June 18, 2021 • By Dennis Beaver
“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, when we do, 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.”
For our purposes, “It takes one former, impaired lawyer to help one,” and that’s San Francisco-based 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,” a non-profit that assists California lawyers with addiction issues.
Impaired Lawyers – A Huge Problem
“Dennis, 23% of practicing attorneys are alcoholics compared to 11% in the general population. So, your readers have a one in four 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 25% 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 which lead to the “red flags” suggesting 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?
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, 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.”
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 seems to have a pendulum swing, one day pleasant one day impatient, or they show up and smell of alcohol, blood shot 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.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.