A Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Trip to Rock Bottom and Back

There are two primary outcomes in a desperate struggle with addiction. The first is to keep going until you die. The second is to get caught.

After roughly a year and a half of active addiction to cocaine, Chuck Ramsay appeared to have decided upon the first. He looked in the mirror, admitted to himself he had a problem, but didn’t know how to keep living without coke. So he decided he would just keep using – keep using coke until he died.

“I just loved the feeling.”

Then, abruptly, his life veered toward the second outcome: Ramsay was caught for using coke inside the courthouse while representing a client facing a felony charge. This was 2009. In 2010, Ramsay faced disbarment—fortunately the Minnesota Supreme Court opted for a 90-day suspension—but in 2011, just one year later, despite the arrest, the night in jail, the professional discipline, the shame and discredit he brought upon himself and the profession, Ramsay was an “Attorney of the Year” in Minnesota Lawyer.

In short, Ramsay went from loving cocaine to loving himself (and others) more than the feeling coke gave him, which turned out to mean everything in his recovery.

Falling in Love with Cocaine

It starts with a feeling.

“I absolutely loved it,” Ramsay said. We sat across from each other at Claddagh Coffee (for the Irish, the Claddagh ring represents love, loyalty and friendship) on West 7th in St. Paul, Minnesota, two mugs of coffee between us on the table. Ramsay’s no-bones admission: “I just loved the feeling.”

This feeling—Ramsay refused to describe it, refused to glamorize it—is euphoria. Cocaine is a stimulant, an “upper.” Ramsay was 18 his first time, after a high school grad party in the 1980s, and the feeling latched itself to him.

Then followed two decades of occasional use before the feeling got stronger, led to what Ramsay called his steep decline, and he began to use more and more often, in greater and greater amounts, until he found himself in a courthouse with his hands behind his back, cuffed. By then, cocaine had become his performance enhancer. Cocaine made him a super lawyer. So much so that Ramsay was plowing through grams of coke on the day of his arrest, soldiering on, winning another favorable result for another client.

The prosecutor, however, noticed his mood swings. Someone saw Ramsay leaving the restroom, sniffing and pinching his nose. In came the drug dog. They found cocaine residue on a table and in his briefcase. Earlier, Ramsay had yelled at the bailiff because there were no conference rooms available. Ramsay thought they were interfering with his ability to meet privately with his client. “I was oblivious,” he said. In reality, the authorities were busy gathering evidence against him.


Ramsay didn’t have a clue he’d been caught until the moment of his arrest.

By then Ramsay had roughly a decade behind him in practice as a criminal defense lawyer. Ramsay had come to believe, that through sheer force of his will, he could govern the outcome of his cases. The facts didn’t matter. The evidence didn’t matter. He believed, not in God, but in Chuck Ramsay. He believed, like the egomaniac he said he was, in his power to guide the moon and stars.

So it was that Ramsay thought he could control his use of cocaine by setting ground rules.

“How the hell can I go on without using?”

“We are all terminally unique,” Ramsay said, referring to people who suffer from addiction but don’t quite know it yet. Addicts rationalize. They believe they’re different from everyone else, special, immune from disease. These ground rules were Ramsay’s immunization: He would use once a month, on the weekends only, never on a weekday.

You know what happens. One by one, those ground rules gave way, even those that weren’t explicit. Ground rules, perhaps a sign of addiction in themselves, weren’t enough to keep Ramsay from spiraling. He said, “If taking drugs in the courtroom helped me to be number one, I would’ve done it.” He paused, looking at me. “I did do it.”

Just as troubling was his “alien,” as he called it, the physical testament to the havoc coke wreaked on his body. Ramsay blew his nose in the shower and the lining of his sinuses fell out on the tile floor.

The alien looked like strips of raw bacon.

Losing Cocaine

“How the hell can I go on without using?” he asked himself after the arrest.

But in a case that marked the start of Ramsay’s period of active addiction, roughly a year and a half before the arrest, the client had been accused of taking part in the violent gang rape of a woman in her apartment. (Not that it should matter, from a criminal defense lawyer’s perspective, but Ramsay had reason to believe in his client’s innocence, which only added fuel to the fire.) On the eve of trial, the father of the client laid a hand on Ramsay’s shoulder and said, “I trust you, Mr. Ramsay. My son is in your hands.” To hear those words, to feel the hand on his shoulder, meant the loss of Ramsay’s power to guide the moon and stars, to control the outcome without breaking his ground rules.

On Sunday night, Ramsay put the finishing touches on the case, though he didn’t need to. He was prepared, but he felt he had to, wanted to, so he used cocaine to work through the night without sleep. The sun came up. Jumping from the desk to the shower, Ramsay stood under the water, exhausted, so he used again, and again at noon when he started crashing.

“I was honestly scared shitless that I would become this inferior attorney because I didn’t have cocaine ….”

Ramsay worked the case. Ramsay won the case. He went on to rack up several more wins. Win after win after win—all while on coke—proving to himself and everyone else that he was a super lawyer. “I took it seriously,” he told me. “I am a ‘super lawyer.’” But after the arrest came a much different thought: “I was honestly scared shitless that I would become this inferior attorney because I didn’t have cocaine,” he said, and worried he would promptly fall into a slump of mediocrity.

On the morning of our interview, I was nervous to meet Ramsay, knowing I’d sent him a number of very pointed, very personal questions about his struggle with addiction, which has surely been the seminal challenge of his life. Yet, as he reached out to shake my hand, I felt a certain calm energy. Right off he told me he didn’t want this story to be just about him. He told me he was doing this to help other lawyers struggling with the disease of addiction. “There’s a huge stigma,” he said, “both those addicted to alcohol and certainly those addicted to drugs. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s a disease. It’s a disease no different than cancer.”

Here lies the debate. Some people, even some addicts, believe addiction is not like cancer; choice is within the addict’s power, willpower will help one overcome. Others believe, like Ramsay, that disease is disease, worthy of both medical (and if the situation warrants it, spiritual) attention.

Ramsay appears to fall somewhere on both sides of this debate. I suspect that many addicts who have “come back” like Ramsay fall on both sides as well. Ramsay didn’t want this story to be about him, but this is one man’s life and no other’s, and to the extent it is a story about Chuck Ramsay, it’s also about all of us. Whether or not addiction is a disease, we are all susceptible in varying degrees, and we owe it to ourselves and to others to do our best to come back.

So it happened that the week of our interview marked the five-year anniversary of Ramsay’s arrest in 2009, and far from falling into a slump of mediocrity, it has been just the opposite for him. It turns out he never needed cocaine to be a super lawyer.

Learning to Love Yourself

Ramsay is in his late-forties now, and cocaine is still as much a part of him as it was at 18, though he hasn’t used since relapsing 10 months post-arrest. His worst vice these days is the Claddagh coffee. “I’m an addict,” he told me, and while the feeling Ramsay said he loved is no longer latched to him, recovery is a life-long process.

At first, he worried about his law practice — and whether he would have a license to practice at all. He worried about the two separate notices the court required he send to clients, one for the initial arrest and the other for the 90-day suspension. He also worried that recovery would change his personality, the essence of who he was.

“Addiction is the great equalizer. Humans are humans.”

As often as Ramsay mentioned cocaine during our interview, he also mentioned the person he used to be, with or without coke — his short fuse, his belief he could control everything and everyone around him, and the recurrent thought he had that he had to be “the best” at whatever cost.

Here is Laurel Dalrymple, writing for NPR in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from heroin: “Addiction is the great equalizer. Humans are humans.” To a greater or lesser extent, because we are human, we all have it — the potential for megalomania, the control issues, the fear and anxiety, the possibility of becoming addicted—to something, anything—and to forget or ignore the most important thing of all: to work on being better.

Ramsay told me that this is the big secret of recovery.

Kicking drugs and alcohol is just one part of learning how to be a better person. “If you only knew,” Ramsay said, “about all the lawyers and judges and prosecutors in treatment.” You might be, in other words, more likely to come forward. There is no need to come out and declare yourself an addict or alcoholic. Make a call to your jurisdiction’s version of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, which does not rat on those who call for help. (Indeed, the ethics rules in Minnesota make what you say to LCL privileged; check your local rules for guidance.)

As part of learning to be a better person, Ramsay knows that he is responsible for nothing but his day-to-day effort. He is not responsible for the outcome of a case, as much as he would like to control the outcome. Call it God’s plan. Call it a higher power. Call it whatever you want, but his job as a criminal defense lawyer today is less about Chuck Ramsay as it is about the people he defends.

Perhaps a piece of objective evidence speaks louder: Ramsay was among those bestowed with the “Attorney of the Year” honor in 2011 for his work on the Source Code Defense Litigation Team, which helped coordinate a massive attack on the government’s proof regarding breath tests in thousands of DWI and implied consent cases across the state. (Aside: Only two or three clients left Ramsay after he sent the court-ordered notices; many of Ramsay’s clients understand a thing or two about addiction, which is one—perhaps the salient—reason Ramsay handles mostly DWI-defense and implied consent cases today.)

As much as any honor or award stands as an objective indicator of success, it’s a testament to the fact that Ramsay, as he works to be a better person, makes of himself a better lawyer — certainly just as good a lawyer off cocaine than he was on it.

At one time Ramsay “absolutely loved” cocaine. Now it’s about drinking Claddagh coffee and sharing his experience with addiction, running marathons and doing Crossfit, practicing law, being a father to his children, and (yes) going to recovery meetings. And life, he told me, is “absolutely amazing.”

I believe him.

Featured image: “Cocaine” by Lee Morley is licensed CC. The image has been cropped.


  1. Avatar Matthew Salzwedel says:

    Chris, this is an excellent column on an difficult yet important topic. Another great quote Hoffman postmortem was by David Carr: “Addiction, whether you believe it is a disease or not, is a pirate, constantly on patrol and looking for a weakness so it can climb aboard.” I hope that this column reaches all the lawyers who know that they need to change their lives but, because of the grip addiction has on them, don’t feel that it’s possible.

  2. Avatar Tim Kulp says:

    Great story. While being an advocate for anyone’s interest can be difficult, criminal defense is uniquely stressful. No one comes in my office with a smile. You have to really love doing this and have means and methods in place to get away from it to recharge and relax. Thanks for sharing this success story. My best wishes to Ramsey in continuing along his path.

  3. Avatar qning says:

    Thanks for telling your story Chuck, and thanks for bringing it to us Chris.

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