County Bar Assn. Holding a Brief for Sobriety

Times Staff Writer

He started in high school with "a few beers after games." Soon it was Seagram's 7 and 7-Up. Through college and law school he continued drinking. He became an attorney, and the alcohol still flowed.

Then, when he was about 30, he would "get up in the morning and talk to myself in the kitchen, asking if I should apologize now or wait a few days."

The apologies were to friends he'd insulted the night before, using foul language and nasty, belittling remarks. Making enemies of friends.

He'd been drunk. He was, in fact, drunk a lot of the time.

A competent lawyer, a respected member of his community, his liquor was the best. At his favorite restaurants, waitresses would appear bearing "two Chivas rocks" without being asked.

He'd begin at lunch, where liquor was an acceptable part of the business day. He surrounded himself with like-minded drinkers.

But friends became distant. Calls were not returned. Driving and drinking got to be frequent companions.

Cocaine With Booze Cocaine teamed with booze as a regular part of daily life.

But he was a successful lawyer, a professional man. "I drink, but I'm in control," he thought.

More friends dropped from his life. He creased his car fender on a post. His wife told him about things he'd done that he couldn't remember.

"I'm in control," he told himself. But now he knew he was lying. A man in control doesn't come home and pass out at 7 p.m. almost every night.

"It was just a matter of time before I'd have killed somebody (while driving drunk) or gone to jail. I wouldn't want to live after having killed somebody," he told an acquaintance.

A year and a half ago he called Alcoholics Anonymous. He agreed to a meeting date. And he never went to the meeting.

Six months later he made another call. This time he dialed 1-800-221-0942, a number he found in an editorial in the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s monthly newsletter. The number belongs to the ESSCO (for Employee Support Systems Co.), a professional consulting firm retained by the County Bar to implement its alcohol and drug abuse program since the program's inception in September, 1983.

He made an appointment for Jan. 10, 1984, to talk with a counselor.

On Jan. 9 the lawyer drank most of a liter of wine for lunch. After lunch, driving back to his office, he stopped at a bar. He stayed there until 9 p.m., drinking.

"I got to the point where I couldn't talk. I had to drive home that night because I couldn't walk. If I'd been picked up, I'd have been a .4 or a .5." If he'd been a .1 on the police breath/blood alcohol test, he'd have been legally considered to be under the influence of alcohol. At .5, it's likely he'd have been a corpse.

Paralyzed by Paranoia The next day, all but paralyzed by paranoia ("Who'll find out?") he met with an ESSCO counselor.

He hasn't touched alcohol or cocaine since. He jogs. He practices law. He's helping other recovering alcoholics, some of whom are old business acquaintances. Friends don't mysteriously vanish. No one gets verbally abused. He's making 50% more money than he did before because, he says, "I'm doing a better job for my clients."

And, perhaps most important, "I'm doing things with my family." This from a man who was in the habit of passing out early in the evening before he had a chance to do anything with anyone.

He is not an unusual man.

Between 50% and 70% of lawyers' disciplinary cases in California and New York involve alcohol problems, according to an American Bar Assn. study.

Judicial tenure commissions have reported that about 25% of their disciplinary cases involve alcoholism, the report said.

Alcohol and drug abuse among lawyers is estimated at three times that of the general population by ESSCO president Norman N. Huneycutt.

"The figure often used for the general population is that one of every 10 people who drink will become an alcoholic," Huneycutt said.

"In the professions, particularly in the legal and medical communities, that estimate goes up significantly because of life styles and work pressures; some estimates have been as high as that one of every three doctors and lawyers are serious abusers of alcohol and/or drugs. I would say those estimates are correct," added the head of the City of Orange-based organization that runs alcohol and drug abuse programs for about 50 companies, including Anheuser-Busch Inc., the Automobile Club of Southern California, Dean Witter Financial Services Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Hyatt Hotels Corp., Pacific Southwest Airlines and Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Co.

When Huneycutt talks about lawyers' life styles encouraging drinking, he isn't necessarily talking about lunches, after hours or weekends.

"It's very common for law firms to have their own bars in their conference rooms," said Timi Anyon Hallem, a partner in the law firm of Tuttle & Taylor, and co-chair of the County Bar's alcohol and drug abuse program. "It's also common for the partners, or sometimes all the firm's lawyers, to get together on Friday afternoons and unwind in those bars."

After lawyers, employees of law firms affiliated with the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., or their family members telephone ESSCO with an alcohol or drug abuse problem, the caller is put in touch with an ESSCO counselor. An appointment is made for the alcohol or drug abuser to meet face to face with the counselor.

The counselor may recommend a number of options or combinations of options: entering a hospital for treatment, periodic hospital visits for treatment, private therapy, attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or other self help groups or establishing a relationship with a recovering alcoholic or drug-addicted member of the legal community who has volunteered to work with ESSCO.

One ESSCO volunteer is a Los Angeles County Superior Court commissioner.

"I know a lot of attorneys today who are stopping drinking," he said. "A lot of people are coming into treatment for alcoholism. I see attorneys every day who are sober members of AA now. That's just happened in the past few years. It shows an open-mindedness on the part of lawyers and willingness to be honest with themselves."

Under the Bar Assn. program, the cost of the initial counseling visit to ESSCO is borne by the association, which pays ESSCO a $27,000 annual retainer, but never is told who uses the service. No one outside of ESSCO ever is told who calls for help, Huneycutt said.

40 Attorneys, One Judge ESSCO has received 56 calls through the County Bar program since it was initiated less than a year and a half ago. As a result of those calls, 40 attorneys and one judge have come to ESSCO for counseling and entered rehabilitative programs.

After an ESSCO counselor directs a client toward recovery, the counselor will keep in touch with the client for a year or so, at first with personal visits, then with telephone calls. More often than not, the client will also initiate occasional contact with the counselor.

"Ongoing contact is extremely important," said ESSCO's clinical director Marc Becker, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology.

"First it's important for what it is not . It is not probation. It is not a checking-up process. In fact it is the opposite, It is a chance for the client to become responsible for himself. Very often, alcoholics are like rebellious children or misbehaving children, and a part of their recovery is learning to become more accountable to authority figures as well as to develop a sense of personal responsibility.

"More importantly, recovering alcoholics have a strong need to experience approval, and the counselor can offer that," Becker said.

First in the Nation Twelve years ago, the California Bar Assn. became the first state bar in the nation to establish an alcohol and drug abuse program. Today, there are about 37 such groups, an American Bar Assn. spokeswoman said.

The California Bar program is headquartered in San Francisco, and concentrates on its Northern California members, said Hallem, co-chair of the County Bar's program.

"The County Bar started its program because there was no alcohol and drug abuse program for lawyers in Southern California," Hallem said. "The State Bar has a program for Northern California and it coordinates 'Other Bar' groups here, which are loosely organized groups of recovering alcoholic lawyers and law-related people who meet regularly in Alcoholics Anonymous-type sessions.

"But until our program there was no outreach program. With ESSCO, the alcoholic can initiate getting into treatment, but also someone else can initiate the process.

"We have tried to give managing partners of large law firms and managing lawyers of public law offices and of corporate law offices sufficient information so they can recognize when a problem might exist and when to approach the affected individual and get the person to call ESSCO. We have also had meetings for members of small firms, sole practitioners and other segments of the bar."

There is a good chance that the success of the county program will lead to a broader State Bar effort that will make alcohol and drug abuse counseling readily available to more members of the legal community in Southern California, according to Patricia Phillips, president of the County Bar Assn., who said:

"After we had our program in effect for a little less than a year we decided to go to the State Bar of California to seek help from its board of governors. We wanted a State Bar program not just for Los Angeles County, but one that would focus on the whole of Southern California.

"This month the State Bar narrowed down its choice of consulting companies (like ESSCO) to two. I expect they will make a choice next month, and we'll get started shortly after that.

"However, we will not drop our program unless we find it becomes superfluous. That could happen if the State Bar program covers the same territory as we do. We hope that will happen, but if it does not, we surely will continue our own program."

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