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A lawyers' group aids troubled colleagues.

A Drink at the Bar

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Tim Nolan knew he was in big, big trouble. Nolan, a prominent Richmond lawyer, had missed a trial because of heavy drinking. And it wasn't the first time. He had been drinking and missing work for years. His life was out of control. So Nolan — not his real name — wrote an apology to the judge. He threw himself on the judge's mercy. He admitted his problem and promised to get help. He hoped he wouldn't be disbarred. In fact, Nolan's condition was worse than he knew: He hadn't missed the trial, but only thought so because of an alcoholic blackout. In fact, Nolan had been in court, had done a good job, had won an acquittal for his client — and remembered nothing. The judge refreshed his memory. Instantly, Nolan knew he needed help. "I was incapable of taking care of business," says Nolan, who asked that his real name not be used. "I couldn't do it. I was drinking around the clock. My primary purpose in life was drinking." It took a year, but Nolan finally cleaned up with help from a statewide program called Lawyers Helping Lawyers. He is still practicing law. For 15 years, Lawyers Helping Lawyers — an arm of the Virginia Bar Association — has been giving confidential help to attorneys with drinking or drug problems. Each year, the program gets 120 to 150 calls for help from Virginia lawyers and their relatives. The program offers assessment, support, referrals to treatment providers and help for family members. It is strictly voluntary and always confidential. "We can't force people to get help," said Susan D. Pauley, program director. "We can only encourage them." Some lawyers, like Nolan, wind up in the program after running afoul of the Virginia State Bar, the state agency that punishes attorney misconduct. (The Virginia Bar Association, which runs Lawyers Helping Lawyers, is a separate, voluntary group of lawyers.) In May, for example, a U.S. magistrate judge in Richmond referred former state Del. Lawrence D. Wilder Jr., the son of former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, to Lawyers Helping Lawyers after Wilder admitted he was addicted to cocaine. The State Bar refers about 10 lawyers a year to the program. In those cases, Lawyers Helping Lawyers monitors the attorneys with periodic blood tests. Virginia does not track how many disciplinary cases have their roots in drug and alcohol abuse. But substance-abuse problems are widespread among lawyers, according to the American Bar Association and studies by several state bar associations. Alcoholism, for example, affects about 10 percent of the population. But among lawyers, the number is 15 percent to 18 percent, according to the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. The most recent research available indicates that most attorneys' disciplinary problems stem from chemical dependency, says Donna Spilis, staff director of the ABA commission in Chicago. A 1986 ABA Journal article cited a study that claimed "40 to 60 percent of these lawyers who appear before disciplinary boards have drug abuse problems." For Nolan, the drinking began in college in the early 1960s. It grew worse in the Army, where Nolan began drinking three or four times a week — always liquor, and usually a lot. Soon, Nolan was drinking after-hours with colleagues at a Richmond law firm. It was steady and heavy. "I would mix my own drinks, and they were strong," Nolan recalls. "It never crossed my mind that I had any problem." In 1969, Nolan learned his first serious lesson in alcoholism. He defended a man who had shot his wife. The client had no record but was so drunk that he remembered nothing of the crime. Meanwhile, Nolan was sneaking drinks during work — vodka with iced-tea chasers. In the summer, he would sit in his car and drink warm, tasteless vodka from a bottle. "There can't be any enjoyment in that. There has to be some compulsion," Nolan says. The popular image of the debonair drunk is a lie, he adds: "You think of this guy in the cabin with the fireplace and the beautiful girl and the drink. That wasn't it at all." He tried Alcoholics Anonymous and even liked it - "As a stranger, I felt I fit in" — then lapsed. His family forced him into treatment centers, but it never worked out. He didn't sleep at night, but merely passed out. After depleting $250,000 in savings, after losing most of his clients, Nolan went from expensive liquor to cheap Mad Dog 20-20 purchased at 7-Eleven. One night, he passed out in the woods, awoke in the cold darkness and crawled home. He was filthy, freezing and reeking. Still, "I could not imagine my life without drinking," he says. Finally, there were incidents with judges. He was missing hearings. One judge, a friend, figured only tough love could help. He wrote a complaint to the State Bar. He figured Nolan would straighten up or be disbarred. In time, 12 more complaints followed from Nolan's clients, colleagues and friends. Even then, Nolan feared nothing. Persuasion is a lawyer's trade. He had always talked his way out of jams. Not this time. The bar came down hard. It offered Nolan a choice: Get sober or kiss your law license goodbye. Nolan chose sobriety, with Lawyers Helping Lawyers monitoring his progress. It was a tough course. Twice, Nolan drank again and failed screenings. "There are some people who are considered unhelpable," Pauley says. "Some thought [Nolan] was one." Finally, in 1995, Nolan pleaded guilty to nine charges of misconduct. The bar slapped him with a reprimand and offered one last, irrevocable chance. Nolan grabbed it. It wasn't a business decision. "I enjoy practicing law. It's one of my pleasures in life," he says. On June 5, 1995, Nolan had his last drink. In the next year, he attended 432 meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous — more than one a day. Today, Nolan counsels other lawyers who need help. He tells them there is no future in drinking. He tells them help is available, but they have to want it, and sometimes it hurts. He credits Lawyers Helping Lawyers for getting him sober. "There is no softer, easier way to sobriety than what other individuals have done,"' Nolan says. "There are no shortcuts." Regaining a Lost License
The Virginia Supreme Court determines whether disbarred lawyers get their licenses back. When making recommendations to the court, the State Bar's disciplinary board has since 1984 considered 10 factors for reinstatement. 1. The severity of the misconduct, including the nature and circumstances.
2. The lawyer's character, maturity and experience at the time of disbarment.
3. The time elapsed since disbarment.
4. Restitution to clients or the bar, if applicable.
5. Activities since disbarment.
6. The lawyer's current reputation.
7. The lawyer's current proficiency in the law.
8. Sufficiency of punishment.
9. The lawyer's sincerity and frankness.
10. Impact on public confidence in the justice system. Source: Virginia State Bar To reach Lawyers Helping Lawyers, call (800) 838-8358.

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