Christian T. Misner
Attorney, Donner Applewhite, Attorneys at Law
Originally published in the August 2019 issue of the St. Louis Lawyer magazine. View in the archives.
Chris sits in a strained position, staring at his beige coffee mug. It sits undisturbed in the exact spot where it was served an hour ago. The sun was blinding when Chris arrived at the café, but now it is casting sleepy shadows on the weathered furniture. An odd mix of '70s, hip hop and singer/songwriter music plays in the background.
It was not easy for Chris to ask for this meeting, but he knew if he did not, he could lose his law license, or his marriage, or worse, his life. Chris is sitting across from Gary Burger, Jr. (Burger Law and graduate of Washington University School of Law, Class of 1992). Chris found Burger through the Missouri Bar's Lawyers' Assistance Program, which is always free and always confidential (MOLAP: 1-800-688-7859).
Chris thought about calling MOLAP many times. He thought about calling after his supervising attorney sat him down in private because he noticed Chris was not meeting deadlines. He thought about it when his spouse begged him to stop drinking after work. And he thought about it when his adult son had to pick him up after he smashed into a guard rail at 2 o'clock in the morning.
At this point, the reader should be informed that Chris is a fictional character. The author had to take literary liberties because Burger is so committed to confidentiality, he would not discuss any of the more than 50 addicts he has helped since 2012.
Burger says addicts are hiding in plain sight – all around us. He said everyone reading this article knows at least one lawyer or judge who needs intervention for substance abuse. In fact, having an insanely stressful job such as that of a lawyer makes the chances of developing an addiction even higher. 1
One in three practicing lawyers are problem drinkers, based on the volume and frequency of alcohol consumed, 28 percent suffer from depression, and 19 percent show symptoms of anxiety, according to the study, which involved 12,825 licensed, employed lawyers in 19 states around the country. 2
Burger knows a thing or two about lawyers and addiction. He serves on the Missouri Supreme Court's Intervention Committee, pursuant to Rule 16.01(c), which points out the need for such a committee:
Substance abuse causes or contributes to incompetence and malpractice of the law by lawyers and judges, which damages the public and the legal profession. Substance abusers neglect clients, violate rules of professional and judicial conduct and commit crimes.
Rule 15.05 directs lawyers to learn about substance abuse and mental health in CLEs.
For each reporting year each lawyer shall complete and report at least 2 credit hours of accredited programs and activities devoted exclusively to professionalism, substance abuse and mental health… [emphasis added].
Burger was instrumental in getting education about substance abuse and mental health added to Rule 15.05. He lobbied the late Judge Richard B. Teitelman until the language was added in 2009.
Burger has been driven to help lawyers and judges with substance abuse issues for a long time. And lobbying and meeting one-on-one with lawyers like Chris are just two ways he addresses the problem. He also engages in a team approach when an addict is not able or willing to seek help on his or her own.
Peers, family and friends can come together for an intervention with a lawyer or judge who demonstrates problems with alcohol or other drugs. This can be extremely uncomfortable for all involved, but it often makes the difference in whether the person loses his or her job, hurts a client, gets divorced or dies.
Burger says interventions make the addict accountable for his/her actions. A boss or partner must be willing to fire the lawyer. A spouse must be willing to make ultimatums. And friends must be willing to stop enabling him/her. Without such pressure, the addict believes his/her behavior is consequence-free.
Often, addicts are confronted one-on-one many times before such an intervention ever happens. But interventions are particularly effective, because, as Burger said, addicts often believe no one else understands what they are going through or is even aware of their behavior.
"Addicts I meet with are shocked because without asking a single question, I know what these guys are doing and they're all the same – lying to their bosses, their spouses and themselves," said Burger, who after working with addicts for so many years, can sniff out an addict. "By the time they pick up the phone (to call me), they're sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Burger said if he has a chance to work with an addict, he has a near 100 percent record of getting people the help they need. He attributes his success to his ability to convey his experience, strength and hope. And lawyers who get help are always glad they did. Their careers stabilize, their relationships strengthen and their health improves.
Not to paint too rosy a picture – rarely does an addict find sobriety on the first try. Addicts struggle with their disease every day. And with a multibillion-dollar treatment industry targeting addicts with the false hope of a quick fix, addicts can relapse many times before getting clean. 3
Making matters worse, addicts lie to themselves and blame others for their shortcomings. They believe they can control the drug, rather than facing the truth that the drug controls them. This chronic denial blinds a lawyer to the realities of the harm they cause their clients by missed deadlines, sloppy work and faulty accounting.
"Money issues are comorbid with addiction because addicts are lousy risk takers and exercise poor judgment," Burger said.
For example, Burger believes when lawyers have problems managing their IOLTA accounts, it usually is because of a substance abuse problem. And those problems can go on for years, because not everyone has the courage to seek help. Burger knows lawyers who were disbarred and lost their fortunes. But worse, Burger knows lawyers who committed suicide and lawyers who literally drank themselves to death.
It is not limited to alcohol, however. Burger sees addiction to opioids and marijuana as well, and sometimes those addictions lead to similar problems as alcoholism. In fact, "use of opioids and marijuana can be even more insidious because the side effects are easier to mask when driving and working" Burger said.
But the signs are there if you look for them.
Just as with Chris, our fictitious character, an addict's legal work suffers, his/her interpersonal relationships are strained, and his/her health deteriorates. The bottom line is that as lawyers, we all need to be aware of signs of substance abuse in ourselves and others.
Chris and Burger have been talking for more than 2 hours. The sun is gone. Burger knows that after talking with him, Chris will have a more difficult time going out and drinking. Chris finally takes a sip of the now tepid coffee. A song by Ice Cube starts to play in the background:
You better check yo self before you wreck yo self 'Cause I'm bad for your health I come real stealth.
1. Higher than the general public. I.e., 26.9 percent of U.S. adults report binging alcohol in the past month. (https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics)
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 1-800-273-8255
or text "Hello" to 741741.
Missouri Lawyers' Assistance Program (MOLAP): 1-800-688-7859
Illinois Lawyers' Assistance Program: 312-726-6607