The Substance of Getting Well Soon

Substance use and wellness is an important issue for members of the legal profession. People often ask me whether or not they have a problem with drinking. I’m flattered, but the problem with that question is that I do not know the answer. They tell me about their consumption and expect that there is a number which, if passed, causes them to be considered an alcoholic. What I can tell them is that most people that don’t have a problem, don’t ask if they have a problem (sorry if that is too close to home). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) used by medical professionals provides guidance. Note the term of art is “substance use disorders” and no longer “abuse.” There are four categories and the level of severity is determined by a physician:

  1. Impaired Control—using more of a substance than intended. Wanting to cut down or stop using but not being able to;
  2. Social Problems—Neglecting responsibilities and relationships. Giving up activities they used to care about because of the substance use. Inability to complete tasks at home, school or work;
  3. Risky Use—Using in risky settings. Continued use despite known problems;
  4. Pharmacological Indicators—Needing more of the substance to get the same effect. Having withdrawal symptoms when a substance isn’t used.

The stresses of the legal profession are real. Frequently, substance use leads to attorney misconduct. It is no surprise that 21 percent of the participants of the State Bar’s Alternative Discipline Program made their way to them by way of the State Bar Court due to substance use disorders – this according to the 2018 State Bar Lawyer Assistance Program Annual Report.

Ultimately, the determination as to whether it is time for someone to stop drinking or using substances has to be determined by the individual and that individual alone.

But is abstinence the only solution?

I’ve recently become familiar with one of many adults able to use alcohol and other substances with no ill effects. Discussing his recent book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, Dr. Carl L. Hart, a recreational drug user states, “I do not have a drug-use problem. Never have. Each day, I meet my parental, personal and professional responsibilities. I pay my taxes, serve as a volunteer in my community on a regular basis and contribute to the global community as an informed and engaged citizen.” Note: I do not recommend a work-life balance which includes illegal drugs or illegal drug use, I only want to highlight that there are other opinions. Dr. Hart takes the approach that responsible use can enrich and enhance lives. Dr. Hart further argues that actual addiction is relatively low if following the criteria of the DSM-5.

Another option is the practice of “Mindful Drinking.” Whitney Akers, in their April 10, 2020, article, “What is Mindful Drinking? How It Can Help Your Mental Health,” describes Mindful Drinking (MD) as the concept of being intentional with one’s decisions around alcohol. A prime focus of MD is the awareness of each drink and a healthy relationship with alcohol. Akers is clear that MD isn’t for people with alcohol use problems but describes MD as a path for anyone seeking a healthier relationship with alcohol. The author then gives six tips in the practice of MD.

  1. Pause and evaluate whether each drink supports you
  2. Make a drinking — or alternative — game plan in advance
  3. Don’t hold on tightly to restrictions, as rules can backfire
  4. Order first
  5. Rehearse how you’ll tell people
  6. Savor your drink

Wellness as it relates to substance use, illegal or legal, is a personal decision. For some, wellness means abstention, to others moderation. Attorneys looking for help have a few resources available.

The Lawyer Assistance Program was established by the California Legislature under Business and Professions Code §6140.9, 6230-6238. It is a confidential service of the State Bar of California staffed by professionals.

The Other Bar ( is a confidential counseling and referral resource open to all California lawyers, judges, law students and their families for help with alcoholism, drug abuse and related personal problems. The organization is founded on the principle of anonymity and provides services in strict confidentiality. The network of “lawyers helping lawyers” comprises 30 to 40 peer support meetings throughout the state, most of which meet every week.

The Other Bar is completely unrelated to, and has no association with, the discipline system of the State Bar of California. In fact, many Other Bar participants have no disciplinary problems at all. Unlike the State Bar program, The Other Bar has no dues or fees for participation and serves a community of lawyers at various stages of recovery, and it is the only network that focuses on continuing sobriety—for life. The Other Bar also differs from traditional AA or NA in that it is the only forum where lawyers can work on problems and pressures related to the practice of law. Lawyers can be assured of complete confidentiality and the mentorship of others with decades of experience with the same challenges.

Alcoholics Anonymous ( is an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem. It is nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, apolitical, and available almost everywhere. There are no age or education requirements.

Now you might be wondering, who will know that they/I are/am receiving help? Well, everyone and because of the anonymity—no one. It is clear when someone gets sober, they show up to work, they are generally pleasant to talk to and they rarely steal your stuff (red staplers excluded). As far as will anyone know that you attend “those meetings”, they have a policy of anonymity which means no one talks about who they see at those meetings. The understanding is deep rooted in these programs, they refer to them as traditions.

Wellness regarding substance use is important to a successful practice of law and that deserves a some reflection.


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