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For Law StudentsUnder the Influence   

Under the Influence

Originally published in Student Lawyer magazine, December 2003 (Vol. 32, No. 4). All rights reserved.

Drug and alcohol dependence affects law student's health and their prospects for bar admission. Law schools and legal groups are working to raise awareness of the problem and develop solutions, but the task isn't easy.

by Cynthia L. Cooper (Cynthia L. Cooper is a lawyer and writer in New York City.)

Law school without liquor poses a serious problem for Jana Pritchard. The 29-year-old law student in Chicago, who's halfway through her J.D. program, is a self-confessed binge drinker-"wine, beer, mixed drinks, shots on occasion, pretty much anything," she says. She tried giving up alcohol for a while in law school, but, within months, she started again.

"The thought of making it through law school without drinking is stultifying," says Pritchard (who, like some other students interviewed for this article, chose a pseudonym for herself). "'Celebrate your victories and drown your defeats.' The law school culture supports that." She notes an irony of law school orientation: A talk on substance abuse is followed by an event at which everyone goes out and gets drunk.

The pause in Pritchard's intake came after she drank too much at a law school function during her second semester. "Everybody was wasted," she says. "Nobody thought much about it."

The next morning, still intoxicated and feeling miserable, Pritchard ran a red light and was pulled over. Although she avoided a drunk-driving charge, she decided her drinking was out of control and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous. But staying sober seemed more than she could bear, so she went back to her drinking ways.

Pritchard's condition, and even her critique of the law school culture, is commanding new attention in legal circles. The issue has ramifications ranging from the health of law students and lawyers to the prospects of bar admission for applicants who struggle with addiction. American Bar Association leaders are among those who say it's time to deal with the problem directly.

"Are law schools doing all they can to prevent the problem of substance abuse? Or, in fact, are law schools, in some way, encouraging the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs?" asks ABA executive director Robert Stein. Stein and others raised pointed questions to deans at the first-ever conference on the topic, "Meeting Our Responsibilities: Substance Abuse and Law Schools," held in New York City in June.

The familiar celebrations with abundant carafes of wine and kegs of beer are only the tip of the problem, says Stein, a former law school dean who 10 years ago sat on a committee of the Association of American Law Schools that studied chemical dependency in law schools. Avoidance at law schools is the bigger concern, he told the 150 conference participants from 35 law schools.

"We experienced a lot of denial by deans of law schools at the time," Stein says. "They said, 'It may be a problem somewhere, but not in my law school, I can assure you.'"

The numbers appear to suggest otherwise. The 1993 AALS survey of 3,400 law students at 19 schools found that 3.3 percent of law students said they needed help to control their substance abuse, and approximately 12 percent said they abused alcohol during law school. That amounts to 15,000 law students nationwide who acknowledge problem drinking. Uncalculated are the number who get into trouble when they inhale, shoot, snort, or pop their substances.

During the last decade, the legal profession began facing up to a crisis of chemical dependency problems. Studies indicate that lawyers engage in higher-than-average drug and alcohol abuse, affecting from 15 percent to 18 percent of the profession, compared with 10 percent of the general population. The impact on clients can be devastating when lawyers miss filing deadlines, spend money held in trust, or are asleep at the switch in trial.

Disciplinary bodies discover that chemical dependency problems are at the root of 40 percent to 70 percent of complaints about lawyers, says New York state Chief Judge Judith Kaye, president of the Conference of Chief Justices. "Some of the stories of clients who lost their life savings are heartbreaking," Kaye told participants at the "Meeting Our Responsibilities" conference. "I believe the court system owes it to the public to do all we can."

Every state now operates a "lawyer assistance program," or LAP, to help lawyers and judges with addiction problems confidentially. Last year, members of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (commonly called CoLAP) started reaching out to law schools.

"We need to help lawyers at the earliest possible stage-we need to help law students," says Tennessee Circuit Court Judge Robert Childers, who co-chairs CoLAP's law school outreach committee, formed a year ago. Childers traces his urgency on the subject to the suicide of a colleague in Memphis in 1987.

"People are suffering from these issues," Childers says. "Rather than sit around at a wake, I thought there ought to be some way to help."

The ABA is urging law schools and state LAPs to step up their efforts to reach out to students before they crash. And it's not just students-professors are a concern, as well. The 1993 AALS commission noted that law school faculty are not immune from the problems of substance abuse. It recommended a clear, written policy for faculty and a plan for "early, informal intervention."

John Sebert, the ABA's consultant on legal education and former dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, recalls sending a substance-abusing faculty member to treatment as one of the hardest things he encountered in his tenure. "I didn't have a choice," Sebert says. "I had a duty to my students."

Lawyer assistance programs aim to heighten awareness of the problem in law schools by going on the road, although some schools don't cooperate and some students "laugh it off," says William Hammon, chair of the New York City LAP. But Meloney Crawford Chadwick, a lawyer on the staff of the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program who frequently speaks at law schools, persists anyway.

"I'd rather talk to a law student today who might have some issues than talk to a lawyer who is in deep trouble and says his problems began in law school," Chadwick says.

Chadwick is a recovering alcoholic who became sober in 1988 when she experienced embarrassing blackouts, seven years after her graduation from Temple University School of Law.

"I started to cross the line in law school," she says. "My attitude was, 'I'm working hard, I'm going to play hard.' I would have said, 'Everybody does this,' but, in retrospect, I don't think everybody did do it.

"You can tell yourself a lot of things that seem to make sense. No one starts out thinking 'I'm going to be an alcoholic' or 'I'll have a drug problem.' You think, 'I'm having a bad day,' and this is the answer. You can be really intelligent in some ways and have a blind spot when it comes to your own impairment."

Chadwick and other experts correct old-time myths that alcoholism is a moral failing and simplistic notions of a substance abuser as a Skid Row resident. Alcoholism, they point out, is a disease-and a treatable one. It crosses class, race, educational level, and socio-economic status.

Medical authorities describe addiction as a disease in which there is a preoccupation with alcohol or other drugs, coupled with a loss of control over their consumption, says the New York State Bar Association LAP. It adds that the addicted person will have a condition that is relieved only by a drink or drug and that, once relieved, sets up the body's demand for more. Denial, one of the trickiest aspects of addiction, is the use of "psychological maneuvers to reduce awareness that alcohol is the cause of an individual's problems, rather than a solution to those problems," according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

To encourage law school deans to take action on chemical dependency, the ABA outreach committee opened a hotline, printed stickers and advertisements, and is developing an informational kit. CoLAP operates a closed online forum for law students dealing with alcoholism and substance abuse. Approximately two dozen students nationwide participate in the e-mail list, according to commission director Donna Spilis.

James Moore, chair of the New York State Lawyer Assistance Trust, says schools should have a written policy to address alcohol and drug use, serve less alcohol at student functions, create relationships with LAPs in order to help students confidentially, warn students that an unaddressed problem may affect their ability to be admitted to practice, and enlist someone as a designated person for student assistance.

But if the designee is on the faculty, few students are likely to pour out their problems, says Natasha Woodland, a 2003 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law who served as the only student member on the ABA law school outreach committee.

"I would hear the deans say, 'Our doors are always open, you can talk to us,'" Woodland says. "My response was, 'Excuse me, do you really think they are going to talk to you?' Students see how they deal with someone who is late to class. How are they going to deal with someone who is drunk in class?" As a solution, Woodland urges that student representatives be identified to meet confidentially with their peers.

At Touro Law Center in Huntington, N.Y., associate dean Kenneth Rosenblum recruited first-year student Edwin Grasmann to act as an on-campus representative on substance abuse, in conjunction with the state's LAP.

"Students come to me. I proceed gingerly and carefully because they are all scared," says Grasmann, 47, a medical doctor who himself is in recovery for substance abuse. One Touro student, troubled by his alcohol intake, now attends recovery meetings; a half-dozen others sought advice. "You're not going to help a person unless they are ready for help," Grasmann says. "I'm there, and I'm available."

For some law students, law school is recovery, and they want to keep it that way. At South Texas College of Law in Houston, Alfred "Cal" Baker, a second-year student, founded Law Students Anonymous, which began meeting this fall. Baker, 42, is now a licensed chemical dependency counselor. But in his earlier years, he found his way to a cornucopia of substances-alcohol, marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, cocaine, methamphetamines.

"I kept saying I was going to stop, but I could not," Baker says. "I had pretty much lost everything-my job, my apartment, my transportation. I traded my motorcycle for a pound of pot."

Twelve years ago, Baker entered a 30-day residential treatment program. He has been clean and sober since. At night, he counsels teenagers with substance abuse problems.

"I tried to be part of student activities in law school," Baker says. "Everything the student bar promotes is in the form of 'let's go blow off stress' and involves alcohol. I don't have any interest in it."

Baker secured support of assistant dean Gena Lewis Singleton to start a peer assistance group with a hotline and regular meetings at the school. "When we talk with peers, we're helping other students cope with the stress-rather than [being] a legal fraternity with another of their parties," he says. "These are people who understand the pressures of law school and don't want to deal with them in a bad way."

An issue of great concern to law students in recovery is bar admission. For the bar application process, most states require disclosure of legal infractions related to substance abuse, such as drunk-driving arrests; others inquire into substance abuse or treatment. Some establish a period of probation or other conditions to admission; others do not.

Early on in law school, Adam Walton (a pseudonym he chose for this article) contacted the character and fitness committee of his state's bar. A second-year student at a southeastern law school, Walton cleaned up six years ago, leaving behind a "colorful" history, he says. He is monitored by monthly reports and participates in a random drug-screening program. Three to four nights a week he meets with lawyers and law students in recovery-oriented meetings. ("It gets people on the right track, and it's also great networking," Walton says.) In August, the character and fitness committee announced that he will be permitted to apply for admission.

"If you do have a DUI on your record [and will be seeking admission to the bar], you want to talk to us," says Betty Daugherty, director of the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program of the Mississippi Bar. "Offenses that have to do with drinking are red flags. If you have gone to treatment, we are able to work with the bar admission committee.":

New York lawyer Kathleen Kettles-Russotti, who entered law school after five years in sobriety, worried about how the bar admissions committee would respond to a drunk-driving conviction. She explained on her application that the conviction was a decade old, she had no further infractions, and she participates in recovery meetings. At an in-person interview, the examiner commended her recovery program.

Even with the positive experiences of applicants like Walton and Kettles-Russotti, many with substance abuse problems are concerned. Some law students say their colleagues avoid treatment because they fear that getting help would send the wrong signals to bar examiners and result in denial of bar admission.

"Students think once they get treatment, they are on a blacklist. That's a real bad dynamic to have out there," says Colin Wellenkamp, a 2003 graduate of Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Neb., and a former student delegate to the ABA House of Delegates. The ABA Law Student Division is helping to research and promote a "best practices" standard on recovery and bar admission, Wellenkamp says.

The topic is said to offer a fiery educational tool. "You want to get a group of law students interested in the subject of substance abuse? Talk to them about whether they deserve to be admitted to the bar or not," says Aviva Orenstein, a professor at Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington, now visiting at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. Orenstein suggests using chemical dependency hypotheticals in clinics and in courses on professional responsibility, civil procedure, evidence, and negotiations.

Enhanced policies also are working their way into law school handbooks. St. John's University School of Law in Jamaica, N.Y., says consumption of alcoholic beverages "should never be the primary focus of any student activity." Cornell University policies, which extend to the law school, prohibit "all-you-can-drink" events and require that non-alcoholic beverages be served when alcohol is.

For some students, law school is the time to dump old drinking and drugging habits in the pursuit of professionalism. Prior to law school, Linda Wright (her pseudonym), a student at a western law school, drank Southern Comfort from morning to night-a fifth a day, she estimates.

"I would sip all day," says Wright, who is scheduled to graduate in December. "I kept a constant buzz. I didn't feel right any other way. I was a high-functioning drunk. I would work, pay bills. My friends said, 'You can't be an alcoholic.' By the time law school started, I knew I was. I had the feeling that my law professors wouldn't tolerate it."

In the first week of law school, Wright stopped drinking and began alcoholic recovery meetings. She had a setback two years later and took up Southern Comfort again. But within five weeks, she suffered a kidney infection and found blood in her urine. With the support of friends in recovery, she poured the Southern Comfort down the drain-this time for good.

Wright remembers a cartoon showing two drunks at a tavern. One tells the other he could have been a lawyer, but he couldn't pass the bar. "That could have been me," she says. "It doesn't matter what stress I'm under. Drinking is not an option."


Law Grad Finds "The Other Bar"

Years of cocaine addiction finally caught up with Sara St. Phalle, a 1999 California law school graduate. Even though she passed California's demanding bar exam, St. Phalle can't practice. It's the other part of the bar admission process-demonstrating good character and fitness-that's the stumbling block.

Addiction "took away every potential that I had," says the 32-year-old (who chose a pseudonym for herself for this article).

During her years in law school, St. Phalle did cocaine daily in the school's restroom. She was especially adept at hiding her addiction, she says. "I plowed through law school and did really well," she says. "I didn't consider myself a junkie. To me, it was 'why wouldn't you do this?' It gave me a fake sense of self-confidence."

At the same time, her drug use outgrew her wallet, so St. Phalle began writing herself "loans" on her employer's account. The scheme unraveled after she had received her J.D., and St. Phalle was slapped with felony charges for fraud. Even then, she clung to her drugs until, while awaiting sentencing, the police stopped a car in which she was riding with 3 grams of cocaine in her bag. The officer didn't conduct a search, but, she says, "It was a wake-up call. I was so fearful that night. It wasn't fun any more. I said, 'This is it.'"

A lawyer helped St. Phalle connect with a self-help group. She served a year incarcerated in a halfway house on the fraud conviction. Now released, she's studying drug counseling and participating in a group of legal professionals who are recovering from substance abuse-"The Other Bar." 

Down the road, St. Phalle hopes to prove she can be trusted to practice law. "I'm in a repair mode," she says. "It's tragic, but it's changed my life for the better."

-Cynthia Cooper

Do You Have an Abuse Problem?

If you answer "yes" to one or more of the following questions, adapted from Florida's lawyer assistance program, you may want to contact your state's LAP or seek other help.

  • Have your professors, classmates, family, or friends suggested that your work is being affected by your addictive behavior or your moods?

  • Do you ever feel that you just can't face certain situations or that you need a drink or drug to do so?

  • Do you drink or use drugs alone and avoid contact with others?

  • Have you ever had a loss of memory while using alcohol or drugs, although apparently functioning (e.g., a blackout)?

  • Do you ever use alcohol or drugs before a class, exam, or social function to calm your nerves or improve your performance?

  • Have you missed or rescheduled a class, exam, or other appointment because of substances, or just because you felt unable to function?

  • Is your addictive behavior or your mental state making you careless of your scholastic responsibilities, family's welfare, or other personal obligations?

  • Do you minimize the amount of substances you actually are using or the way you really feel?

  • Have you ever been hospitalized directly or indirectly as a result of your drinking or drug use?

  • Do you find you are sleeping or eating substantially less or mor

  • Have you found yourself thinking about harming yourself?

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