How do I get help for my alcoholic friend?

Issue March 2004

Q:I am a state-employed lawyer, and care very much for a man in solo practice who I think is depressed and/or alcoholic. Although he is in many ways an open person, he won't discuss these issues or go to see a therapist. I'm not sure where to go from here. I value this relationship, but don't want to find myself later wishing that I had extricated myself.

A:While most people, especially those who have become dependent on alcohol or drugs, tend to put off getting help and to deny the need for it, lawyers seem to be particularly adept at not facing their own problems. The very personality features that may facilitate their professional success work against their capacity to acknowledge and seek appropriate assistance. These characteristics (e.g., argumentativeness, stubborn persistence, focusing on externals and tasks over internal factors and feelings) are further reinforced in law school. Lawyers also tend to worry about their public image and professional standing more than other groups, so that many would rather continue to suffer from a problem than allow others to see them as in any way impaired. (Of course, this concern is not altogether unrealistic, but in its extreme form actually places professional image over personal survival.) As William Smith put it in his article in the January 2003 ABA Journal, "the very skills that make us good lawyers make us terrible, terrible patients."

Getting someone, anyone, other than ourselves motivated to seek help is a huge and tricky task that can easily backfire. One strategy that has sometimes been successful is the so-called "intervention." This approach employs both social pressure (the same message from a number of significant others) and leverage (getting help as a condition of keeping a relationship or job) to persuade someone in denial to accept treatment. In your case, your use of such leverage would come from an honest place - your deep qualms about remaining closely connected to someone who avoids addressing significant problems. One possible scenario: first, you schedule one or two individual sessions for yourself (perhaps at LCL) to consider possible options; second, you invite him to join you for a subsequent session, based on your distress; third (if fortune smiles), he agrees to an individual assessment and recommendations. If he continues to ignore your concerns, you may ultimately determine that separation, though painful, is your best course. There are no formulas or simple answers in this kind of situation, but talking about it with a knowledgeable listener is likely to help you reach your own conclusions and decisions.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from LCL.