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For attorneys, addiction can be a silent battle with dire professional consequences

“The objective is to communicate to laypersons and prospective clients what the lawyer does. If I say I specialize in attorney discipline cases, I’m communicating to you the nature of what my practice is about. If I were to tell you I specialize in ERISA litigation, I would be falsely representing the nature of my practice.” (File photo)

Irwin R. Kramer, who represents lawyers facing disciplinary actions, said the Court of Appeals needs to change its approach in how it addresses lawyers whose transgressions are caused by addiction. ‘Part of protecting the public means protecting our own and also recognizing the perils of the disease. The fact that it is a disease and not a manifestation of evil,’ he said. ‘If you’ve got cancer, I can’t punish the tumor out of you.’ (File photo)

Attorney Richard Patton knew he had a problem but he didn’t want to face it. He had a solo criminal defense practice in Baltimore, a new car and a new home. He was always trying to attract new clients, often fielding late-night phone calls. He knew he was overextending himself.

“That’s a unique problem that attorneys face. Everyone has a job they have to be at, but being a lawyer, you have court obligation that is a little bit more rigid. You can’t just call out sick,” Patton said.

Then, in 2009, the stress gave Patton shingles. A doctor prescribed Percocet. He took the pills and felt the stress going away.

“I was… really looking forward to going home to take those pills,” he said.

His addiction began to spiral out of control. Clients couldn’t reach him by phone. He failed to appear in court on behalf of clients. He himself faced multiple criminal charges including driving under the influence and possession of a controlled dangerous substance.

Patton was disbarred in 2013. He did not answer the Attorney Grievance Commission complaint against him.

“By the time the disbarment was going full steam ahead, I was a complete mess,” Patton said, describing himself as a “zombie.”

It’s unclear how many Maryland attorneys who have been disbarred over the years had underlying addiction issues because many never disclose it to the Attorney Grievance Commission or to the court, said Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless. Anecdotally, however, Lawless knows of “handful” of cases over the past several years where an attorney was suffering from a substance abuse disorder and was suspended or disbarred.

In January, for example, a Baltimore County attorney was disbarred by consent for misappropriation of funds, which was tied to an underlying opioid addiction that began after she was given narcotics to treat a back injury. An independent medical evaluation found the attorney’s injury, treatment and prescription narcotics “impaired her mental health, interfering with her ability to comprehend and properly attend to transactions involving her law firm,” according to court records.

Irwin R. Kramer, who represents lawyers facing disciplinary proceedings and individuals seeking bar admission, estimates a third of his clients are addicts.

“In our disciplinary system, we have punitive system. It doesn’t treat lawyers as sick trying to get well,” Kramer said.

Some attorneys who struggle with addiction suffer a fate worse than a disciplinary action. Hagerstown attorney Marianne Elizabeth Morris, 50, struggled with an opioid addiction for a decade, according to an obituary her family published in February in The Washington Post.

“Acknowledgement of Marianne’s addiction is important for her family to share in the hopes that this conversation may help save the lives of others living with this disease,” the family wrote.

Unique circumstances

Addiction creates a unique set of circumstances for attorneys, who work in a profession that is particularly susceptible to addiction and other mental illness. Lawyers experience alcohol use and mental health distress at a higher rate than other professionals, including doctors, according to a study conducted by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. The most commonly abused drugs are stimulants, followed by sedatives and opioids.

Other studies have shown underlying mental health issues arise in law school, which can cause anxiety, depression and other problems brought on by stress.

“We know from research that when individuals get to law school, their stress level goes up,” said James Quinn, director of the Maryland Lawyer Assistance Program. “What’s odd about it is these individuals didn’t have this experience before in their life. Some people handle it fine, most do. But for whatever reason, there’s a large percentage that struggle,”

The most common barrier to treatment among legal professionals – both who have received treatment catered to legal professionals and not – is not wanting others to find out they need help and concerns about privacy and confidentiality.

An ABA study of Lawyer Assistance Programs across the country identified under-utilization as the most pressing problem, followed by lack of awareness by bar members.

“We’re not even scratching the surface,” said Quinn. “Treatment is available and if we can only get to these lawyers that are going through addiction, we can help them.”

Maryland Lawyer Assistance offers financial help to attorneys seeking treatment. The program also has lawyers who volunteer and mentor others in recovery.

“It’s not a clinical service, it’s calling a lawyer who you know has a problem and inviting them to lunch or cup of coffee,” Quinn said. “It’s just a matter of reaching out and breaking through this denial and fear of finding out that keeps so many in the addiction.”

Lawyer Assistance also meets with judges to educate them on the service and encourage them to refer lawyers with addiction, Quinn said.

Bar counsel would also like to see more efforts to help attorneys before they face any sanctions.

“I believe any work towards the elimination of the stigma attached to addiction and mental health issues that would enable attorneys to seek out the help they need earlier will help attorneys avoid disciplinary complaints that may jeopardize their license to practice,” Lawless said.

By the time an attorney’s behavior prompts a disciplinary investigation from the Attorney Grievance Commission, after all, the addiction is already severe.

“The addiction when it surfaces, in most cases the last place it shows up is at work,” Quinn said, adding it is especially true with opioids because pills don’t have an odor, like alcohol.

‘So obvious’

Indeed, Patton thought he was good at hiding his habit. But one day, a man in the drug treatment business who Patton knew in passing approached him.

“I can see that you’re on pills,” he said.

Patton was stunned.

“It’s not so obvious that everyone can tell right now,” the man said, “but if you don’t do something about it, it will become that way.”

“Instead of being a warning flag, it made me want to hide and deny,” Patton recalled recently. “I was ashamed of it. From a professional standpoint, I didn’t want to admit I had a problem.”

Patton met with Quinn but didn’t actively participate in the treatment program’s structured events.

“From a professional standpoint, it’s not something you want people to know about. If I go away for 28 days people will wonder why he’s gone,” Patton said. “I definitely used it as an issue or excuse to not go for treatment.”

Maryland has conditional diversion agreements – which allow the lawyer to get help without first facing disciplinary action – but they are at the discretion of Bar Counsel and the Attorney Grievance Commission.

“When the public can be protected through alternatives to discipline, I look to available possibilities including working with the Lawyer Assistance Program,” Lawless said.

The Attorney Grievance Commission’s primary mandate is to protect the public by regulating attorney behavior, Lawless continued. The Court of Appeals has held that it may consider underlying mental or physical health conditions as mitigating factors when determining an appropriate sanction.

If the misconduct does not involve dishonesty or misappropriation of funds, a complaint may be resolved through a conditional diversion agreement, inactive status or permanent retirement. In some cases, the attorney may be suspended, Lawless said.

Kramer believes there needs to be a change in how the court determines how it protects the public.

“Part of protecting the public means protecting our own and also recognizing the perils of the disease. The fact that it is a disease and not a manifestation of evil,” he said. “If you’ve got cancer, I can’t punish the tumor out of you.”

Balancing test

In cases where the attorney engaged in dishonest behavior, Maryland courts follow a standard set by the Court of Appeals in 2001, Attorney Grievance Comm’n v. Vanderlinde, which creates a balancing test between protecting the public and underlying mental and physical health conditions.

In cases that involve “intentional dishonesty, misappropriation or serious criminal conduct,” the attorney has to prove two things. First, that there are extenuating circumstances causing the attorney to suffer from “the most serious and utterly debilitating mental or physical health conditions”; and that the condition is the “root cause” of the misconduct and results in the attorney’s “utter inability to conform his or her conduct in accordance with law and with rules of professional conduct.”

In Patton’s case, Lawless had offered him a diversion program in the beginning of the disciplinary process but he refused it.

“I didn’t want to admit to some of the stuff that had gone on,” Patton said.

The court determined Patton’s addiction did not meet the Vanderlinde standard, finding he had a “history of oppositional behavior and rebelliousness to treatment plans and support groups.”

The problem, however, is that a common side effect of addiction is that it can involve dishonest behavior, Kramer said.

“Most addictions involve behavior that can cross that line,” he said. “Does that mean we don’t treat it?”

While Patton doesn’t fault Lawless and then-Bar Counsel Glenn Grossman for moving forward with disbarment proceedings, he does feel he was at a disadvantage.

“If you are a criminal defendant and you come into court and it’s obvious you don’t know what’s going on due to drugs, the court has remedies to prevent that from happening,” Patton said. “Someone that in that bad shape mentally is significantly disadvantaged with respect to the legal process.”

Patton recently celebrated his 40th birthday and his been in recovery for two years. He lives in Florida and does litigation support. His goal is to get his law license in Florida, but first, Patton will have to be reinstated in Maryland.

Eliminating the stigma

Kramer argues more lawyers may seek recovery if the profession recognizes addiction as an affliction and directs them to recovery instead of punishment.

“We’re all supposed to be so perfect, so asking for help is not that lawyerly for us,” said Kramer, of Kramer & Connolly in Reisterstown.

To help eliminate that stigma, Kramer is rallying support for a structured diversion program that offers counseling and intervention, continuing legal education and community service as alternatives to discipline in appropriate cases, similar to programs implemented in other states.

Under the program, which Kramer wants to propose to the Judiciary, a lawyer coping with addiction and other afflictions would be able to get help, manage their practice again and attain more balance in their lives. A program focused on intervention and recovery would let lawyers avoid having sanctions on their record and serve the public by having them perform pro bono work, he said.

“If we really want to protect the public and improve our profession, we cannot rely on punishment alone,” Kramer said. “We must give equal attention to improving the lives of our colleagues and give them a second chance.”

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Keith R. Truffer, the new president of the Maryland State Bar Association, is making the Lawyer Assistance Program a priority during his one-year term.

“We’re a very prideful profession and it’s hard for men and women who do what we do to say, ‘I need help, I’m not as strong as I thought I was,’” he said. “We want to help persuade them that the rest of your life can be great. All the things that have bedeviled you, they can change if you just raise your hand and say, ‘I need help.’”

Lawyers who go through 12-step programs and other types of recovery are “of the highest integrity,” Kramer said, and can be valuable members of the bar who can understand their clients better.

“A lawyer who understands what it’s like to fall into the depths of darkness is ideally suited to take that walk with a client who is currently in a similar situation,” he said. “As lawyers, it’s not enough that we know the law. It’s important that we’ve experienced life … that we don’t feel like we’re better than the people we represent.”


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