Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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How impairment affects both us as lawyers and our firms

Last week, I had the privilege of sharing the podium at a legal conference with Dr. Brian Forbes and Tiro Clarke as we discussed lawyer well-being issues and strategies. This week, I am turning the blog over to Tiro so that more of you can hear his wisdom.


“You need to take responsibility”. Such were the words of Jennifer, my assistant at the time, and although I had resented hearing the message, she absolutely nailed it. Telling me so took courage and perhaps more than a little accumulated frustration with my constant…..well, my constant irresponsibility. Jennifer did her best and stayed with me for as long as she could but eventually left to work elsewhere, and so did Shawna who followed, although Trina who was my next assistant wasn’t so fortunate. Trina ended up pretty much running the entire practice when I finally went completely missing in action. “Missing” isn’t entirely accurate. She knew where I was and actually made it possible for me to get the help that I so clearly needed. I couldn’t see it in the moment, but my alcoholism put an immense strain on everyone around me, no more so than on others at the office. For me as a sole practitioner at the time, that meant my assistant.
Addiction is insidious – it tells us that we don’t have it, while it progressively dismantles our lives with our full participation. Prior to being a lawyer and in the early years of practice I had always managed to “pull it off” – barely making a deadline, not being fully prepared for a matter but faking it, forgetting commitments but getting caught up enough at the last minute to survive the occasion at hand, and in the later stages even being under the influence while at work but being able to mask it (or so I thought). To my perception, alcohol was not detrimentally affecting my life. But alcoholism is progressive and as it got worse I stopped answering the phone at all, largely because many of the phone calls were from clients and other counsel who were looking for the deliverables which I had promised but failed to deliver. This put even more strain on my assistant, who had to face these disgruntled individuals. When I finally delivered a work product to a client, I didn’t feel that I could charge full value because I had taken so long to complete the work. My voicemail box became permanently full. I would disappear for hours at a time, certainly not working. Now my cash flow was suffering which affected my assistant even further as they worked hard to pay the bills and keep the practice afloat – not with me but despite me. The irony is that the more strain I put on my assistant, the more guidance they needed but the less I was there to provide that guidance and leadership. Similarly with clients, who look to us lawyers for leadership – it’s impossible to lead while absent.
I remember appearing before the Court of Appeal as a young lawyer to handle a situation where another lawyer in my firm had blown a filing deadline. I knew why the deadline had been missed, having watched my colleague struggle with his own demons. A few years later – certainly still during my drinking days - that lawyer died tragically in a single vehicle collision, late at night. Even that wasn’t enough to change my behaviour because I was too far into my own situation. As before, alcoholism told me that I didn’t have it.
In the end I got the help that I needed, but that would never have happened without Trina, who through sheer force of character held the practice together for the last stretch. When I emerged from detox in June of 2007, she was there to help with the rebuilding process. She still works with me and I am profoundly grateful to have her play such a large role in my professional and personal lives. I’m also still friends with Jennifer and Shawna, which speaks volumes about their character as well.
Impairment of any kind puts an immense strain on others around us, even as we convince ourselves that we’re not harming anyone. I have been incredibly fortunate that my assistants withstood that strain as well as they did and helped me to get better.