Related Navigation

A Lawyer's Fractured Fairy Tale

by Carol P. Waldhauser, Executive Director, Delaware Lawyers Assistance Program

John Doe’s rise in the legal profession was so rapid that even his peers described both his personal and professional life as full of hard work accompanied with good fortune, good timing and a bit of luck.   Clearly, many see John as living the American Dream.  So why is John’s family worried that his fairy tale life is about to become a fractured fairy tale?  Could it be that they know John is a high-functioning alcoholic?

A high-functioning alcoholic is someone who is an alcoholic but is able to maintain his/her outside life, i.e.:  career or home or family and friendships - all while drinking alcoholically.  This type of alcoholic has the same disease as the “skid-row” alcoholic, but shows different signs of the disease.  Moreover, the disease itself progresses differently within the individual. 

Ironically many high-functioning alcoholics are not seen as being alcoholic at all because most have succeeded and/or over-achieved academically, professionally and personally.  Unfortunately this success can, and often does, increase the symptom of denial in the high-functioning alcoholic.  Accordingly, it is their denial that makes them less apt to feel that they need treatment for the disease of alcoholism. 

It is a well-known fact that many people, including those in the legal profession, find themselves struggling with unhealthy, expensive, and often life-threatening addictions and/or other compulsive behaviors.  And, if asked, many other individuals might tell you that they know someone – family, friends, and/or peers– that they believe have a drinking problem or are high-functioning alcoholic. 

It is a common saying that alcoholism is an equal-opportunity destroyer.  It can affect anyone regardless of race, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, profession and/or station in life.  Similarly, it is a common saying in the field of alcohol counseling that the alcoholic is the last person to know that he or she has a problem with alcohol.  Rather, an individual’s family, peers, partners, friends often know before the alcoholic admits that they are drinking alcoholically. 

Needless to say most individuals do not intend to become addicted to alcohol.  However mirroring our fictitious character John, there comes a point when some people begin to depend on the alcohol not just to feel good, but to feel normal.  Gradually, the occasional use of alcohol may turn into weekly use, then daily use and eventually the user comes to the distressing realization that he or she is addicted to alcohol.

The Facts:

A landmark study in 2007 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) categorized alcoholics into 5 subtypes:  19.5% of alcoholics are the “functional” subtype, 31.5% are the “young adult” subtype, 21% are the young antisocial subtype, 19% are the intermediate familial subtype (middle-aged with mental illness) and only 9% are the “chronic severe” subtype that fits the stereo-type of the low-bottom alcoholic.   Another little known statistic is that other addiction experts estimate that between 75% and 90% of alcoholics are high-functioning. 

Additionally, excessive alcohol consumption causes more that 100,000 deaths annually in the United States, with 24 percent of these deaths due to drinking and driving, 11 percent to alcohol-related homicide, and 8 percent to alcohol-related suicide. 

Equally as important to realize, the legal profession is vulnerable to this disease.  According to Douglas B. Marlowe, PhD, and J.D. in Alcoholism: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments, And Stress Management For Lawyers:

Alcoholism exacts an exorbitant toll on lawyers, the legal system, and consumers of legal services.  In a 1990 study, conducted by the North Carolina Bar Association, a staggering 17% of the 2,600 attorneys surveyed admitted to drinking 3-5 alcoholic beverages per day.  In the state of Washington, another study found that 18% of the 801 lawyers surveyed were problem drinkers.  It is estimated that the number of lawyers in the United States actively abusing alcohol and drugs is twice that of the general population.  Approximately 40% to 70% of attorney disciplinary proceedings and malpractice actions are linked to alcohol abuse or a mental illness.  P. 240

Dr. Marlowe states further “despite this high incidence, lawyers suffering from alcoholism often feel painfully alone.  Fearing discovery or retribution, they are reticent to ask questions or attempt to learn more about their problem”.   

Needless to say as members of the legal profession, most lawyers spend their time dealing with other people’s problems, often ignoring their own.  The day-to-day pressures and deadlines of practice sometimes cause lawyers themselves to succumb to substance abuse, addiction or other compulsive behaviors.  Even for the high-functioning alcoholic, without treatment, the suffering lawyer’s family and work can be drastically affected.

Why Do Some People Get Addicted While Others Do Not?

While many individuals do not become addicted, some people do because of their vulnerability.  Genetics is a big contributor to the risk of addiction and the nature of this contribution is extremely complex.  Remember too that addiction is a disease.  More specifically addiction is a brain disease characterized by:  compulsive behavior, continued abuse of drugs despite negative consequences and persistent changes in the brain’s structure and function.  Second, addiction is similar to other chronic illnesses because:  it has biological and behavioral components, both of which must be addressed during treatment.  Like other diseases, however, it is: preventable, treatable, it changes biology and if untreated, it can last a lifetime. 

In fact, the disease model of alcoholism contains three core components that are frequently utilized in the discussion of any addiction:

Tolerance. This is said to be evident when, after exposure and repeated use, and increased amount of the drug is needed to produce the same effect.

Withdrawal symptoms. These are experienced when the effects of the drug wear off, and they vary according to the substance taken.  Common withdrawal symptoms include tremor, hot flushes, and nausea – these are typically relieved by another dose of the drug.

Craving. This is the addict’s overwhelming desire to take the particular drug of choice even in light of persistent problems caused by the substance.

Furthermore, this disease develops in stages, and denial is a major symptom. Recovery from it  (protracted abstinence and restored functioning) is often a long-term process requiring repeated episodes of treatment.  Plus, relapses can occur during or after treatment, and signal a need for treatment adjustment or reinstatement.  Participation in support programs during and following treatment can be helpful in sustaining long-term recovery therefore full recovery is a challenge but it is possible.  

Is Someone You Know A High-Functioning Alcoholic?

If you, or someone you know, can check any of the symptoms listed below – they may suffer from a serious health problem.

Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking or drug use?

Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking or drug use?

Have you ever felt guilty about your drinking or drug use?

Have you ever had a drink or other drug to steady your nerves or relieve a hangover?

Have you ever broken a promise to reduce your drinking or drug use or to quit altogether?

Has drinking or drug use interfered wit your work, marriage or other commitments?

Have you ever lied to cover up your drinking or drug use?

Are you drinking or using drugs during the workday?

Are you coming to work after a long night of drinking or drug use and then counting the hours until the end of the workday to have a drink or use again?

Attendance Problems:


Leaving early

Taking “long lunches”

Not returning to work after lunch

Missing appointments

Unable to be located

Ill with vague ailments

Absent (especially Monday/Fridays)

Improbable excuses for absences

Last minute cancellations.

Trust Account:

Checks not deposited

Debit card withdrawals

Incomplete or irregular records

Pay office expenses from trust

Pay personal expenses

“Borrowing” from trust

Failure to timely disburse

Incomplete accounting for receipts & disbursements.

Remember John?  This illness can ruin marriages and careers, break up families and law firms, undermine financial security, destroy a person’s physical and mental health and may lead to incarceration and sometimes to premature death.  Conversely, all of this is avoidable if the illness can be identified and treated in time. 

This article was originally published in the DE-LAP Zone Monthly Column in September, 2010, reprinted with the permission of the author and edited for length. 

If you are concerned about substance use, please contact the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program at 1-800-688-7859 for free, confidential assistance.