I Feared Rehab Would end my BigLaw Career, ex-associate says; How Can Firms Address the Issue?


A lawyer who began her career in BigLaw more than 20 years ago says the stressful environment was literally addictive.

“Everyone drank,” writes New York City lawyer Lisa Smith in an op-ed for the Washington Post. “Being able to hold your liquor was a badge of honor, especially for women. Long days in the office turned into long nights in the bars and clubs. Unfortunately, another long and stressful day in the office was always just a few hours away. It was a terrible dynamic for someone like me with a Type A personality and a then-undiagnosed depressive disorder.”

The day before she began rehab, Smith recalls, her breakfast consisted of “nearly a bottle of red wine and a few thick lines of cocaine.” Then she left for work at her law firm.

Smith refers to the results of a new study that found nearly 21 percent of surveyed lawyers and judges reported problematic alcohol use. The study, conducted by ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, also found that the most common barrier to seeking treatment is fear that others will find out.

Smith agrees that “the stigma of alcoholism and drug addiction in law firms is real.” She recalls rejecting a 28-day stay in rehab because she didn’t want to tell her law firm about the treatment. Instead, she opted for outpatient rehab two nights a week.

Smith suggests law firms could aid in the discussion by adding the topics of substance abuse and mental health challenges to orientations for new lawyers. At that time, law firms could stress how their confidential Employee Assistance Programs could help.

“Law firm rigors and cultures aren’t going to change anytime soon,” Smith writes. “The best we can do is provide information and education that will help young lawyers understand that they might need help—and that’s okay.”

Smith has written a memoir, Girl Walks Out of Bar, that is slated for June publication.