Why you can’t ‘out-smart’ addiction


This is Lisa’s story: “Smart, successful people like me don’t become addicted – right?”

I was sure that I could get it under control myself. My drinking, that is. After all, I was a lawyer with a high-level job at a prestigious firm. Smart, successful people like me didn’t become addicted, I thought. Right?

Wrong, it turns out. Toppling previously held prejudices, it’s now oft-documented that there’s a correlation between a high IQ and high alcohol consumption. One particular study found that women who have a degree are more likely to drink daily. Another found that a fifth of American attorneys drink hazardously; far higher than the Stateside average.

I learned this the hard way. As a junior lawyer at a New York City megafirm, my enjoyment of (and tolerance for) alcohol was welcomed. Any week night that I was lucky enough to work a so-called ‘half day’ (meaning I left my desk around 7pm), there would be a group of similarly fortunate lawyers looking to go out for cocktails. Because these impromptu gatherings frequently included a firm partner, the drinks were both endless and free. Who could pass that up?

Toppling previously held prejudices, it’s now oft-documented that there’s a correlation between a high IQ and high alcohol consumption.

I’d belly up to the bar at one of the firm’s regular nearby haunts and go drink for drink – and shot for shot – with my colleagues. Boozing away the day’s pressures and anxieties while scoring points with more senior lawyers who could influence my career became a way of life, and a seemingly successful one at that.

Standing in my tailored business suit and four-inch heels, I would occasionally steal a glance at my watch. It was a devil’s bargain, after all. Come 9am the next morning, I would be expected to be at my desk and ready for another day of intense pressure and never-ending demands.

In a ‘work hard / play hard’ environment, hangovers are no excuse for being late or off sick. This was true even after the most debauched client entertainment dinners, firm celebrations, and, frequently, on weekends. We had a joke: If you don’t show up for work on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday.

Confident and together as I acted, this lifestyle poured kerosene on my pre-existing fire of insecurity, anxiety, and fear. I began drinking every night. The bottom fell out of my sophisticated façade when I would get home from work at midnight, stand in front of my refrigerator in my underwear and slam a few beers to put me to sleep. With a heavy dose of gallows humour, I called this ‘Happy Hour’.

Confident and together as I acted, this lifestyle poured kerosene on my pre-existing fire of insecurity, anxiety, and fear. I began drinking every night.

Fortunately, when I was finally in enough pain, I found recovery. I told my family and friends, but not my firm. Getting sober is a highly personal decision, and one I was lucky to make on my terms. I had thought I was ‘high functioning’, but that’s an unsustainable myth. If I had gotten done for drink driving, missed a meeting because I overslept, or crossed the line at an office event, suddenly I wouldn’t have been so high functioning. In fact, I could have been fired or worse.

Now, in our 24/7-connected world, a work hard/play hard ethic is even more dangerous as the two overlap. Lying on a sunbed on a picturesque beach loses its restorative benefits when you have one hand on the phone waiting for it to vibrate with an email that might summon you inside for a conference call. Yet, we’re expected to do just that, without suffering from the physical and mental health problems that are likely to result.

The irony for me was that I became more successful in the corporate world once I stopped drinking. I became present and engaged at the office, not hungover or obsessing over when I could drink next. Not long after getting sober, I was able to take a bigger job previously beyond my reach.

The irony for me was that I became more successful in the corporate world once I stopped drinking. I became present and engaged at the office, not hungover or obsessing over when I could drink next.

I also surrounded myself outside the office with people who understood what I was going through. Armed with their tips, tools, and support, I was able to navigate the ‘play hard’ part of corporate life with a clear head, no hangovers and no regrets.

I may have been wrong when I thought I was too smart for addiction, but I know I’m right when I say that sobriety was my ticket up the corporate ladder.

New study shows how effective Alcoholics Anonymous really is


The well-known program that seeks to help people with alcohol use disorder, Alcoholics Anonymous, has long been criticized for not having the medical research to back up its efficacy.

Until now.

A new study published by the medical journal Cochrane Database of Systematic Review found the peer-led program not only helps people get sober, but it also has higher rates of continuous sobriety compared with professional mental health therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

The study is important because it dispels misinformation about the program, said lead author Dr. John Kelly, a professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“In the popular press, there’s been reports of AA not working or being even harmful for people,” he said. “So, we wanted to clarify the scientific picture to the highest scientific standard.”

The study had the opposite findings of a similar study published by Cochrane in 2006 that found “no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or TSF (twelve-step facilitation) approaches for reducing alcohol dependence of problems.”

The 2006 review included eight trials with about 3,400 people, while the new review included 27 studies of more than 10,500 people.

The studies reviewed for Wednesday’s publication rated AA’s effectiveness by measuring factors including the length of time participants abstained from alcohol, the amount they reduced their drinking, if they continued drinking, the consequences of their drinking and their health care costs.

AA was never found less effective and was often significantly better than other interventions or quitting cold turkey. One study found the program 60% more effective than alternatives.

Lisa Smith, a recovery advocate who chronicled her addiction and recovery from alcoholism and cocaine in the book “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” said the study “provides important confirmation to what I have seen throughout my 15 years of sobriety in AA.”

“Anyone struggling with their drinking can walk into a meeting full of people who’ve been there and are ready offer support,” said Smith, an attorney.

Legal Speak


“This Big-Law Veteran Hit Rock Bottom. Here’s How She Got Sober.”
Legal Speak powered by Law.com
By Leigh Jones and Vanessa Blum

Lisa Smith, who started her path to recovery 15 years ago, says there’s a “myth” about the so-called high-functioning alcoholic.

This week, Gina Passarella, editor in chief of Law.com affiliate The American Lawyer, talks with Lisa Smith, a former associate at Shearman & Sterling who later worked in business development for Pillsbury Winthrop and Patterson Belknap. Smith, now a consultant at Lisa Smith Advisory, hit bottom with drugs and alcohol some 15 years ago, and she shares with Passarella the details about her path to recovery. Their interview is part of our ongoing Minds Over Matters project, Law.com’s yearlong examination of mental health in the legal profession.

Smith, a member of our Minds Over Matters advisory board, is also the author of the memoir “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” which chronicles her journey of substance abuse and mental health challenges. One of the points that Smith emphasizes in her advocacy and writing is what she calls the myth of the high-functioning alcoholic. Smith’s offers some strategies for lawyers to use in setting boundaries and tips to navigate staying mentally healthy in the highly demanding legal industry.

Listen to the podcast above or subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or Libsyn.

See How These People got to Recovery from Multiple Addictions


Lisa Smith is a former practicing lawyer and the author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar, her memoir of addiction and recovery in the world of New York City corporate law. She works with law firms and other organizations to break stigma and address substance use and mental health disorders in the workplace. Smith has been in recovery from alcohol and cocaine addiction since 2004, when she went into in patient treatment and she credit that and out patient treatment, a 12 step recovery program and a combination of therapy and medication for her depression.

Read the article for the full list →

Law.com: Lisa Smith – Lawyers Who Struggle With Mental Illness Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Seek Help


Alcohol and cocaine fueled the start of Smith’s career, but getting clean—and sharing her story—propelled her forward.

By Dylan Jackson

Lisa Smith started her day April 5, 2004, the same as any other: unbearably hungover and propped up on a mix of booze and cocaine.

That particular routine had been standard for eight months. The heavy drinking started a decade earlier. The life of a young attorney in New York City was hard for everyone, she reasoned. A long day was washed down by a glass of wine or two. Colleagues flooded the bar after closing a deal or winning a big hearing.

Her work was outstanding. She excelled in law school and landed a coveted associate position at New York law firm Shearman & Sterling.

Her addiction came as a series of compromises: “I’m not an alcoholic; I don’t drink during the day,” she would tell herself until she began coupling her lunches with a few beers. “Ok, well I don’t drink during the morning,” kept up the illusion for awhile. Eventually, her hangovers were so rough that she started drinking in the morning. She found it smoothed her out. When even the alcohol wasn’t enough to straighten her out for work, she added cocaine to the routine.

She had long known she was an alcoholic. But she didn’t care. She ceased contributing to her retirement at 32 because she thought she wouldn’t live past 40. She worked from home to hide her addiction.

But that Monday morning, her body decided it had enough. Walking out of her door, she was hit with the sudden feeling of being overwhelmed. Her world was spinning. She thought she was dying.

She wasn’t dying. It wasn’t an overdose or a heart attack. She had a panic attack.

Faced with what she thought was certain death, Smith had a change of heart.

“For all the times leading up to that where I would wake up in the morning and wish I hadn’t woken up,” she said. “In that moment when I actually thought, ‘this is it, I am dying,’ something snapped in me, and I said, ‘no, I want to live.’”

Doctors diagnosed her with clinical depression and put her on medication. Outpatient rehab treatment and a 12-step program followed. Looking back, Smith saw her depression intertwined with her descent into addiction.

“By nature, I was always a gloomy, anxious kid,” she said. “Kids would be lining up for a roller coaster and be all excited, and all I could picture was the cart crashing to the ground.”

At an early age, Smith found reprieve in food, sneaking away to gorge on sweets. Alcohol came into her life by way of high school, and she took to it immediately. She developed a reputation for partying hard and blacking out, although she always thrived academically.

The trend followed her to an undergraduate degree at Northwestern University, then to law school, where she made editor-in-chief of the Rutgers Law Review.

She began drinking nightly her first year as an associate. Practicing law is stressful. The hours are long, and there’s always an adversary, she said. The legal industry is drowning in alcohol. Drinking lubricates conversations at stuffy galas; clients are won over wine.

Two things set Smith apart: Her then-undiagnosed depression and a genetic predisposition. Her maternal grandfather died of alcoholism. Alcohol, not networking, brought Smith to legal events. She would organize her day around drinking, planning out the hours she had to be in meetings so she knew when she could get away. She was regularly vomiting blood. Her blase attitude toward her addiction was fueled by suicidal tendencies.

Smith kept working while in recovery but kept a low profile. In her last three years at Shearman she began working in practice development. By the time she bottomed out in 2004, she had taken a client development position at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. A year after hitting her lowest point, she moved to Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler as marketing director. She didn’t bring up her sobriety when she interviewed at the firm. It wasn’t their business, she felt, and she shared her story with a select few.

Smith said that she was lucky that sobriety stuck. It helped that her doctor correctly diagnosed her the first time, which is rare.

“I felt relieved,” she said.

She takes her medication “religiously,” although she still experiences depressive episodes. She was also fortunate that she was able to come home each day to a nice apartment and hold on to a lucrative job. For many, recovery comes with court dates and fees, an imploding social life. She wasn’t forced to quit drugs and alcohol; she wanted to.

She wrote privately about her experience. She found it cathartic. Deep into a bender, she would always tell herself she would write a book. And after arriving at Patterson in 2005, Smith compiled her writing and landed a book deal for her memoir, “A Girl Walks Out of a Bar.”

While she was elated, she knew the truth would have to come out. She made her way from partner to partner to share her story. During those conversations, her fear melted away.

“I was nervous. I didn’t know how I would be perceived,” Smith said. “What I found in that process was that inevitably people would say before I finished my story, ‘oh, my cousin. My roommate. My neighbor.’ Everybody knew somebody. And a lot of people I told had questions. They have this issue in their lives in some form. And they want to help.”

Smith is not advocating to abolish booze from the profession. Instead, she wants attorneys who are too afraid to ask for help to come out into the open. She wants law firms to look at addiction from a risk-management perspective. At the very least, she wants an open conversation. A person is only high-functioning for as long as they can keep up the illusion and avoid catastrophic mistakes, she said.

“They’re high-functioning, but also high-risk,” she said. “You’re high-function until you miss a big hearing, or mess up a contract.”

Smith has also found that, while successful, alcohol held her back from reaching her full potential. All of the days she worked from home could have been spent in the office brainstorming with colleagues.

Smith is now a deputy executive of client relations at Patterson, a job she was elevated to five years ago. She has been sober for 15 years. And sobriety has become part of her identity. She co-hosts a podcast, Recovery Rocks, and tours the country giving speeches at law firms, bar associations and law schools.

“It’s important for us to raise our hands and put a name and a face to it,” she said. “It shouldn’t be incumbent on the people who struggle with these issues to find the solution.”

This story is part of a special report on mental health and the legal profession from Law.com: Minds over Matters.

Investigative Report: Mental Health Issues and Substance Abuse Threaten the Legal Profession


We wanted to help delve into why depression and substance abuse are so pervasive in the legal industry.

by Kristin Johnson

Ervin Gonzalez, was a top Miami civil lawyer, beloved partner of the prominent Coral Gables law firm Colson Hicks Eidson, and renowned for not only his charismatic and warm demeanor but as “a trusted, go-to trial attorney.” Despite his stellar reputation and an enviable record of 33 verdicts of at least $1 million or more, Gonzalez committed suicide in June 2017.

At 38, Lisa Smith was living in a bright, beautiful New York City apartment and had a high-powered job at the prestigious Manhattan firm Pillsbury Winthrop. She also drank day and night and turned to cocaine to “straighten up enough” to perform her duties at the firm.

Experts say that Gonzalez and Smith aren’t isolated cases. Not by a long shot.

A Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 professions revealed that lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people with other jobs, while the landmark 2016 American Bar Association (ABA) and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study determined that 28% of licensed, employed lawyers suffer depression. The study also showed that 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety and 21% qualify as problem drinkers.

Attorney Patrick R. Krill, lead author of the ABA/Hazelden study and a recognized authority of addiction and mental health issues in the legal profession, says the data “paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people.”

Krill points to the impact of the experience of the profession, which begins even before the J.D.’s are awarded. And Smith, now Deputy Executive Director and Director of Client Relations at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP and author of the addiction memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, can attest to that, highlighting the very different dynamic of law school.

“Instead of being in school with friends, we found ourselves pitted against each other all the time, particularly with the use of the Socratic method,” Smith says. “We were constantly being ranked and there was this sense of ‘my gain is your loss’ that permeated our entire experience. It was a different kind of pressure to succeed and a much more pronounced level of stress than I had previously faced.”

That stress skyrockets when graduates are launched into practice. Smith by her own admission had always done “everything right.” An exemplary high school record lead to admission into Northwestern University. After receiving her B.A., she then went off to the Rutgers School of Law, where she served on the Editorial Board of the Law Review, graduated at the top her class, and ultimately landed a job at a prestigious law firm in New York City…along with 90 other highly qualified first-year associates.

“I was a perfectionist, and I always did well. And now [at the firm] I was competing against all of these people whose credentials were equally as good as mine,” she recalls. “It was a very charged, very competitive environment.”

Not to mention demanding. Deadlines, long hours, excessive workloads, and client pressures together make the practice of law one of the most stressful careers.

This unrelenting pressure, Krill notes, puts lawyers at odds with the types of things one does to support mental health, such as rest (actual sleep or downtime for recharging), exercise, and quality social connections.

The tendency to prioritize winning and achievement rather than well-being and happiness also compromises mental health.

Yet, despite the deficit in mental health, lawyers are not feeling sufficiently supported to seek help. According to Whitney Hawkins, a licensed psychotherapist in Miami, the majority of lawyers continue to feel isolated and shameful when they are unable to measure up to unreachable standards in the legal community.

“Lawyers are fearful that if they share they’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse they will be seen as incompetent or unable to complete their duties at work,” she says.

Smith concurs. While she has since gone public about her addiction and depression, she only did five days of detox before returning to work.

“I was really terrified of the stigma,” she says. “The day I checked into detox, I told work I had a medical emergency and would be out for five days. I knew that because of HIPAA, I could safely be out for five days without a doctor’s notice. Any longer would require that I admit to what was really going on.”

Although Smith had been privately struggling with addiction and depression for 10 years, she was still highly regarded as a respected, trusted, and smart member of the team.

“I couldn’t risk becoming someone, who in their eyes, was weak, deficient, and unreliable,” she says.

Today, however, momentum is building around lawyer mental health and well-being, particularly in response to The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, which was prompted by the ABA/Hazelden study.

The Path to Lawyer Well-Being is a 72-page report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being that outlines recommendations around what needs to be done in order to address and improve lawyers’ well-being. The report’s recommendations focus on five central themes:

“Identifying stakeholders and the role each can play in reducing the toxicity in the legal profession; eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors; emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence; educating lawyers, judges, and law students on lawyer well-being issues; and taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.”

Since its publication, the report has been carefully reviewed across the country and states are starting to form task forces to roll out recommendations. The Florida Bar, for example, has already launched a new Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness.

Also, last month the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates adopted a resolution “urging bar associations, law schools, lawyer licensing agencies, and legal employers to step up efforts to help attorneys with mental health and substance abuse issues.”

Krill is hopeful.

“After decades of refusing to acknowledge our profession’s problem with depression and addiction, we finally seem to be moving in the right direction,” he says. “Truly improving lawyers’ well-being requires long-term culture change. At the end of the day, lawyers are humans. We must focus on their well-being.”

12 Women-Led Recovery Podcasts to Listen to on Your Commute


These podcasts will leave you feeling inspired, informed, and less alone

by Irina Gonzalez

One of the most important parts of my recovery has always been to keep learning. I continue to expand what I know about sobriety and how to handle my new life sans alcohol. Although everyone comes on the sobriety journey for different reasons, there’s one thing that I bet all of us can agree on: the importance of learning about sobriety and recovery.

That’s where listening to a great recovery podcast (or 12!) can come in.

We sober folks are major beneficiaries of the podcast boom because there are so many great shows that focus on life after alcohol and drugs. This growing medium is a powerful way to hear other’s recovery stories and learn from their journey.

The best part, though? You can do it all from the convenience of your own home or during your commute to work… or any other time that you need a little time to escape. Below are some of our favorite recovery podcasts that you simply have to check out and subscribe to.

1. Seltzer Squad

Jes Valentine and Kate Zander are two friends who gave up drinking and started a podcast. This fairly new venture was started because they were sick of going to a bar and watching their friends get drunk. So, instead, they’re on a mission to create a community about getting sober, talking shit and, yes, drinking seltzer.

We love this podcast so much that we’ve featured Valentine and Zander on Saturday Scaries!

Recommended episode: “13- Princess Fomo And The Babysitters Club”

2. This Naked Mind

Annie Grace, the author of The Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life, hosts a podcast of the same name. In the 150-plus episodes of the show (so far), Grace gives listeners insightful information on how to stay sober, answers reader questions and features stories by This Naked Mind coaches, and members of her community.

Some of the episodes discuss alcohol withdrawals, the link between drinking and binge eating, how to deal with loneliness and so much more.

Recommended episode: “EP 130: Reader Question – How to deal with loneliness?”

3. Recovery Rocks

Tawny Lara, founder of SobrieTea Party, and her friend/mentor, Lisa Smith, got together to create this podcast to talk about recovery and rock ‘n roll. That’s right, rock ‘n roll!

The really exciting thing about this podcast is that the two friends come from different generations—one is a Gen X lawyer in 12-Step recovery, and the other is a millennial who found recovery through blogging—which gives them plenty to talk about as they discuss the issues for those of us who struggle and recover. They have different perspectives, of course, but also find much in common—and you’ll find much in common with them as you listen.

Recommended episode: “Episode 14: Sober Sex”

4. Editing Our Drinking and Our Lives

Another great buddy podcast on our list is the EDIT podcast hosted by Aidan Donnelley Rowley and Jolene Park. In this podcast, the two friends aim to talk about why they made an “Early Exit” from the drinking life as well as what it means when you live inside of the gray area of drinking.

They also discuss the ongoing edits- or changes- that they are making in their own lives, such as talking about social media, grief, relationships and the moderation question.

Recommended episode: “#Dry Life + Social Media”

5. The Bubble Hour

Jean M. is a sober woman who started The Bubble Hour podcast because she wanted to break down the walls of stigma and denial around alcohol use disorder. In her podcast, which has more than 200 episodes, she invites guests on to discuss the various areas of sobriety and recovery that affect all of us today. This can mean talking about anything from early recovery to how to plan for a new year to celebrating your soberversary.

Recommended episode: “Kate’s Story: Alcohol-free by choice”

6. Recovery Elevator

Another popular recovery podcast that has upward of 200 episodes is Recovery Elevator. In this one, each episode focuses on a particular aspect in recovery. Recovery Elevator emphasizes how to overcome difficult parts of sobriety while also making room for the good parts.

For instance, a recent episode talks about the “joy of missing out” and how that can be one of the most powerful forces in recovery. Other highlights include the mindset of sobriety, the calories of alcohol and how normal drinkers view addiction.

Recommended episode: “RE 204: Should I Avoid Social Events Where Alcohol Will Be Present?”

7. The Unruffled Podcast

Sondra Primeaux and Tammi Salas host this weekly show. Their aim is to explore all of the topics that are related to creativity in sobriety. Cool, right?

Here’s their thinking: “When an addiction is removed, there is a void that is left.” This show’s aim is to find ways to fill that void through creative pursuits. In each episode, they interview someone in recovery about their sober journey and creative pursuits.  

Recommended episode: “Episode 88 – Before The Relapse”

8. Mother Recovering

This podcast is all about #mommyingsober: It’s perfect for women who are committed to both their sobriety and their kids. Although the show isn’t currently releasing new episodes, the archives are incredibly rich if you’re a mother in recovery.

In fact, you might be surprised to find that parenting is a lot like recovery. “It’s a beautiful, challenging, exhausting and rewarding process that provides the sweetest moments of joy,” podcast host Annika wrote on the official podcast website.

Recommended episode: “Episode 17: Help a Mother Out”

9. A Sober Girls Guide

Want to listen to a super-relatable podcast on sobriety and recovery? Then tune in each week to A Sober Girls Guide.

Jessica Jeboult hosts these insightful conversations about mental health, self-development, wellness, and spirituality and their influence the recovery journey. She’s hosted fantastic guests including Taryn Strong of She Recovers and Martha Duke of Recovering Out Loud.

Recommended episode: “A Sober Girls Mom”

10. Recovery Happy Hour

It’s common to have the fear of missing out when first entering recovery. It may seem as if everyone you know is out to happy hour and you’re, well, not.

But every Tuesday, Recovery Happy Hour reminds us what sobriety is really about: bettering ourselves. It encourages its listeners to embrace the joy of missing out instead. Each episode features inspiring stories of life beyond the bottle, such as dating in sobriety, the #newyearnewme lie and more.

Recommended episode: “Episode 36 – Dating in Sobriety”

11. Take a Break From Drinking

Rachel Hart is a life coach who hosts the Take a Break From Drinking podcast. She aims to help women take a break from drinking so that “they can learn how to relax, have fun and feel confident without a glass in hand.”
Episodes, which are released every Tuesday, focus on things such as mastering the urge to drink, drinking and the emotional tunnel vision, how drinking prevents you from creating a future (one I can personally relate to), and more.

Recommended episode: “Catastrophizing”

12. Home Podcast

We can’t end this list without mentioning the Home Podcast, co-founded by Hip Sobriety founder Holly Whitaker, and Laura McKowen, who now hosts the Spiritualish podcast.

From 2015 until 2018, these two awesome women teamed up to ask the big questions of life, answered through the lens of addiction recovery. With more than 100 episodes, The Home Podcast’s archives have so much on exploring our hearts, relationships, life, love and the universe at large.

Recommended episode: “Episode 107: How to Begin”

Disclosure: Hip Sobriety is the parent company of The Temper.

There’s so much in each of these shows, and every one is fantastic for its own unique reason. Plus, because many of these launch on a weekly basis, you may find that there is a never-ending supply of great information on handling your sobriety, embracing the joy of missing out and recovering from whatever addictions of your past.

Whether you took an early exit from drinking, someone who has hit rock bottom, or a person that came to sobriety for other reasons, there’s definitely a podcast here to love (and listen to on repeat) for you.

Northwestern Intersections


“Lisa Smith ’88 on Walking Out of a Bar and Into Advocacy”
Northwestern Intersections with Cassie Petoskey

She never received a poor performance evaluation throughout her successful career in the legal industry, even through years of alcohol and drug addiction. Lisa Smith later had a panic attack and checked herself into rehab. She found herself writing to her family about her situation and recently published her book “Girl Walks Out of a Bar: A Memoir,” about her descent into and recovery from addiction. Tune in for insights from Smith’s experiences in overcoming adversity as well as from her two successful careers as a lawyer and as an author.

Starting with this week’s episode with Lisa Smith ’88, I wanted to share with our listeners more about the interview experience and some of the themes that come up throughout my conversations.

I was thinking back to my interview with Lisa in October 2018 and was intrigued by how much of Lisa’s personal life ended up impacting her professional life: for example, she now has a second career as an author and an advocate because of her experience personally overcoming addiction.

I come from a social work background where we often talk about the importance of separating your personal life from your professional life; that way, you can leave your work at the office and not have to constantly worry about your clients or cases. It is meant to be a defense against burnout. On the other hand, there is a mindfulness concept where you let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling and focus on that feeling, instead of just trying not to feel it at all. It challenges people to recognize how their experiences outside the office influence who we are inside the office. Is this how our personal and professional lives should work, too?

Lisa is clearly passionate about sharing who she is both personally and professionally. It’s so common in her line of work that people hide their personal challenges and mental health issues from colleagues. She saw firsthand how hiding who she was in her personal life from her co-workers ended up perpetuating her challenges. Lisa is now looking forward to sharing her story and doing more advocacy work so that future generations have a healthy relationship with who they are in the many different aspects of their lives. I was inspired after hearing Lisa’s honesty around her story of recovery, I hope you are, too.


[MUSIC PLAYING] CASSIE PETOSKEY: Welcome to Northwestern Intersections, a Northwestern network podcast where we talk to alumni about their careers. We’ll hear what they’ve done right, what they’ve done wrong, and the stories behind both. I’m Cassie Petoskey, with the Northwestern Alumni Association Career Advancement team. And today, I’m speaking with Lisa Smith.

Lisa Smith is Deputy Executive Director and Director of Client Relations at Patterson Belknap and author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar, the story of her descent into and recovery from high-functioning alcoholism and drug addiction. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Lisa.

LISA SMITH: Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: And we’re so excited here well you’re up to at Patterson Belknap. But before we get into that, we like to start our episodes off a little later with, what was your first job?

LISA SMITH: My first job out of Northwestern, I actually went straight on to law school from Northwestern. I went back to New Jersey, where I grew up, and went to Rutgers Law School. And I worked, while I was there over the summers, first, at an environmental engineering firm, and then at a law firm after my second year in law school and have been working in law firms ever since.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: So starting law school right after undergrad, I’m sure you were with fellow classmates who did the same thing, were from undergrad and classmates who came in from work world. What were some of the things that you felt like you learned in law school that you still use today? Because I know with law, school and reality are two different things.

LISA SMITH: So different, yeah. I think that I learned a lot about managing time, for one, which had been something I’d certainly learned at Northwestern but really had to figure out. And I also had to get over my fear of public speaking. Because in law school, everything, from day one, is on the Socratic method, where we’re called on right away. And I had had some small classes and seminars at Northwestern, so I was used to speaking in a group setting, but just not in the group the size of a law school class.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Interesting. That has to be intimidating coming into law school.

LISA SMITH: It was. And it was funny because I had one professor in a contracts class who would lay out a hypothetical, and he would sort of get carried away, and he’d start adding all these facts, talking about a scenario and wandering around the room. And he would be wandering further and further from his seating chart, where he picked who to call from, and every time he did that, I knew it was going to be me. Because when he finally stopped, he would just go oh, oh, Miss Smith, because he knew there was a Smith in the audience. So as soon as I heard him going off on one of those tangents, I had to really focus.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: And have something in your head to say.

LISA SMITH: Yes! I knew I was going to get called on, yeah.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Oh my goodness. So it seems like those are both– managing your time and public speaking seem like really valuable skills. Did you use both of those in your first role after graduating law school?

LISA SMITH: Yes. So I went right on from law school into practice. I took a position as an associate at a big New York law firm. It was and still is a global firm. And it was a big transition from law school, which, with all its intensity, was still school and was still something that I didn’t feel as much was on the line for as the first time I got staffed on a transaction at the law firm and really seeing dollars and cents on the line, and having clients, and the stakes getting raised to that level.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and I’ve heard– I have a few friends that went on to big firms. It’s an interesting culture, right? So how did you adapt to big firm life coming out of law school?

LISA SMITH: Not well. That’s sort of where the other part of my story begins. So I had a history of always being somebody who liked to go out and party. And I was definitely a party person at Northwestern, certainly in law school.

And when I got into life in a big New York City firm, my drinking, that’s when I became a daily drinker, actually, was my first year as a junior associate, as a way to cope with the intense stress. I wasn’t aware of it at the time; I became aware much later that I had been walking around with an undiagnosed major depressive disorder that I had been self-medicating since the time I was a kid and self-medicated with food. I think sugar was the first substance I abused.

And so when I got into the law firm, it was kind of this convergence of my tendency toward self-medication and the extra stress. And there is also addiction and mental health issues up and down both sides of my family. So all of that kind of– that was the perfect storm.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: And looking back, when did you realize you were self medicating something that was a deeper-rooted depressive disorder?

LISA SMITH: I didn’t honestly till when I got sober, which was–


LISA SMITH: –yeah, more than 10 years later from when I started drinking on a daily basis. I had always been kind of a gloomy kid. I was definitely always glass half full. I had this kind of anxiety. I was always nervous about what other people were thinking about me, but also about what was going to happen next. Somebody might look at something like a roller coaster, another kid might look at a roller coaster and get all excited, and I would picture the car falling out of the sky. So I had a lot of these kinds of anxiety issues, and I also had a lot of just general sadness that, certainly with alcohol and later drugs, made it go away, just shut up the voice that was constantly in the back of my head.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and eventually, that voice came to you and told you, this is enough?

LISA SMITH: Yeah, well, really, it was– so it was more than a 10-year slide of– and it’s interesting because I talk about the book being about high-functioning because I continued– I never got a negative review. I never had anything negative happen in the office. I did, after 5 and 1/2 years of practice, I was in the corporate finance practice of the firm that I was at, and it was incredibly intense. And it wasn’t something that I loved. I had wanted to do environmental law and had started at the firm in that capacity. But when the need became greater on the corporate side, they just moved us, the junior people, over to the corporate side.

And so I really felt out of my element and wasn’t enjoying. And that carried through the first five years. I think it was about 5 and 1/2 years that I practiced. And then I had an opportunity to switch over to stay at the firm, but to switch over into a role on the administrative side, working with the partners to help develop business. And as soon as I heard that, I said, sign me up. If I can get out of this practice I’m miserable in, and that sounds like more interesting thing to do, and the hours will be way more reasonable, so I thought I could get my drinking under control that way, that I won’t be so stressed out, I won’t feel like I have to drink as much.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: The external stressors will be less, and so your internal stressors, you may be able to handle it better?

LISA SMITH: Right. But I now know that I had already crossed that line. Because what happened was I just started sort of drinking earlier. And it didn’t get better with that. I continued to do well. I did fine there. I stayed at that firm. I was there a total of almost 10 years.


LISA SMITH: And then, I left to get married and moved out of state. And then, I was gone for about two years. And then, I came back when that didn’t work out, which is something that, unfortunately, happens to a lot of people who are struggling with these issues is that we do think that some external thing will fix it. We do think, if I just get a different job, if I just get married, if I do these things, then I can get this other thing under control. Especially for people who are functioning at a decent level and not failing, you think I went to Northwestern. I graduated at the top of my law school class. I got this job. I can do things. I can get this under control. The idea of, I can handle it is really– which I had all along. I kept saying to myself, I’m going to get this under control. I can definitely get this under control.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Well, especially as you’re still getting great performance reviews, you’re thinking it’s not affecting my career.

LISA SMITH: Right. How bad could it be?




LISA SMITH: How bad could it be? And you know there are things that go on in large law firms, like I had– my office was a disaster, but no one ever said anything to me about that because there are a lot of lawyers whose offices are a disaster, whereas if you walk down the halls of corporate America, that might not– you know, that might be a red flag to someone– kept really weird hours, I would send in work at 3:00 in the morning, and instead of the partner saying to me, why are you doing this non-urgent work at 3:00 in the morning, I work hear, thanks for staying up last night and doing that. Work from home today.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, it’s the industry. It’s acceptable in that industry.

LISA SMITH: It’s this work-hard, play-hard dynamic that is really dangerous. It certainly had nothing to do with the firms I was at and the people I worked with. I was at great firms the whole time. I worked with great people the whole time. But that whole culture– and it’s actually something– law firm culture that is being addressed now in a real way, which is great because I’m really fortunate to be part of that discussion.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, which is amazing and such a great outcome from your experience, that you’re going to change this for the future. But when you first started writing and wrote your book, it was still– there was still a stigma– or maybe there was. Was there still a stigma that this– you know, don’t talk about mental health? Don’t talk about addiction and these issues, where everything’s fine?

LISA SMITH: Right, nothing to look at here. Yeah.


LISA SMITH: Yeah, well, what happened was, I got help finally in 2004. And I had been– at that point, my addiction had– my drinking had changed from, I only drink at night to, well, I drink at lunch, but that’s OK because a lot of people drink at lunch. But at least I never drink in the morning. That’s something that real alcoholics do.

And then came the morning that I was so sick with a hangover and had to be in the office for a meeting that I realized– my shaking was so bad. It was bad. I was really physically sick at the end. But I realized that the only thing that was going to straighten me out to appear normal would be to drink in the morning.

So I remember taking that drink that morning, which was a year and a half before I got sober– so, really, at the back end of everything, and thinking, OK, yeah, so this is who I am. This is what I am. And I’m just going to have to live with it. And I figured– it’s funny. I’m out here for the reunion for my class, and it’s our 30th reunion.

And I was thinking about that and the fact that during the years I was working before I got sober, at a certain point when I was drinking so much, I just said, you know, I’m not going to live very long. I think I’m going to be dead by 40. And I stopped contributing to my 401(k). Because I was like, why would I save money for 65? Like, I’m not going to live to be 65. So looking back on that– coming back here and being in Evanston and everything and looking around thinking about that, it’s really– it feels really amazing.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, and what your future now holds.

LISA SMITH: Hopefully.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah. Well, and where you are now compared to where you thought you’d be.

LISA SMITH: Yeah. But you asked about the stigma, and the stigma is very real. And the stigma was very real and keeps people from asking for help. We’re working on breaking it in the industry, but we still have a long way to go. But what happened to me was it was a morning that I was on my way into the office, and I thought– that point, I was drinking and using cocaine around the clock.

And the cocaine was not for fun. The cocaine was to counter the effects of the alcohol, so I wouldn’t be slurring, and I wouldn’t be falling asleep. It was so I could show up when I needed to show up. And I had been up pretty much all weekend drinking and using. And then, I went, on Monday morning, to get out to work. I was in my work outfit, and makeup on, New York Times in one hand, laptop in the other.

And I, all of a sudden, got overwhelmed. Like, I felt like I finally was having a heart attack or had a cocaine overdose, whatever it was, just overwhelmed. I now know it was a panic attack. But in that moment was when I said, oh, I think I’m actually going to die right now. I think I don’t want to die.

And I went back into my apartment and called my doctor. And I said, here’s what’s happening. I think I need to go to an inpatient detox or something. And he was like, no, no. I just saw you recently, and you’re fine. And I said, no, you don’t know these things.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: So your doctor–


CASSIE PETOSKEY: –this was your doctor, who–

LISA SMITH: Who I’d been lying to, who I had never told. But nothing had been showing up in my tests. Then, I told him how much I was drinking and using and that it was 24/7. I couldn’t get out of bed without drinking.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: So then once you told him this–

LISA SMITH: Then he said, you need to go to inpatient today. And the first thing, I did before I even called my family and my friends– because they didn’t know– I emailed my law firm, and I said, just want to let you know. I’m going to be out this week. I had a medical emergency over the weekend, but I’m going to be fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be in the hospital, but it’s all going to be good. I’ll see you next Monday. So I’ll be out of touch, but I’ll see you next Monday.

And I knew that if I went out for five days, I could call in sick– you know, have five sick days. If I stayed out that sixth day, I would need to have a doctor’s note to show where– you know, what was going on, what I was doing. And I wasn’t willing to do that. So I should have gone from the five day– I had a medicated five-day detox. And then, I should have gone right to like a 30-day rehab or a two-month rehab or something. I had the insurance. I had the ability to do it. But I was not willing to tell my law firm, so I went straight back to work–


LISA SMITH: –which is really– you know, I went– one thing that was good was that when– that day, I felt truly done, so I was OK with– you know, I wanted to do whatever I could do, so I was willing at that point. So I went to intensive outpatient rehab two nights a week. And I started going to 12-step meetings and all of that. But I never told anybody in the office because of the stigma. I had left the office that Friday as a reliable, capable, smart member of the team.

What if I came back 30 days later having been to rehab? What are they going to think of me? That somehow I’m defective, or weak, or unreliable? And I wasn’t willing to risk it. And that was in 2004, so it’s only just turning now, I think, a bit. But my goal with all of the speaking and writing stuff that I do is for the next lawyer in my position sitting on that cot in the psych ward hospital, the psych hospital, to, instead of saying no, no, I have to go back to work, for that person to say, yes, thank you. I’m going to go for 30 days or 60 days.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: And it’s OK. And I can then come back to a career and be successful, just like I was before.

LISA SMITH: Right. And that’s part of why it’s important, I think, and has been recently for breaking the stigma for people like me who have come out the other side so far and went back into successful careers in law firms and went back to being a partner in a law firm some people have. And those people are now starting to speak up more and more as the scope of the problem among lawyers has come into sharper focus.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, because you’re not alone, and this is a part of the working world.

LISA SMITH: Yeah, and I had no sober references. I knew no one in recovery. I saw people all the time, you break your leg, you go out. You need some sort of medical treatment, you go out. In my firm, some circumstances, if you become a parent, you’re out for six months. And people say, that’s great. Go do it. But I had never seen anybody say, I’m suffering from depression. I need to go into treatment. I have a substance use disorder. I need to go into treatment, and I’ll be back. And I wasn’t going to be the first.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right. And so you went to outpatient two nights a week.

LISA SMITH: Yeah, for about a year.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: And was that what you needed?

LISA SMITH: Yeah, that and 12-step.


LISA SMITH: And also, I think the biggest thing is when I was in the hospital, which was a really crazy story. I met with the psychiatrist each day, and we would talk about why I drink, how I drink, going all the way back to the food thing when I was a kid, and I used to– you know, he was really trying to figure out–

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Piece it all together.

LISA SMITH: –right, why was I– why was I doing this to myself. And at the end of my stay, he said, listen, I think you are a very smart woman with a very big, serious problem. And if you don’t stop drinking, you’re going to die. And he said, I believe that you’ve been drinking– from what you’ve been telling me, that you have major depressive disorder, and you have been self-medicating yourself the whole time since you were a kid. And now, we’re going to start you on antidepressants, and you’re going to treat that chemical imbalance in your brain that way instead of with drugs and alcohol.

And I was incredibly fortunate because he got my diagnosis right. The medication I was put on in the hospital actually worked. So many people struggle with getting the right diagnosis, getting the right medication. I mean, some people never get that. And I was fortunate to get it. Then I went back. I was really willing to do whatever people told me to do to stay sober. I wasn’t one of these people who had to go in because I had a DUI or I was court ordered–

CASSIE PETOSKEY: There wasn’t this external–

LISA SMITH: Right. I hadn’t lost my job. I hadn’t alienated my family. So I went back to a nice apartment in New York City, a very nice job, a supportive family and friends. So I really had the benefit of these things. If anybody was set up for success– so I was fortunate that way. Not everybody has that. And I think that’s something that we have to be able to acknowledge in trying to get people the help they need.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah. And now coming back to your firm– because I remember the first time we spoke, when you told me about how you eventually had to tell your organization because you wrote a book.


CASSIE PETOSKEY: I guess when you wrote your book, you basically had to tell your organization that this was going to come out, but how did you have the courage to write, and then to tell your organization at a time when there was the stigma?

LISA SMITH: Well, it was– it certainly has never felt like [? ours, ?] for sure. You know, I had never written, but I always was a huge reader, and I started as soon as I got out of detox reading every addiction memoir I could find. And I didn’t find my story, like the person who is in a professional career, and hasn’t lost everything, and still goes so far down this path. And I had to tell my family and friends what was going on. And they knew.

My mother said, well, yeah, you drink too much, but do you really need to be hospitalized? A lot of it happens behind closed doors. You know, I could go to dinner with all my friends, who I’m still friends, we’re a very tight bunch, and we’d have a few drinks and go home. They didn’t see me go home, and then open another bottle of wine and drink it, and then pull the cocaine out. So people weren’t aware.

And so when I got out of the detox– and the detox story itself is pretty out there, what happened, and where I landed, and how I landed. The bottom line is my doctor, who I called and said, where can I go, he didn’t know what he was doing, either. And he was like, well, based on my insurance, you, can go to these two places. I picked one, and it was the worst psych hospital in Manhattan.


LISA SMITH: I mean, maybe in a way that was good for me, but it was. And I had to sign in on a 72-hour lockdown to be treated. And bottom line of that story is, don’t ask your gastroenterologist where to go to detox because he doesn’t know. Yeah, so anyway, so when I got out of the hospital, you know, I had not gone– it had been well more than 10 years since I had woken up in the morning not having drank the night before.

So I would wake up at 5:00 in the morning, and I would be like, oh my god. I would reach over– because I used to put a glass of vodka, or wine, or whatever it was on my nightstand because I would need it before I could get out of bed. And then, I would reach over in the morning out of reflex because it had been so many years and realized that I had club soda in the glass. And it was like, Groundhog Day, this realization of like, oh my god. I didn’t drink last night. And it’s the best day ever. And then, I would jump out of bed. But it was like 5:00 in the morning. So what do you do?

So I just started writing down the story of what happened in the hospital. Because like I said, I was pretty out there. And all my family and friends were like, what happened? Why didn’t you tell us? We could have helped you. Some of them were a little upset and hurt that I hadn’t. And I just started writing in the morning as a way to– I would be like, here, read this, after the 10th time that I had been explaining the story.

So it was a way to explain to my family and friends what happened, but it was much more than that, I realized. It was a way for me to process what happened myself. And it was cathartic. And it helped me figure things out. And I became like a 5:00 AM writer. I didn’t tell anybody about it. My family and friends knew, but I kept everything out of the workplace. And they had told me– in rehab, they said, you know, you need to get honest if you’re going to get sober. And that means telling your employer. Your employer should understand that you’re in early recovery.

And I was like, no, they really don’t need to know. I said, I will tell my family, my friends, I will shout it from the rooftops. I will not tell my law firm. And I think that was the right thing, frankly, for me at that time. It’s a very personal decision. For everyone who does it, it’s different. But for me, it would’ve felt like added pressure, and why put that on myself?

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, that wasn’t the right time for you.


CASSIE PETOSKEY: Eventually, you got to the right time.

LISA SMITH: Yeah. So what happened was, 10 months into recovery, all of a sudden, I figured out that I could do a next-level job, that while I was doing really well at the job I had, it wasn’t the most challenging job I could do. And so I left the firm I was out at that time, and I went– that was when I went to Patterson Belknap. And I went in as the Director of Business Development– because that’s what I’ve been doing since I had switched over. I never stopped working. And I didn’t tell anybody because it wasn’t any of their business. They didn’t need to know anything. And I just kept my writing thing. I started going to workshops. And I had never taken writing courses at Northwestern.

So I started going to NYU at night, taking night courses. And I got in a workshop. And over the years at Patterson, people that I became friendly with, the partners, it’s just an incredible firm. Some of the partners that I became friendly with, I had shared my story with. But certainly, it was not well known. And I wrote the book over 10 years.

And then, I had just been pretty– very recently promoted from Director of Business Development to Deputy Executive Director of the firm at that point when I got my book deal. And I sit on the management committee of the firm as part of my job. And all of a sudden, I had this book deal, with a very– I mean, I didn’t pull punches in the book. It is very raw. And I had to tell them. Like, this is going to be coming out.

And I had been really adamant about– my whole goal was always, like I said, with that next person sitting on the cot in the hospital in mind. Because I felt so alone in my addiction. Addiction is so isolating and so scary. And I was so afraid all those years. And I wanted to help the next person not feel that way, to know that they weren’t alone.

And so I knew I was going to own it. I was going to use my name. I was not going to fictionalize it. Because people had said that to me during the writing process. Well, you can use another name. But I wanted to be able to tell somebody it’s OK to be this and have this.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Exactly, that’s part of the power is to say, this was my story.

LISA SMITH: Exactly.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: And I’m coming forward, even knowing the consequences of the stigma around it.

LISA SMITH: Yeah, yeah. I knew I was in a great firm, but I had to start telling them. So I would– because of my position, I needed to start at the top. So I’d knock on a partner’s door and say, hey, you might have heard, my book’s going to be published. And they’d be like, yeah, that’s great. You know, people knew I wrote, but they hadn’t really dug into what I was writing. If they asked me what I was writing, I would say, I’m writing a memoir. It’s about a challenge I faced that, fortunately, is behind me now. And that was it. People don’t want to pry too much on that stuff.

So somebody would say, that’s great. Congratulations. We’re excited for you. And then, I would shut their door and I would say, now, let me tell you what it’s about. And oh, OK. And then, I would start the story, and they’d be listening. And I have to say, at least 80% of the time, I didn’t even get the whole story out. Because they would interrupt me and say, my law school roommate, my cousin, my father, my whoever had this, had that, died from this or that, or struggling, they’d have questions. And that’s when I realized, going from office to office, and getting that kind of response– and know I am part of it– may just be the function that I really am in a very special law firm– but I didn’t feel at all looked down on, stigmatized, anything when I told them that.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: That’s great.

LISA SMITH: There was surprise, but there wasn’t that sort of negative thing.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: They didn’t treat you differently?

LISA SMITH: No, or that I felt like I was being treated differently. And so it really– it amazed me that was how I learned how wide-reaching the problem really is and that everyone gets touched. Like you said, it’s like that. Like, oh, we don’t have that problem here, you know? Everybody’s got a story they’re just not talking about.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, right. They’re keeping it undercover because it’s isolating, so they think it’s just them, but it’s not.


CASSIE PETOSKEY: It’s more prevalent than that.

LISA SMITH: Yeah, and they all knew somebody.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah. And that’s part of the power of your story, that you’re sharing this, and you’re doing a lot of advocacy work around this, is making sure people don’t feel alone in the future. And I know that you tell this story a lot. You have your own podcast, where you talk about these things, right?

LISA SMITH: Yeah, we just launched– my friend, who is another– a sober friend who is amazing. Her name is Tawny Lara. And we are very different. We bonded completely over rock music when we first met. And there’s so many good recovery groups out now. Like, we met in, basically, a recovery book club.


LISA SMITH: Very cool. In New York, there’s a lot of that.


LISA SMITH: So anybody who wants to get in touch, let me know because I love connecting people.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: That’s great. So your podcast is about how you both had different ways of– because I was wondering this. Because you have such different ways of recovering from addiction and mental health, but you found each other.

LISA SMITH: Yes, completely. And yeah, and it was interesting because when we started talking about this, we just realized that this kind of conversation– you know, I am Gen-Xer, she’s a millennial. I’m literally her mother’s age. And I have always worked in a professional office. And she is a blogger and entrepreneur kind of person who does not work in a professional office. And I have always been a 12-step person. It’s the only way that was really available at that time. It was kind of that or nothing when I got sober.

She, one day, decided she needed to get sober and started a blog of my one-year sober, my sober journey. And she got sober by blogging and sharing her story. And there’s all these– I’ve now learned, because I’ve gotten connected– this entire online Instagram and Facebook communities where people connect.

And it’s interesting. Because 12-step is very much, to me, about being part of a community. I’m not alone. These people have the same feelings I feel. They get it when I tell my story. And now, that dynamic– and without the 12 steps but that part of it, that community, and that honest sharing feelings with each other is very much online as well.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and now, I’m curious because I know you do a lot of advocacy; you have a podcast where we talk about your story often. Is there anything different about sharing it with the Northwestern Network on this podcast?

LISA SMITH: It’s funny. Yeah. In a way, it’s not something I had ever expected. Because while I was sitting outside before we started talking, I was just scrolling through the people I’m going to see at the reunion. There’s the list of all the other names and all these people. I think about the person who I was then. And we all, obviously, were very different people when we were 22 years old.

But one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is the broad reach and the diversity of the Northwestern Network. We all do so many different things. I’m used to sort of talking to lawyers. Or I’m used to talking to people in recovery. The advocacy I’ve done has not been among the Northwestern community or a broader community of people who I know are doing great things. And some of the things– I read Northwestern Magazine, and I’m like, I think I just need to go back to bed. Let me see what some of the people do.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: It’s amazing.

LISA SMITH: It’s really amazing in that this community of really talented and really wonderful people to tell my story is– it sort of feels like telling it for the first time again in a way. And I see that even just talking on this podcast, like, it feels like, oh, this isn’t– but when I usually tell my story, it’s a whole different thing.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Right, right, talking to the Northwestern Network about your career story and your–

LISA SMITH: Yeah! And my career story’s so melded into my personal story, which now has become like the second career story.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah. Interesting how you think about just the different angles of– you know, you are one person, but you’re talking to different groups of people and how it can influence differently.

LISA SMITH: Yeah, I think the people I ran around with at Northwestern would probably not be that shocked that I ended up in rehab.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: But now, talking about the Northwestern Network, coming back to campus, in what ways has the Northwestern Network impacted your career?

LISA SMITH: It’s been amazing. One of the most important things I think it’s done constantly is inspire me. I feel very proud when people ask me where I went to school. I’ve always felt that way. And I have made the most important friendships of my life here. I have had that– for me, coming from New York as an 18-year-old who had never been out of New York, meeting people from all over the country was totally new to me. I was used to people who looked, and sounded, and seemed just like I was. And I’ve carried with me that– I feel like I learned at Northwestern with my two closest friends from here were on my floor freshman year. And we see each other regularly. And–

CASSIE PETOSKEY: That’s amazing.

LISA SMITH: Yeah, oh, and we’re in touch constantly. And they and the other friends I made at Northwestern who came from just different parts of the country, different backgrounds and everything, and I saw the core root of what I thought was important to be as a person. I grew up a lot at Northwestern. It was the formative experience for me.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and now that you’re coming back for reunions, who are some of the people you’re most excited to see this weekend or even people and places?

LISA SMITH: People, and places. Well, we are actually having– our party is at the Kellogg Global space.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Oh, it’s amazing.

LISA SMITH: Yeah, yeah.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Such a good space.

LISA SMITH: Yeah, it’s going to be great. It’s going to be fun. So one of my good friends is not going to be here this weekend, but I’m staying with the other one downtown and seeing her. Always, we try to get together three or four times a year if we can.

And it feels like coming home. Like, coming back to Chicago feels like coming home. And it’s funny. Because scrolling through those names, I almost feel like, it’s like a night– when we were here, we called it “The Bar,” and then it was “The Gathering Place.” And I don’t even know what it is anymore. But the campus bar, Norris, it looks like the scene from the bar at night.


LISA SMITH: But I’m looking forward to– I was in a sorority when I was here, and we’re having a get together on Saturday in Wilmette at someone’s house.


LISA SMITH: So a lot of people I haven’t seen in ages and ages. So it’s going to be exciting.


LISA SMITH: I have a ticket to the football game, but I’m not going to go because I’m going to be to cold.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: It is going to be a cold–

LISA SMITH: Yeah, yeah.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Fall has hit in the Midwest officially.

LISA SMITH: That’s right. That’s right.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: OK. And so Lisa, we have a lot of alumni come back to the Alumni Association. Now thinking of the years of experience that you have and just the advice that you may able to provide, what advice have you received that has really stuck with you throughout your years in law firms?

LISA SMITH: I have to say that the best piece of advice I received and that I still go back to was that day after I checked into the detox, they made me go– I didn’t know what I was doing, and they made me go to a 12-step meeting in the detox. And I was really– I was in heavy withdrawal, and I was medicated, and it was whatever.

But I sat down in that room, and there was a big whiteboard that had the schedule for the day up there and everything and what nurse was giving what meds at what time. And at the top of it, in green magic marker, I remember it written, it just said, get up, get dressed, get with the program. And I looked at that, and I was like, oh. I haven’t done that in a long time.

So when I think about pieces of advice that I’ve gathered over the years, when I feel stuck, when I feel frustrated, when I feel like I can’t do something or something’s just too hard, I’ve sort of translated that idea of get up, get dressed, and get with the program into, just keep showing up– just one foot in front of the other. It is just what’s in front of you right now.

In recovery, when I feel things are spinning out or I’m thinking I can’t be present where I am and I’m thinking two, three years down the road, for some reason, that makes no sense, always going back to the idea of, where are my feet? Where am I right now? Everything’s OK.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, and I think a lot of alumni are coming back to the Alumni Association when they’re hitting a challenging point in their career, whether they’re trying to make a career transition or look for a job. And it just seems like, keep at it.

LISA SMITH: Just one foot in front of the other. It’s true. It’s true. And keep at it because I could have never imagined what was down the road. It was only possible by just continuing to show up today, show up today, show up today. And graduating from Northwestern, someone’s like, OK, so you’re going to go do really well in law school, and then you’re going to get a great job, and you’re going to go into this terrible spiral. As someone who drank a lot, and partied a lot, and relied on that, I thought that was one of the things that helped me achieve. Because I needed to blow off steam.

And if someone had told me that when you come back for your 30-year reunion, you’re going to be 14 and a half years sober, you’re going to have written a book, you’re going to be talking to other people out loud in public about being in recovery, I would’ve been, like, no, no, you have the wrong person. Maybe that’s the person down the road from me, but not me. Like, you can’t even imagine what’s going to happen. Like, there truly are so many possibilities. And I know, coming back and thinking about it, I remember being miserable in my job, stuck in my job, and that feeling of, where do I go next?

So I could see coming back to the Alumni Association at that point– and the idea of knowing that there are second acts, and being open about everything, about keeping an open mind on everything. There were a lot of things I had to do in early recovery that I would have been like, no, I don’t want to do that. And it’s like, but, you don’t know what’s on the other side. Just take that action.


LISA SMITH: Just, taking action. And also just when you hear this in recovery all the time, which is letting go of things you can’t control. There are only the things you can control. Like, going on job interviews. Go on that interview, and then let go of the results. Because now, you’ve–

CASSIE PETOSKEY: It’s out of your hands.

LISA SMITH: Right, you’ve taken care of what you could do.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: No, that’s so true. And I am so glad that we were able to have you on the podcast to talk about your story and how inspiring it is. Because I know there are people going through challenging points in their lives and their careers out there listening. And I think it is such a great thing to talk about how you came out on the other side. And I know, looking at you and thinking of some things that you may be proud of, I have some things in my mind, but I’d love to hear from you what you’re most proud of in your life and in your career.

LISA SMITH: Most proud of, I would say, in my career, would be that I really do feel like I have been able to help other people, that I hear back a lot from people who have been able to identify with my story or just helped in some way. And that is all I ever wanted to do with that book is just help the next person. And so the book and the help that it’s been able to give some people just by being able to identify with someone else’s story is definitely the proudest thing I’ve done professionally.

I’d say personally the thing I’m most proud of– when I was– in those 10-plus years, 12 years, whatever it was of drinking every night, and being completely checked out, and really in my own pity party all the time, and just an unhappy person trying to put a face on and act like everything was great because everything should seem great, I really had to isolate myself in order to feed my addiction. And there are a lot of times with my family that I wasn’t able to show up.

So when my niece was born, I tell this story in the book– I have one brother two years younger than me. And when my niece was born, it was his first child, I had been on a two-day bender, and I hadn’t slept in like two days. And I was really just– really high, and really not in the right place. And I tried to get out to the hospital to be with them, and I couldn’t do it. And then, my drug dealer called. And I had the car I was in turn around and take me back to meet him, and I didn’t show up.

So when my nephew was born, and I was sober. Two years later, I was able to show up. But then the biggest one was in– I was about nine years, eight nine years sober, when my dad got sick with pancreatic cancer. And he got diagnosed, and 5 and 1/2 weeks later, he was gone

Well, I was there. I basically moved into the house. I did everything. I was with every doctor. You know, he went right on hospice. Everything. I was the one who, when it was time for the morphine, no one could do it. And he wanted it, and I was able to– we had it there, and I was able to give him the morphine. So to show up to see my dad through that was– oh, I don’t think I could be more proud of anything.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Oh, you made me cry.


We get emotional on this podcast, I guess. Career stories. But it’s– you know, you can’t separate who you are as a person from your career. Like you said, this is your story. Whether it’s your career story or personal story, it all comes together and blurs together. You can’t separate that.

LISA SMITH: Yeah, yeah.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: So that is really impactful, I’m sure, in your life. And you’ll carry that.

LISA SMITH: Yes, yeah.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: –forever as part of you. It’s pretty amazing to think how many different things you’ve done and different jobs and roles within law firms.


CASSIE PETOSKEY: And I’m wondering what other career advice that you may have to share with the Northwestern Network.

LISA SMITH: Yeah. I think the career advice that has helped me definitely has been, sometimes especially in pressured situations, people want to make their mark, people want to say the right thing or be the person who gets something done first or who does– always trying to outshine other people. And I watched a lot of that as a young associate and throughout my career. And I think one of the things that can really help is to really just stop worrying about what the person in the next office is up to so much and thinking about what your role is.

There’s definitely– in big law firms, in any big industry, the workplace can be really political. And the people who tend to– I see stick around, the longest have the least controversy, do well, get promoted, move through the ranks, are the people who don’t engage in the small stuff, people who keep their eye on the bigger picture and are not– you’re not going to love everybody you work with, by far. But you are expected to figure out a way to work together, and get along, and not worry so much.

You know, as a kid, and I carried this with me until I learned it much later in my career, I was always so terrified of what everybody else was thinking about me. I was thinking about what I would say in terms of how you were going to respond to it, as opposed of thinking about what I wanted to say, and what I thought, and what I felt would be a contribution. I was always trying to figure out what the person across from me wanted to hear. And I think we shortchange ourselves when we don’t go in and say– and especially, you know, there’s a lot that imposter syndrome, and people feeling like I’m somewhere that I don’t belong.

And I would say– and it has been true in all of my 30 years out of Northwestern, you are where you are because you deserve to be there. You’ve got there. It wasn’t a fluke. You know what I mean? I always felt like I was doing well despite myself, not because of myself. And especially for women, too, confidence is not cockiness.

Confidence is not being the loudest voice in the room. Confidence is something we all should have because we’ve done things that have gotten us to a great place. We can do great things, but we have to trust ourselves, and own our stories, and really not be worried about impressions all the time and putting on a face.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: And you exemplify owning it to me. Like, I’m just hearing– I’m scribbling down all these notes because it’s such great advice– having this confidence, trusting yourself, and really owning who you are and not thinking about what other people are thinking.

LISA SMITH: I have a lot of people in the workplace, all through my career, or certainly by the time I was 10 years out of law school or something, that people would say, I don’t feel like I belong. I’m nervous to speak. And I’ve got to be in this meeting, and so-and-so’s gonna be there. And I’m not going to feel comfortable saying it. And what I always would tell people is, you’re in that room for a reason. People don’t land in that room by accident. You have a seat at the table because you should be sitting at the table. And that’s a really easy thing to forget.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, especially when you’re anxious and you’re thinking about all these different things, come back to, you’re here for a reason.

LISA SMITH: You’re here for a reason. You’re here because this is the place you’re supposed to be right now. You punched your ticket. You earned it. You get to own it.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Yeah, we’ve uncovered so many great bits of advice throughout your story, and I just want to thank you so much for sharing, and owning it, and for being here with us today. So thank you again.

LISA SMITH: Thank you so much. I’m really honored, and it’s a privilege to be here.

CASSIE PETOSKEY: Thank you for tuning into today’s episode of Northwestern Intersections. To find more information about the podcast, please visit northwestern.edu/intersections. Have a great rest of your day, and Go, Cats.

5 Tips to Climb the Corporate Ladder in Sobriety


The lessons of recovery can help you meet your goals and get your career where you want it to be

by Lisa Smith

Before I got sober, I thought my career was all it could be. I worked in business development at a law firm in New York City, I had recently received a generous raise and bonus, and I had fantastic colleagues. Never mind that the reason I worked in business development, as opposed to actually practicing law, was that after I’d been a capital markets lawyer for five years, my drinking had gotten to the point where I couldn’t handle the responsibilities of becoming a more senior lawyer.

The next level of practicing law would have meant taking on more responsibility, supervising teams of junior lawyers, and shining in front of clients, all of which were exciting prospects to my colleagues at the firm. These functions, however, required a level of both commitment and presence that I was unable to muster. At that point, my drinking and numbing out left me barely able to handle the long hours of the much less challenging junior-lawyer work to which I was accustomed. I had also drank my self-confidence away, so I was sure that even if I wanted to advance, I would fail.

Constantly beating myself up about not being able to cut back my drinking did that to me. On a daily basis, I was either hungover or obsessing about getting home to a glass of wine. So I jumped out of practicing without thinking twice. I landed in a solid place, but I would languish there. When I got sober eight years after making that professional shift, I kept my status to myself in the office. I was afraid of the stigma of addiction to drugs and alcohol.

I had always been one of the bigger drinkers in the office, but law firms are full of big drinkers, so I didn’t stand out in particular. If people knew that I had gotten sober, though, I would be under a microscope. What would they think of me if I relapsed? I didn’t need that kind of pressure, especially in the early days. It was no one’s business but my own. When anyone asked why I wasn’t drinking at a firm function, I told them I had started taking medication I couldn’t combine with alcohol. No one asked the next question about what kind of medication. And this story had the benefit of being true. I was taking antidepressants, as I still do today.  

The first few months were shaky. I was still figuring out basic things, such as how to take my clothes to the dry cleaner without having a drink first. Walking home from the subway station after a full day of work without being sucked into the vortex of the corner bar was a major achievement. Getting to the next step in my career was not exactly a priority.

But a funny thing happened as I started taking in more of what recovery had to offer. The same tools I was learning to avoid reactivating my standing weekly order at the local liquor store, a case of Yellow Tail Cabernet and a giant bottle of Absolut Citron, started helping me perform better at work. And by “performing better” I mean showing up on time, focusing on what was in front of me, and learning how to handle situations that I used to drink over.

The same tools I was learning to avoid reactivating my standing weekly order at the local liquor store, a case of Yellow Tail Cabernet and a giant bottle of Absolut Citron, started helping me perform better at work

I always had been good at understanding the expectations of my job and making sure that I executed projects well. But I also had been strictly reactive, dealing only with what came across my desk. No one ever asked more from me and I certainly had not been offering to go the extra mile. Without a brutal morning hangover or a need to duck out for a drink at lunch, I was able to launch proactive initiatives, like developing new ways to reach out to clients, instead of just struggling through whatever I had to accomplish before I could head to happy hour.

Ten months into sobriety, I accepted a next-level job at another firm. I told neither firm about my recovery at that point. Again, it was no one’s business but my own. But I knew that my climb up the corporate ladder, which continued from there, was only possible in sobriety.

I knew that my climb up the corporate ladder, which continued from there, was only possible in sobriety.

If you’re thinking about your career at this point, which like everything else is secondary to your recovery, you may find these tips helpful:

1. Own What You’re Capable of and Use It.

Unless you’re committed to the concept of reincarnation (which I like to believe in), this is your time. Is there a promotion you want? A different job? A total career change? Think about it. Then work on it, the same way you work on your recovery. You didn’t get sober to be miserable. Once we stop drinking and using, we regain the ability to make choices in our lives. I never imagined I could have anything more or different than what I had already. I’m not saying sobriety will enable you to do anything—I guess I’ll never have a baby with Mick Jagger—but I learned I had a lot of other dreams that went from being completely impossible to potentially attainable. Before I got sober, I would sit on a barstool and slur, “I’m gonna write a book.” In recovery, I wrote a book.

2. Accept What You Can’t Control.

Yes, maybe the other person up for that big promotion got it, when you felt you deserved it. You can dwell on it, drink over it, or accept it and figure out how best to go forward. If you pick the third option, you can plot your next move. Should you talk to your boss about how the next promotion might be yours? Should you consider a transfer to another department or a move to another company altogether? Should you run off with your favorite barista and start a coffee shop in Tahiti? If you’re willing to accept what can’t be changed, you can figure out what can be and plan a course of action. It’s a lot better than rotting with resentment or complaining about it with a wine glass in your hand.

3. Take Mental Pauses.

Early in recovery, I heard people say that 10% of life is what happens and 90% is how we react to it. We all have situations at work that make us want to burn the place down (yeah, I know that that’s not just me). When I would react in the moment, perhaps firing off a passive aggressive or openly hostile email, I would often come to regret it. In my paranoid, shaky, and hungover state I took everything personally and felt the need to respond immediately to what I perceived as incoming attacks.

In recovery, I have learned, much to my surprise, that it’s not all about me. The things people do and say in the office (or anywhere) often have nothing to do with me personally. I need to take a break and think before responding, not after. It’s a concept sobriety taught me called, “restraint of pen and tongue” and it’s a gift in the workplace. The way I’ve heard it put is to ask three questions: 1) Does it need to be said? 2) Does it need to be said by me? 3) Does it need to be said by me right now? When the answer to any of those questions has been no, I have benefited from not reacting immediately to something that would have set me off before I got sober.

4. Don’t Get Sucked Into Office Drama.

Office politics are dangerous. They can be more “Game of Thrones” than “Parks and Recreation.” When I was drinking, I spent many nights at the bar getting pulled into the quicksand of backstabbing, alliances, and other people’s agendas. When the gossip flowed as freely as the chardonnay, I jumped in because I wanted to be liked. Trading in office dirt was an easy way to do it, but I never felt good about it the next day.

Recovery taught me to keep the focus on myself and not to worry about people-pleasing with everyone else. In fact, I learned that what other people think of me is none of my business. It’s what I think of myself and my actions that counts. Now I have boundaries I can bring to the workplace. Want me pick up cupcakes for the birthday of the lady I know stole my black cherry yogurt from the office refrigerator last week? OK, I’ll do it to be a team player. But want me to join in with colleagues to undermine someone else, whether or not I think they deserve it? I’ll take a pass. Not taking the low road keeps my head in a good place which is critical to keeping me sober and performing well at work.

5. Accept That You Deserve To Succeed.

This was a tough one for me to get my head around. My drinking and drug use left my self-esteem somewhere at the bottom of a recycling bin full of empty wine and vodka bottles. Slowly, though, through doing the work of recovery, I realized I wasn’t the worthless loser I had believed myself to be. And I realized that getting sober is a big fucking deal. I began taking credit for making the change and believing in myself. You should do the same. Own the fact that you are a badass, you deserve to succeed, and you are up to whatever challenge lies ahead.

I realized that getting sober is a big fucking deal. I began taking credit for making the change and believing in myself. You should do the same.

And, let’s be honest. When climbing the corporate ladder, at least in the legal industry, we are competing with men for the best projects and the biggest promotions, not to mention equal pay. I have yet to meet the man who doesn’t come at these situations firmly believing he has every right to be there and every right to get to the next level. If we don’t do the same, we put ourselves at an instant disadvantage. Next time you close an important sale or get something else big at work done, when someone commends you for it, don’t say, “Oh, it wasn’t so big,” or, “I got lucky.” Say, “thank you. I worked really hard on that.”

Again, you didn’t get sober to be miserable. You also didn’t get sober to sell yourself short. Go crush it out there because you deserve it.