation and places them with others who have had similar experiences, Watson says.

“For a lot of people, the light turns on when we remove the barrier of shame and they’re able to talk with and relate to others.”

Davidson says she initially hated being in treatment, but once she committed to it, her perspective shifted from hopelessness to hope. Today, she tells people she’s been sober for 13 years.

Opportunities for Davidson to share her story abound, as she now works as a legal liaison for Bradford’s Legal Professional Program, a treatment plan designed to acknowledge the stresses of the legal profession. In this role, she consults with attorneys as they enter and receive treatment and then move forward with their lives and practices.

“I send attorneys to primary treatment, I work with families to create sobriety contracts, and I intervene on an attorney’s behalf while he or she is in treatment,” she explains. “For example, I’ll call a judge and let them know the attorney is dealing with a medical issue and needs six weeks off. I try to create a buffer between those things and the patient because lawyers will leave if they think they can.”

As a legal liaison, Davidson also spends time busting myths about substance use treatment and the impact it will have on an attorney’s practice.

For instance, when a lawyer insists he or she can’t afford to stop working and enter a program, she’ll tell him or her about the financial help available through the Alabama Bar’s Lawyers Assistance Program, which provides help to lawyers and judges who suffer from addictions.

And when the attorney then claims he or she will lose his license and never be able to practice law again, Davidson points to herself and says, “That’s not true.”

“I still practice law,” she says. “It gives me street credibility with lawyers.”

Davidson adds she rebuilt her family law practice “one brick at a time” after recovering from addiction. “I sat in courtrooms and told lawyers I would try their cases for free. And I made amends to the judges I’d lied to. Then they started giving me work.”

While myth-busting, Davidson can also point to law firms nationwide that are providing their attorneys who are suffering from substance use with access to addiction experts and resources.

This trend surged in 2018 when the ABA launched a campaign targeting substance use disorders among lawyers and some of the nation’s largest law firms pledged to support the initiative.

Husch Blackwell, which has offices in Chattanooga and across the U.S., was among these firms. In a January 2019, the firm said it recognized that “high levels of problematic substance use and mental health distress present a significant challenge for the legal profession” and acknowledge that “more can and should be done to improve the health and well-being of lawyers.”

Although Husch Blackwell has offered an employee assistance program in one form or another for 20 years, its current plan is its most robust, says Tonya Hays, the firm's senior benefits and retirement manager.

In addition to being free for all firm employees and their immediate families, the plan provides substance abuse assistance, offers access to legal advice and supplies live and recorded webinars and podcasts on addiction and recovery.

Husch Blackwell also offers a wellness program to help attorneys and staff attain and maintain physical and mental health, Hays says.

The firm designed its EAP to be responsive to the changing needs of its people. For example, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Husch Blackwell’s EAP provider increased the number of visits covered per incident of substance abuse from five to 10.

“The loss of jobs, reduction in hours, working remotely without seeing people regularly and loss of life has significantly increased stress, anxiety and depression,” Hays says.

“It is also suspected that substance abuse either starts or increases in times like these. By doubling the number of visits during the pandemic and making those visits available virtually, our hope is to provide our employees and their families with the resources and coping skills they need to weather the storm.”

Steve Renau, director of content and communications at Husch Blackwell, says there are both economic and ethical arguments for the firm’s program.

“Every individual in the firm represents a significant investment, and excellent lawyers are a scarcity. We work hard to identify these lawyers and retain them. After all, the chairman of our firm is a recovering alcoholic, and what business and leadership opportunities would we have lost without the willingness to assist him in overcoming the illness those many years ago?” Renau says, referring to Greg Smith, who claims 31 years of sobriety.

“Second, and more compelling, is the ethical argument. Substance abuse is an illness, and when individuals acknowledge the condition and seek help, it is our firm’s culture to offer that help.”

All of this has helped to dispel the myth that people frown on someone who’s received treatment, Davidson says. “When I went into treatment, there were still older lawyers who didn’t understand it. But it’s becoming normal. People aren’t getting as many weird looks for having gone to treatment.”

Many of them are, however, enjoying life on the other side of recovery, says Watson, who works with a number of people at Focus Treatment Centers with success stories similar to Davidson’s.

“They were incarcerated, they lost their families, they lost their jobs, and they were at rock bottom and contemplating taking other drastic measures, but then they surrendered to the recovery process and did the work,” she enthuses.

“It’s not easy, but I’ve seen families restored, people return to jobs they love, and individuals who thought they wouldn’t be able to stop using long enough to overcome major illnesses – and it’s beautiful.”

Davidson is grateful people intervened on her behalf 13 years ago, and now she encourages others who are caught in the grip of substance abuse to follow her example and enter treatment.

“I used to think asking for help was a sign of weakness, but it’s actually a sign of strength. Will you have bad days? Yes. I sometimes have to tell a lawyer, ‘You stole a lot of money, and they’re not going to let you practice for two years.’ But then we figure out what those two years are going to look like.

“Believe me: Life is better on the other side.”