‘I Think My Lawyer Has a Substance Abuse Problem!’

It may be more common than you think. Here’s why, and how to spot some warning signs.

A disheveled man in a suit sits on the floor.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“Mr. Beaver, our small trucking company is involved in litigation because of an accident.

“The lawyer assigned to represent us by our insurance company was great – at first – but recently, we can’t reach him. He fails to return phone calls, but when we do get to speak with him, he sounds ill or drunk, and he missed one court appearance! After these problems I researched him and found similar complaints. What should we do? How can this be prevented? — Worried in Atlanta.”

We all know the old saying, that “It takes one to know one.”

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For our purposes, “It takes one former, impaired lawyer to help one,” says San Francisco-based former attorney David Mann. Like so many people in the area of counseling, he had his own substance abuse issues, which caused him to resign from the California bar after 12 years of law practice. Today, as an addiction specialist, he works for The Other Bar (opens in new tab), a non-profit that assists California lawyers with addiction issues.

Impaired Lawyers – A Huge Problem

“Dennis, 20% of practicing attorneys are alcoholics (opens in new tab), compared to almost 12% in the general population. So, your readers have a 1 in 5 chance of hiring a lawyer who is an alcoholic – a risk to them and their case.

“Depression affects 6.7% of the American population, but more than 28% of attorneys experience depression during their career. Also, drug abuse among lawyers is much higher than the general population.”

“So, what explains this?” I asked Mann.

“As a generalization, law is not a ‘helping-hands’ profession like health care. Globally, many lawyers are not primarily concerned with doing the right thing, but must focus on power, winning and money as they are charged with advocating aggressively for their clients. Law rewards highly assertive people, and nastiness is a quality lawyers, in general, seem to be bred for. Sometimes, being morally bankrupt helps to succeed.

“So many people attend law school without the slightest idea of the harsh ethical and moral challenges they will face, discover reality, get worn down and turn to alcohol or drugs.”

Things to Watch Out For

Mann lists questions clients need to ask that could lead to “red flags” suggesting that an attorney is impaired and suffering from substance abuse.

1. Does the lawyer seem hesitant to meet in person and does not have a real office? Is your attorney chronically late and repeatedly delaying the case?

2. Do they want to meet at a Starbucks to sign a retainer agreement? It may be because the lawyer has no office or is embarrassed to have the client see the mess that his office reveals.

3. Do they only have an answering service instead of a real human taking phone calls? Also, when you call, do you only get voice mail, never the actual attorney, leave a message and not receive a return call?

4. If a number of lawyers have rejected your case and this one is willing to take it, as long as you will pay, it suggests the lawyer is hungry or broke. Or both!

5. If someone is available prior to 2 p.m. but not after, were they drinking their lunch? A lawyer who is in trouble with substances is managing addiction — it is the primary focus of their life — and is available at some times and not at others.

When Your Longtime Lawyer Seems ‘Different’

Mann points out, “As attorney-client relationships often last for decades, it is important to watch out for anything that changes.” He lists the things that should sound alarms:

1. If you receive a text that says, “Please use text only to communicate with me.” This may be because the lawyer is intoxicated, and this would be revealed their speech.

2. If they used to return your calls promptly and now it takes many tries. When you speak on the phone, are they slurring their words?

3. Has their appearance, personal grooming or hygiene changed for the worse? Does their personality seem to have a pendulum swing, one day pleasant one day impatient, or do they show up and smell of alcohol, have bloodshot eyes and looks hung over?

So, if a client is in that situation, what should be done? Mann replied in one word: Confrontation.

“Send a text and say you are going to call at 5 p.m. See if they act responsibly. If their staff seems to be covering for them, just say directly to the secretary, ‘Is there some other lawyer in the office I can talk to — it seems my case isn’t being handled well. Is he sick?’

“Err on the side of caution! Don’t be shy about asking the attorney, ‘I am concerned about you. You don’t look well. You aren’t the same lawyer you were a year ago.’”

Don’t go down with the ship. Make it your business to find out what is going on.

Do not be afraid to change lawyers! If you think you see something, you see something.”

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."