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                                                                                          Drunk Lawyer Blog.

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Alcohol Addiction and Recovery: Attorney Case Study


Completion of this activity fulfills the California State Bar Rule 2.72 (A)(3) requirement by providing one hour of self-study credit in Competence Issues (formerly known as Prevention, Detection and Treatment of Substance Abuse or Mental Illness). This lesson provides a true case study of an attorney's struggle with alcoholism, his disbarment, and his subsequent application for reinstatement to the State Bar of California.

This activity was approved by the State Bar of California for the period: March 25, 2016 to March 24, 2018.

The State Bar of California Single Activity Provider number of Substance Abuse CLE is 15199.


     1.  Read the following article.  You may also download and print the article using the link directly below.
Alcohol Abuse and Addiction in the Legal Profession
     2.  Complete the fifteen-question self-evaluation after the article.
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Step 1.  Read the Following Article:





I.     Introduction


The practice of law can be a very stressful and demanding profession.  It should come as no surprise to learn that lawyers have traditionally suffered higher rates of alcohol abuse and alcoholism than the general public.  In 1991, studies showed that lawyers had twice the rate of addiction to alcohol than the general population.  In 2000, an article in the California Bar Journal estimated that 15 to 17 percent of California attorneys were alcoholics, or about one out of every six attorneys. 


The problem is recognized, but has not been adequately addressed.  A new 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs reveals that 21 percent of working attorneys qualify as “problem drinkers,” 28 percent deal with depression, and 19 percent struggle with anxiety issues.[1]  In comparison, 6.8 percent of adults nationwide suffered from an alcoholic disorder in 2014.[2]  The 2016 study also reported that attorneys with less than 10 years of experience are the most likely to suffer these problems.  Nearly 1 in 3 younger lawyers are “problem drinkers.”  Alcohol abuse and addiction in the legal profession is still a growing problem. 


These statistics are alarming, because alcohol abuse and addiction can – and do – interfere with an attorney’s professional duties.


           A.     Professional Rules of Conduct


Rule 3-110 of the California Rules of Professional Conduct (Failing to Act Competently) prohibits an attorney from intentionally, recklessly, or repeatedly failing to perform legal services with competence.  Alcohol abuse may adversely affect an attorney’s competence, leading to their suspension or disbarment. 


In 2005, the California Bar Journal reported that 42 percent of the State Bar Court’s active caseload involved attorneys with chemical dependency or mental health issues.[3] The State Bar of California requires that practicing attorneys be made aware of this problem.


           B.     MCLE Requirement


In California, attorneys must satisfy 25 hours of continuing legal education every three years.  One of those hours must be on Competence Issues (formerly known as Prevention, Detection and Treatment of Substance Abuse or Mental Illness).  This article concerns the drug of alcohol, but there are cases of lawyers and judges abusing other substances, such as methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and prescription drugs.[4]  Alcohol abuse and addiction is the number one problem for the legal profession, and is the focus of this article.


Section II of this article provides a short summary of the adverse effects that can arise from alcohol consumption.  Section III provides a discussion of an actual case from the Review Department of the State Bar of California concerning an attorney’s struggle with alcohol addiction. Section IV covers the causes of alcoholism. Section V provides information on where an attorney can request and receive assistance relating to a substance abuse problem.  Finally, in Section VI we learn how an attorney can be reinstated to the State Bar after disbarment. 


II.     The Negative Aspects of Repeated Alcohol Consumption


In this section we provide a brief discussion of dangers of heavy alcohol consumption to provide a foundation for examining a case from the Review Department of the State Bar of California.


Ethanol is the alcohol that is in beer, wine, and liquor.  Methanol, or wood alcohol, is another alcohol that is highly toxic and completely unfit for consumption.  Ethanol is used in medicines, colognes, cleaning solutions and even car fuel.  It is a clear, colorless liquid that comes from fermenting things like fruit, corn, grain, and sugar cane.  Ethanol is also toxic, though less toxic than methanol.  When ethanol is ingested, the liver must break it down to prevent it from damaging cells and organs.


For men, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week. For women, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 8 drinks or more per week.  Heavy drinking increases the risk of heart failure, stroke, and high blood pressure, as well as many other medical problems.  These include cirrhosis of the liver, sleep disorders, depression, bleeding from the stomach, sexually transmitted infections from unsafe sex, and cancer.  Heavy drinkers may have problems managing diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions.[5]


Even in the short term, heavy drinking increases the chances of being injured or possibly killed.  Alcohol use is a contributing factor in about sixty percent of fatal burn injuries, drownings, and homicides; fifty percent of severe trauma injuries and sexual assaults; and forty percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes, suicides, and falls.[6]


Drinking during pregnancy can cause brain damage and other serious problems in the fetus. Because it is not yet known whether any amount of alcohol is safe for a developing baby, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should not drink.

Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is only one type of an alcohol problem.  Alcohol abuse can be harmful, too.  A person can abuse alcohol without actually being an alcoholic.  For instance, he or she may drink too much and too often but still not be dependent on alcohol.  Some of the problems linked to alcohol abuse include not being able to meet work, school, or family responsibilities; drunk-driving arrests and motor vehicle accidents; and drinking-related medical conditions.  Under some circumstances, even social or moderate drinking is dangerous, like when driving, during pregnancy, or when taking certain medications.


Even though it is reported that regular light to moderate drinking can be good for the heart, the harm associated with heavy or at-risk drinking outweighs those potential health benefits.[7]  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that no one begin drinking, or drink more, based on alcohol’s potential health benefits.[8]


III.     Case Study


With this basic background information, let us examine an actual case study illustrating how the pattern of alcohol use, abuse, and addiction can occur in an attorney’s life.  After the case study, we’ll discuss alcoholism in greater detail.

The case is taken from the Review Department of the State Bar of California. Though the decisions of the Review Department are available to the public, the attorney’s identity will be protected here, and he will be referred to as John—not his real name.  The true facts described in this case illustrate the classic progression of addiction, and the struggles an addict often faces with recovery.


           A.     Findings of Fact


John excelled scholastically in high school and chose to attend the University of California at Berkeley.  He began drinking alcohol when he was nineteen, and drank socially on a regular basis.  He thought that he could handle liquor better than his friends, because he could consume a larger quantity of alcohol than they could before becoming drunk.  During college, John was sometimes hung over and missed work and classes.  But he graduated and was accepted to attend law school at the University of San Francisco.


In law school, John made new friends who drank as heavily as him.  Sometimes he missed classes, but he studied hard, did well on his first year exams, and was asked to join law review.  However his personality gradually changed as his drinking increased.  He became belligerent with others, missed deadlines, and was dismissed from law review.  He also began to experience financial difficulties.  Nevertheless, he graduated from law school and passed the California Bar exam. 


John was admitted to the State Bar in 1991, and was hired as an associate in a law firm.  But his continued drinking led to his termination, so he began working as a solo practitioner.


John became hooked on gambling.  During his work as a solo practitioner, he engaged in attorney misconduct to obtain money for his gambling and drinking.  In one matter, John took almost $3,000 in client funds that were supposed to pay for medical bills, and used the money for gambling and drinking.  Then, in order to postpone a lawsuit, he repeatedly misrepresented to the client's doctor that he intended to provide payment.


In two cases John failed to perform any work at all resulting in default judgments against his clients.  In another case, John abandoned a client and withdrew representation.  In one case John failed to provide competent legal representation, which resulted in an adverse judgment against his client.  He then lied to his client about pursuing an appeal of the judgment, and thereafter abandoned the case without properly withdrawing.  Finally, John failed to cooperate with the State Bar about client complaints, and failed to comply with court orders requiring him to pay sanctions.


John closed his law practice in late 1992, and tried to work as a contract attorney.  But he was forced to resign from the bar in 1993 due to his misconduct.  His downward spiral continued.  His ritual was to drink, and then gamble away his money at card tables.  He stopped paying rent and was evicted from his apartment.  By the end of 1994, he was penniless and living on the street.


John tried to recover on his own by moving in with his parents and working as a paralegal.  He fell in love and married.  But his continued drinking led to his termination as a paralegal and he was forced to declare bankruptcy.  By 2000 he was still drinking and needed a least a pint of hard liquor to get drunk.  By 2001 he was consuming between a pint and a quart of hard liquor a day.  Not surprisingly, his wife threatened to leave him.


The threat of losing his family finally led John to seek counseling for alcohol addiction.  His last drink was May 14, 2001.  But recovery from chemical addition is extremely difficult as John’s case further illustrates.  John enrolled in a two-year Recovery Program through Kaiser, which included almost daily group therapy sessions and weekly individual sessions to maintain his sobriety.  He also joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) due to his unresolved feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.  He attended counseling sessions and meetings seven to fourteen times per week, and became active in AA in an organizational capacity.  He also began attending weekly meetings of the Other Bar, an organization of recovering lawyers and judges that provides support to members of the legal profession with substance abuse problems.


Eventually John found non-attorney work in the law department of the U.S. Postal Service.  He accepted full responsibility for the ethical misconduct he committed prior to his resignation from the California Bar, and expressed sincere remorse for the harm he caused his former clients as a result of his inability to represent them properly.  After making restitution to his clients and their doctors, he applied for reinstatement to the Bar in September 2003.  A multi-day hearing was conducted in August 2004 and he was reinstated.  But the State Bar appealed the reinstatement decision to the Review Department of the State Bar Court.  The last section of this article reveals the outcome.  


           B.     Lessons Learned From the Case Study


One of the first facts presented in the case study is John’s early observation from college that he could drink more than his friends.  Some people believe that being able to “hold your liquor” is an enviable trait.  But such an ability does not offer protection from alcohol problems, and in fact, is a reason for caution.  People who can drink relatively large amounts of alcohol without feeling its effects tend to drink more, socialize with people who drink a lot, and develop a tolerance to alcohol.  As a result, they have an increased risk for developing alcoholism.[9]


Alcoholism is characterized by an intense craving for alcohol.  This craving can be as strong as the need for food or water, and untreated, it often causes alcoholics to continue to drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems.[10]  This was certainly true of John from our case study above.  John continued to drink despite being dismissed from law review, the increasing decline in his work performance, his eventual loss of employment, and his disbarment for unethical conduct.  For John, the threat of losing his family was too much for him to bear, and he sought treatment thereafter.  But many alcoholics never seek treatment and suffer terribly in terms of personal and physical disaster.


Alcohol dependence often leads to the harmful consequences of repeated alcohol use, a pattern of compulsive alcohol use, and the physical dependence on alcohol.  The physical dependence on alcohol can by identified through the alcoholic’s ability to tolerate higher amounts of alcohol before becoming drunk.  Recall that in John’s case, he had to consume a pint of hard liquor to get drunk, and a year later he was drinking anywhere from a pint to a quart of hard liquor a day.  The physical addiction to alcohol also leads to symptoms of withdrawal that can become debilitating.  In rare cases, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. 


Alcoholics typically present clearly defined progressive changes in behavioral patterns as they continue to drink over months and years.  As alcoholics continue to drink, their problems grow worse and worse in fairly predictable ways.  In John’s case, this can be seen in the slow but increasing degradation of his work performance and repeated loss of employment.  It is not uncommon for alcoholics to abandon old friends and find new ones who share their interest in heavy drinking.  Remember that John found new friends in law school who drank as heavily as himself.  An alcoholic may also develop dual or multiple addictions.  Recall that John also became addicted to gambling.


One of the most important points to be learned from our case study is that addiction to alcohol is often progressive.  The disease persists over time and physical, emotional, and social changes are often cumulative and may progress as substance abuse continues. In fact, alcohol is a toxic, and alcoholism can cause premature death through overdose, organic complications involving the brain, liver, heart, and many other organs, and by contributing to suicide, homicide, motor vehicle crashes, and other traumatic events.


IV.     Causes of Alcoholism


           A.     Disease Concept of Alcoholism


Most attorneys who study United States history are aware that one of America’s Founding Fathers is Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  However many may not know that Dr. Rush was one of the first medical providers to use the term “addiction” in reference to the loss of control accompanying alcoholism.  In 1805, Dr. Rush wrote:


"My observations authorize me to say, that persons who have been addicted to them, should abstain from them suddenly and entirely. 'Taste not, handle not, touch not' should be inscribed upon every vessel that contains spirits in the house of a man, who wishes to be cured of habits of intemperance."[11]


Dr. Rush observed that “[I]t is further remarkable that drunkenness resembles certain hereditary . . . diseases.”[12]  This statement is rather remarkable considering that research just over the last few decades indicates that forty to sixty percent of the susceptibility to alcoholism is inherited.[13]  Dr. Rush also argued that “habitual drunkenness should be regarded not as a bad habit but as a disease,” and described the condition as a “palsy of the will.”[14]


Rush’s contribution to the study of alcoholism over 200 years ago helped provide a new model of habitual drunkenness in at least four ways.  First, he identified alcohol, or “spirituous liquors,” as the causal agent.  Second, he described an alcoholic’s loss of control over drinking as a compulsive activity.  Third, he declared that this condition was a disease.  Finally, he prescribed total abstinence as the only way to cure this disease.[15]


Modernly, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) continues to recognize alcoholism as a disease that includes: craving, loss of control, physical dependence, and tolerance.  Formal diagnostic criteria for alcoholism are included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association, as well as in the International Classification Diseases, published by the World Health Organization.


Like many other diseases, alcoholism lasts a person's lifetime, it usually follows a predictable course (such as the deterioration of John’s personal and professional life), and it has symptoms. The risk for developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person’s genes and by his or her lifestyle.[16]  Research shows that the risk for developing alcoholism runs in families.  But one’s choice of friends, the stress in one’s life, and the availability of alcohol also are factors that may increase a person’s risk for alcoholism.  Thus the known causative factors which can produce alcoholic behavior are genetic and environmental.  It is important to remember that alcoholism can be produced by either of these factors even though the other is absent.


           B.     Genetic Predisposition


Many scientific studies, including research conducted among twins and children of alcoholics, have shown that genetic factors influence alcoholism.[17] These findings show that children of alcoholics are about four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems.  A study in Sweden followed alcohol use in twins who were adopted as children and reared apart. The incidence of alcoholism was slightly higher among people who were exposed to alcoholism only through their adoptive families.  However, it was dramatically higher among the twins whose biological fathers were alcoholics, regardless of the presence of alcoholism in their adoptive families.  Thus, an important risk factor for developing the disease is to have an alcoholic parent.


           C.     Environmental Factors


Even though there is a genetic link to alcoholism, many children of alcoholics do not ever develop drinking problems.  In fact, more than one half of all children of alcoholics do not become alcoholic.  And an individual can become addicted to alcohol even without a genetic predisposition.  Research shows that many factors influence a person’s risk of developing alcoholism.

Environmental factors that contribute to the development of alcohol dependence include the influence of family, peers, and society; the availability of alcohol; and participation in professions or repeated situations that cause elevated levels of stress.  Remember that alcohol is an addictive substance.  Regular use of alcoholic beverages (including beer or wine) over an extended period of time can create a physical dependence on alcohol in and of itself.          


Many studies have found significant but relatively small associations between stress in the workplace and elevated levels of alcohol consumption.  For example, one early study reported that employees’ reasons for drinking were found to be associated with stress-inducing job characteristics, but the correlations were weak.[18]  A national survey of employed persons found that lower job satisfaction and higher job stress both were risks for increased drinking.[19]  Another study found significant associations between employee alcohol use and lower job satisfaction, less faith in management, and lower involvement with and commitment to the job.[20]  There are significant associations between drinking and job burnout,[21] and negative associations between employee drinking behavior and job autonomy and job satisfaction.[22]


These studies suggest that work related job stress and job dissatisfaction induce higher rates of alcohol consumption.


Worker alienation is another risk factor among employed persons for increased drinking. A worker’s alienation effects that employee’s identity and control, and effects overall mental well-being.  Studies have reported strong associations between alienation from work and employee drinking behavior.[23]  Focusing on interpersonal conflict in the workplace, one study reported that “generalized workplace abuse” from supervisors or co-workers was positively associated with increased drinking.[24]


V.     Diagnosis, Treatment, and Assistance for Attorneys


           A.     Diagnostic Factors 


There are seven key signs of "Alcohol Dependence" that medical professionals use when making a diagnosis.[25]  To qualify for a diagnosis of alcohol dependence, a person must exhibit at least three of the following symptoms within a 12-month period:


  1. The person develops a "tolerance" for alcohol. This is characterized by the need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication, or a reduced effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.
  2. The person suffers withdrawal symptoms. Signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include, among others, mild to moderate tremors, irritability, anxiety, or agitation. The most severe manifestations of withdrawal include delirium tremens, hallucinations, and seizures.[26]
  3. The person often drinks more than he or she had intended.
  4. The person has been planning to cut down on drinking, or attempting to control the drinking, but those attempts keep failing. Alcoholics often quit drinking for a short period of time to prove to others that they are not addicted. But then resume drinking on the sly.
  5. The person spends a lot of time and effort making sure that he or she can get alcohol. Often this takes the form of going to bars a lot, or planning lots of social events that involve alcohol, and avoiding social events where alcohol isn’t served.  It also may involve spending time alone drinking instead of doing something else that wouldn’t allow as much drinking.
  6. The person begins to give up or reduce important social, recreational or professional activities because of alcohol use.  The person may be aware of being pulled in two directions between alcohol and other priorities, and alcohol begins to win more and more often.
  7. The person continues drinking even after being aware of having physical or psychological problems as a result.

           B.     Treatment


Although described as incurable, “[a]ccording to a consensus of the medical community, alcoholism is a treatable disease.”[27]  Abstinence from drinking is the safest course for most people with alcoholism.  Treatment programs consist of both counseling and medications to help a person deal with the craving and stop drinking.  Treatment has helped many people stop drinking and rebuild their lives.


An alcoholic who is physically dependent may experience withdraw symptoms after attempting to attain abstinence.  Such symptoms include shakiness, nausea, and sweating. Medications are available to help manage these symptoms of withdrawal so that an alcoholic can begin the road to recovery.


           C.     Assistance for Attorneys


The services described below are just a few of the assistance programs available to individuals for alcohol related problems.


                   1.     Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP)


The Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) is a confidential service of the State Bar of California established by the California Legislature.29[28]  Staffed by experienced professionals, the LAP provides assistance to attorneys whose personal or professional life is being detrimentally impacted by substance abuse, other compulsive behaviors, and/or mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety.


The LAP is a comprehensive program offering support and structure from the beginning stage of recovery through continuing after-care.  It includes: individual counseling, expert assessment and consultation, assistance with arrangements for intensive treatment, monitored continuing care, random lab testing, professionally facilitated support groups, and peer support groups. The program also works with family members, friends, colleagues, judges, and other court staff who wish to obtain help for an impaired attorney. Financial assistance is available so that no one is prevented from participating in the program due to financial limitations.


Attorneys may self-refer into this program or may be referred as the result of an investigation or disciplinary proceeding.  Participation in the LAP is strictly and absolutely confidential.  No information concerning participation in the program can be released without the attorney’s prior written consent.  Attorneys may call a toll free number to learn more about the LAP: 877-LAP - 4HELP (877-527-4435); or by sending an email to


                   2.     The Other Bar


Recall from our case study that an organization called The Other Bar contributed to John’s recovery.  The Other Bar is a network of recovering lawyers and judges dedicated to assisting others within the legal profession who are suffering from substance abuse problems.  It is a private, non-profit corporation funded by the State Bar and private donations.  The organization is founded on the principle of anonymity and provides services in strict confidentiality.  More information can be found on the organization’s website at


                   3.  National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service


The National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service provides a toll-free telephone number, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), offering various resource information. Through this service individuals can talk with a representative concerning substance abuse treatment, request printed material on alcohol or other drugs, or obtain local substance abuse treatment referral information.


VI.     Reinstatement to the California Bar


Let’s return to our case study to see how an attorney may be reinstated following disbarment for substance abuse-related misconduct.  As you recall, John was reinstated following his initial hearing.  But the State Bar did not believe John demonstrated sufficient recovery to begin handling client matters and funds on his own, and appealed to the Review Department of the State Bar Court.


According to Rule 951(f) of the California Rules of Court, in order to be reinstated to the State Bar, a petitioner must pass a professional responsibility examination, demonstrate rehabilitation, present moral qualifications, and establish present ability and learning in the general law.


To “demonstrate rehabilitation,” a petitioner must show a recognition of his or her wrongdoing,[29] and proof of “sustained exemplary conduct over an extended period of time.”[30]  In John’s case, the findings of fact established that he stopped drinking in May 2001, completed a two year program in 2003, and continued attending regular meetings with AA and the Other Bar. He worked full time and never suffered a relapse, even during a temporary period of marital separation.  He made full restitution to those he wronged and earned the trust and respect of his new supervisors and peers.  According to his counselor, John was a model patient who was in full sustained remission. She testified that he was not disabled by alcohol dependency, pathological gambling, or depression.


Nevertheless, the review court denied reinstatement.  A serious and protracted pattern of egregious abuse of client trust requires a substantial period of exemplary conduct to make a showing of rehabilitation.[31]  “The passage of an appreciable period of time” constitutes an “appropriate consideration” in determining whether a petitioner has made sufficient progress towards rehabilitation.”[32]  However, the Review Department of the State Bar Court is not interested “just in counting the correct number of years” for measuring a petitioner's rehabilitation.[33]  The critical analysis is to “assess the quality of petitioner’s showing in light of his very serious misconduct . . . .”[34] 


What is an “appreciable period of time” that evidences sufficient progress towards rehabilitation?  There is no magic number.  But when serious ethical misconduct is attributable to alcoholism, the period of exemplary conduct necessary to sufficiently establish rehabilitation exceeds the 39-month period that John maintained.  Given the extent of his prior wrongdoing and addictions, the court found John’s period of exemplary conduct to be insufficient to establish his overall rehabilitation.[35]


VII.     Conclusion


Alcoholism is characterized by a continuous or periodic impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with alcohol, the use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in perception, most notably denial. Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic: 1) it lasts a person’s lifetime; 2) it usually follows a predictable course; and 3) it has recognizable symptoms.  The risk for developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person’s genes and by his or her lifestyle.


Attorneys suffer from alcohol abuse and addiction at rates higher than the general population. Alcohol abuse and addiction is a contributing factor in attorney misconduct which can lead to disbarment.  Reinstatement is possible, but the petitioner must show proof of sustained exemplary conduct over an extended period of time.


Attorneys concerned about their alcohol use may seek help by contacting the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) at 877-LAP 4 HELP (877-527-4435), or by contacting the Other Bar, whose website is at

[download article to see endnotes]

Article: Alcohol Abuse and Addiction in the Legal Profession

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