The Lawyer, the Addict

from NYTs

In July 2015, something was very wrong with my ex-husband, Peter. His behavior over the preceding 18 months had been erratic and odd. He could be angry and threatening one minute, remorseful and generous the next. His voice mail messages and texts had become meandering soliloquies that didn’t make sense, veering from his work travails, to car repairs, to his pet mouse, Snowball.

I thought maybe the stress of his job as a lawyer had finally gotten to him, or that he was bipolar. He had been working more than 60 hours a week for 20 years, ever since he started law school and worked his way into a partnership in the intellectual property practice of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a prominent law firm based in Silicon Valley.

Then, for two days, Peter couldn’t be reached. So I drove the 20 minutes or so to his house, to look in on him. Although we were divorced, we had known each other by then for nearly 30 years. We were family.

I parked in Peter’s driveway, used my key to open the front door and walked up to the living room, a loftlike space with bamboo floors bathed in sunlight.

More here.

6 Responses to The Lawyer, the Addict

  1. Erik Peterson September 5, 2017 at 10:02 am #

    This article describes the stressful, depressing, and hostile life of the common American lawyer. Most of the article highlights the life of a patent lawyer named Peter, and his struggles with addiction to alcohol and drugs that eventually led to his death. The article provides a lot of data to suggest that Peter is not the only victim of drug and alcohol addiction within his career, and that many lawyers have the same fate as Peter. The article also comes up with a few suggestions on why so many people within the American legal system turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with everyday life.
    One of the main factors that leads lawyers to drugs and alcohol is the process that all lawyers go through when they attend law school. The article highlights the changes in law students’ behavior throughout law school, and the difference from one semester to the next is overwhelming. The article states that “before they start law school, law students are actually healthier than the general population, both physically and mentally.” In order to attend a law school, one must not only be intelligent, they must also think through situations logically and take note of every detail. Law students tend to begin law school in a healthy state of mind. They prioritize their own core values as an individual as well as prioritize the values of the community that surrounds them. However, once law school begins, their personalities change. “Rather than hew to their internal self, students begin to focus on external values… like status, comparative worth, and competition,” states the article. Law students are transformed from individuals who care about themselves to machines who care about winning cases. This, I feel, is the main source of depression among lawyers. They are taught to not care about themselves in law school, so that’s exactly what ends up happening. They neglect themselves to the point where they form a negative self-image, and the only way that they can find to cope with this image is through drugs and alcohol.
    Another huge problem with lawyers, the second most prominent in my eyes, is the communication barrier between firms, the lawyers themselves, and their families. The article discusses the result of a 2016 survey of over 12,000 lawyers who were polled on their mental health, as well as their struggles with alcohol and drugs. Every lawyer answered the questions pertaining to mental health and alcohol, however, nearly 75% of those surveyed refused to answer the questions about drugs. Most people find it easy to communicate their problems when they are within the law (especially lawyers). However, when asked questions about illegal substances such as cocaine, opioids, and sedatives, three quarters of the population refused to answer. Lawyers like Peter never communicate their problems with drugs to those around them, even though it is a major issue within the field.
    The final problem with lawyers that I was able to pull from this article is an issue with overall education of the population about drug addiction and abuse. The author of the article, Peter’s wife, said that she knew that Peter was having an issue of some sort, due to his odd habits, and his physical appearance, but she never suspected that Peter was addicted to any drugs. To me, this problem is extremely startling. If the person who has an obvious problem, and they are too afraid to ask the people around them for help, then the people around them should be educated enough on the topic to notice that there is a problem, and ultimately get help. Peter’s life could have been saved if the people around him knew what drug abuse symptoms looked like. The people with whom Peter worked could have done the same. If all Americans were to learn what the symptoms of drug abuse are, then we could help those who are in need of help.
    In conclusion, drug and alcohol abuse are major problems within the world of American lawyers today. These issues stem from unnecessary levels of work related stress within the profession, as well as the way that our lawyers are taught in law school. There are few avenues of communication that lawyers can open in order to get help for any problems that they might have. I hope that in the future, America is able to bring the number of lawyers that suffer from drug and alcohol abuse much lower. It is a shame that so many intelligent lawyers are lost each year because of the way that their profession is. In the future, I hope that people like Peter can have their lives saved by the people around them. All it takes is for someone to ask for help, or for someone to notice that there is a problem, and get help.

  2. Meghan Healy September 6, 2017 at 11:03 pm #

    This article begins with the author, Eilene Zimmerman, describing how she found her ex-husband, an attorney, dead from a drug overdose. The article then goes on to detail some accounts of substance abuse among other lawyers, and how these hidden calamities are more common than the public might think.

    It is no secret that becoming a lawyer – from studying in law school to working in the field – can be strenuous. Taking one law class is laborious enough; being in law school, I imagine, must be incredibly draining. According to the article, “Some research shows that before they start law school, law students are actually healthier than the general population both physically and mentally.” Before law school, these students rarely drink or use drugs, and they are also in better condition mentally. According to Lawrence Krieger, a professor at Florida State University College of Law, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor at the University of Missouri, “The psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers.” Becoming a lawyer can be eminently emotionally and mentally draining. It is also stated that, “According to some reports, lawyers also have the highest rate of depression of any occupational group in the country.” Mental illness is overlooked enough in today’s society. These law students suffer copious amounts of stress and pressure, that their mental health if affected greatly.

    As stated by Zimmerman in the article, “Peter worked so much that he rarely cooked anymore, sustaining himself largely on fast food, snacks, coffee, ibuprofen and antacids.” Not only has his mental health been negatively impacted as a result of working as an attorney, but now his physical health has been demolished by fast food and pills. As a lawyer, one eat, sleeps, and breathes their work. At Peter’s memorial service, some layers sat on their phones, reading and writing emails. Even at a memorial service, work doesn’t seem to stop for these lawyers. They are constantly worrying about their clients and their cases. Peter’s last phone call was for work, to dial into a conference call. For some lawyers, it is no longer their profession; it becomes their life.

    As a result of the continuous amount of work, too many lawyers turn to alcohol and drugs. A 2016 report that analyzed the response of 12,825 licensed, practicing attorneys across 19 states concluded that, “about 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, while 28 percent struggle with mild or more serious depression and 19 percent struggle with anxiety.” 85% of lawyers surveyed used alcohol in the previous year, whereas 65 % of general population drink alcohol. It also concluded that 75 percent did not answer the questions about drug use. This shows that drug abuse among lawyers is more common than we presume. Lawyers are often thought of as people with a perfection profession who get to argue all day and make tons of money from it. Because, the idea of substance abuse comes across as a shock. The fact that these drugs are illegal is one of the main reasons as to why lawyers would skip the drug related questions on the survey or admit to having a drug problem. Lawyers fight for the law, therefore not many people would suspect them of misusing drugs daily.

    The article also mentions a lawyer who would often go to work drunk and do lines of cocaine in order to perform and recover from hangovers. This lawyer, Brian Cuban, stated, “I’m a lawyer, lawyers don’t go to rehab, they aren’t in 12-step programs.” This stigma is one of the factors that prevents lawyers from seeking help or admitting that they have a problem. Drug or alcohol abuse seems to be common enough for lawyers to show up drunk or take drug in order to do their job, but it is somehow not common enough to see other lawyers in rehab.

    This article is extremely relevant in today’s society. Often times, people look fine or perfect on the outside, hiding the fact that they are struggling on the inside, whether it be from mental illness, substance abuse, or both. This reminds me of Robin Williams, a comedian who struggled with depression and ultimately committed suicide. People often form a misconception of a person based on how they look or what they do for a living. This article is an example of how we have made a habit of creating assumptions. Consequently, we tend to look past the struggles of others. Peter’s case could have been avoided if more people looked at the fact that people of a specific profession might be struggling more than we would think.

  3. Tianqi Xu September 8, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    After reading this article, I felt very sorry for Peter. It is very obvious Peter was going through a dark time in the last two years of his whole life. Even more pathetic, the people around him did not notice that he already become an addict to drug. This article is a warning for people – please pay more attention to the people you care and please give them more positive influence.
    Lawyers are a respected profession (at least it is in China), but we only see they are wearing a halo and we do not know that they are burdened with unbearable pressure. Peter, in the article, is a very powerful lawyer. From the author’s mouth, that Peter is not just a lawyer is also a master of chemistry. Peter is not a low-level people without knowledge, nor is it a loser who often says. It is reasonable to say that he should not have access to drugs. Nevertheless, such tragedy happens to a person who has a life happy family, and also own a very successful career, and finally died of drugs. Such a story had to make people feel very sorry. Sorry for a good lawyer to leave this world, sorry that such a good man left his family. The most painful one must be those who love him, no one can accept a side of the people because of drugs and leave himself or herself.
    I remember one detail mentioned in the article is that Peter did not put the family photos in his office. The reason is that the partners did not want the family’s photos would distract him. I think that, first so-called partner must not understand the importance of family members in a person’s life; second, this matter illustrates the hardships of lawyers in this industry and the great workload they have. It is a usual thing to put the family and friends’ photos in your own office, but as a good lawyer, Peter cannot do that. Peter’s whole life is centered on the work, which makes him had no time to care about his family. It is also so that the relationship between Peter and his family farther and farther. The article also mentioned that Peter is often late for his children’s game or performance. The huge workload made him had no time to take care of other things besides his work. Without his own spare time, Peter had no way to get care from his family or friends, so one person can only carry the pressure of his work. Over time, the heart of things cannot be resolved, step by step can only rely on drugs to solve the trouble.
    This article teaches me a lesson – pay more attention to the people around ourselves. You may not know that one day they will leave us because no one understand them or they could not trust anyone to talk about their troubles.

  4. Rebecca Hu September 8, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

    The Lawyer, the Addict, an article from the New York Times written by Eilene Zimmerman presents a very common phenomenon in the modern society. This article mainly discussed Peter’s death on drug overdose. Peter is a patent lawyer, a dad, a very smart man. No one ever thought that he is abusing drugs, especially he was a chemist before. Peter is well aware of the effects of drugs, and it is just common sense that drug is not good for us. Yet, Peter was found dead in his bathroom.
    How could no one notice that something is wrong with this man, he is getting very thin in size. Peter regularly order medical supplies such as cotton balls and syringes. No one ever questioned because he is a lawyer. Even before his death, he was still concerned about work. Peter’s action reminded me the Hong Kong work field.
    When I was in Hong Kong to complete my high school degree, on the train to school I always see many professionals on their device. Either they are on their phone to check the stock information or reading reports related to their work. Hong Kong is a fast pace city, the people their use every second of their time to the fullest. You would even hear compliments if you walk slowly on the sidewalk. They are under a lot of stress and competition. Often I hear it from friends and news that Hong Kong professionals always have to work. They work on regular days, weekend, holiday and often over regular hours. According to the survey conducted by Hong Kong Free Press, in 2015 Hong Kong has reported the city in Asia that has the longest overtime. I think this is the new trend, people are investing more and more time in work.
    The article stated “the incidence of drug use and abuse is significantly underreported” this is a statement from Mr. Krill a drug and alcohol counselor. Normally the public never relate drug abuse with professionals such as lawyer. There is little research done on this topic. The article also states “a significant rate of increase specifically among attorneys using prescription medications that became a gateway to street drugs”. Clearly, people are not noticing that drug abuse can happen to anyone. Having a good degree and good job does not automatically translate into a good “clean” person.
    I find it interesting in the article it talks about that law student before they start school they are generally healthier than the public. While after school started, they are more likely to be depressed and stress out with school. I can understand why there will be a big change on students after entering law school. In school, there is always competition, with law school the competition and amount of work they need to complete just increase. With stress and a large amount of work to complete, it is understandable for students to be depressed and seeking some relief through alcohol or drugs.
    With jobs such as a lawyer or a doctor, they have huge responsibilities. The article mentioned Peter’s emotion “He had moments of being ‘not unhappy,’ he said, but his emotional range was narrow”. Peter does not reveal his emotion even in front of his family. I think for Peter he cannot properly express emotion, he just buries it and focuses on getting work done. I think it is very unhealthy and this could be a possible lead for drug abuse. With nearly no feelings or at least do not express them, I feel there will be at least a buildup in the inner self leading toward possible depression. This can lead us to drug addiction and over dose.
    We should not regard people with impressing resume as a “better” person. Believing that there is no possible way for them to be involved with drug usage. The society has changed, competition and stress will increase everywhere. With the increase of stress and competition, it is important for the firm in Peter’s case or the general government to help people to deal with stress. Many people with such impressive resume believe they know what they are doing, and there is no need for them to seek help.
    A possible solution is to make sure these professionals know where they reach for help. The firm or the company should not just allow their health be ruined in exchange for good performance or company profit. This kind of problem should not be swept under the carpet because it is an embarrassment for the profession or they can perform better under the influence of the drug. This is an important issue and closely related to our life. We need to bring attention from the public, acknowledge the public and the government that the system we have is not working. We need a change soon, extreme working hours and relying on drugs to push professionals through work is not a solution.

  5. zonghao li September 15, 2017 at 9:16 am #

    Overwork stress can be found in many high pressure work environments, and one of them is legal services industry. As an example of an overworked attorney, Peter was successful but he has mental health issues. Having worked more than 60 hours a week for 20 years at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Peter developed mood swings. His ex-wife was befuddled by the reasons behind his mood swings, but ultimately attributed them to stress from work. However, she discovered she was wrong when she found out that her ex-husband Peter takes drugs the night she found him dead from overdose. While this incident is heartbreaking in its own right, Peter’s death highlights a larger, more alarming issue regarding lawyers’ work conditions and perhaps work conditions in general: the lack of good work conditions drives people to harmful, uncharacteristic behaviors that harm their life. The fact that Peter and other lawyers are stuck in a similar situation is unforgivable as it is declared in the United States Declaration of Independence that “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are “undeniable rights” that governments should strive to protect. Yet in a place where such an ideal is promoted by the founding fathers, such an incident happened because of poor workplace conditions.
    Thus, whether it is Peter’s drug use, other lawyers’ drug use, or lawyers’ declining mental health, these all highlight an important legal issue that needs to be combated. Especially since work in the legal services is extremely reputable, more stringent labor laws need to be enforced to protect the lawyers who protect others’ rights.
    The government’s most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health provides more alarming news: professional services (which the legal profession is part of) ranks 9 out of 19 industries in drug abuse. Even other high pressure jobs that demand results such as the finance and real estate industries rank lower on the list. While professional stress may be the obvious reason for such drug abuse, there are problems that we can fix too. As associate professor of psychiatry Dr. Daniel Angres states, there is a desire not to embarrass people in the law firm culture, and as long as people are performing, these problems are ignored. Furthermore, since addiction is rampant in the industry, the fact that the addiction is an issue is often understated.
    From a business perspective perhaps since the labor productivity is maintained at a reasonable amount, or perhaps even boosted as a result, the lack of good working conditions can be allowed. However, from a business ethics and a legal standpoint, it is an issue because it is immoral and unconstitutional. The founding fathers of America stressed the importance of “Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness,” yet in many ways all three are violated. Unfortunately and ironically, the very people who protect our rights suffer from a violation of rights that they should enjoy as American citizens. While change can be difficult because it implies that the whole industry needs to be changed, to protect the rights of individuals, this needs to be done.

  6. Amber Esposito October 21, 2017 at 1:54 pm #

    Its no secret that being a lawyer is one of the most stressful occupations to hold. One thing that I learned from working with lawyers is that there is no easy task. Trial lawyers work extremely long hours and are under constant pressure to meet fast approaching deadlines. Abusing drugs and alcohol in the legal profession is frowned upon but when found out, it’s as if its “expected” and brushed under the rug. Its unfortunate that a workload can drive a person to alcohol and substance abuse. For trial lawyers, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.
    The law firm that I worked for used to have what was called “after hours”. Because the lawyers would stay late at the office to continue working, they drank in the office to “keep the juices flowing”. They would all go out to dinner together, and afterwards they would go back to the office to continue their work. Working until 12 at night, traveling in Manhattan, and having to do it all over again starting at 8 in the morning the next day can take a toll on a person. So, to continue being productive, some of them abused alcohol. After reading this article I understand that more than just alcohol may have been involved.

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