I am an alcoholic. I have been an alcoholic for as long as I can remember, including while I was starting up my law practice the first time around. But I didn’t know I was an alcoholic until just a few years ago. After an unfortunate trip into the abyss, I am re-starting my solo practice. But this time, I am doing it sober.
What my practice used to be like
I got my license to practice law right at the beginning of the recession. My GPA was a bit saggy from having drunk my way through law school, and on top of that, the job market was shutting down almost entirely. I was on law review, I was an effective writer, and I could research and argue like a champ, but I could not find work as an attorney right out of school.
Like most alcoholics, I am adept at rationalizing. I convinced myself that it was normal for me to be stuck making the rounds as a contract attorney, doing document review, and bouncing from one depressing temp job to the next for two and a half years. Those jobs kept the bills paid — for the most part — while I tried to find work as an attorney. But after a couple years, I realized that my classmates were busy building skills, and that I wasn’t likely to get second looks for jobs unless I was developing those skills, too.
So I struck out on my own. I had taken a few pro-bono cases. I litigated a case to trial, handled other litigation, negotiations, and settlements, and I felt like I knew what I was doing.
What I had not yet developed was confidence. I was excited to start my own practice, and I loved the feel of running my own life for a change, but at my core I was afraid — of everything. I was afraid of opposing counsel. I was afraid of judges. I was even afraid of some of my clients. I was afraid I was committing malpractice and exposing myself to liability that I didn’t have money to cover, or on the verge of being disbarred.
Looking back, I realize my fears were unjustified, even if they were probably healthy. My fears focused me so that I was prepared and did a great job for my clients. But at the time, it felt like I was on the verge of ruin. Or of exposure as a fraud. As the clients became larger and more numerous, two things happened:
- I began to act like I thought high-powered, wealthy lawyers acted; and
- I began to use alcohol far more easily and often to relieve the fear that accompanied everyday lawyering.
In reality, these were just ways to avoid the fear that I was a small, inexperienced, incompetent person who had been allowed to practice law without oversight. Unfortunately for me, as my practice and income grew, so did my countervailing perceptions of my responsibility and inexperience.
Then — eleven months into my full-time solo practice — I landed my first big client. It was an out-of-state business being sued in both state and federal court (by different parties, on different contracts), which needed someone to direct the defensive litigation. I was billing hourly at a good rate, I had a client who was willing to pay for me to pull out all the stops, and I felt like this was my big break into the world of busy, important litigators.
Of course, my relative inexperience was still eating at me throughout this process, and on the larger of the two claims I was up against a major firm, which was something I had not yet learned to ignore.
Drinking my stress away
As my workload increased, the stress and the fear became more problematic, and my drinking escalated rapidly. By January 2011, I was regularly leaving my office between 11 and noon to go to one of my favorite watering holes for lunch — along with three or four beers. Conveniently, my favorite restaurant was one floor beneath my office.
I never actually got the shakes when I wasn’t drinking, but my anxiety would creep up on me around 10 each morning, eventually making me jittery, which made a convincing case for drinking it out of my system. My big client’s payments were covering all my living and work expenses, which provided a handy excuse to shirk my marketing plan and use that time for “networking” (read: drinking with other attorneys) and other forms of stress relief. I got to the point where I was able to pay all my bills on a few hours of work per day, spending the rest of the day on whichever escapist leisure activity suited me at that point. Usually, drinking.
By that point, my wife knew that my drinking was causing problems. When my initial attempt at drying out was unsuccessful, she decided to visit her brother in Seattle for a month just to get away from the volatility I brought home every day. There was no violence, and nothing for which I would have gotten in legal or professional trouble, but I had become entirely unpredictable. I would come home whenever I decided to wander out of the bar, and I brought my fear and anxiety and frustration along wherever I went.
I did not take the situation lightly. When my wife decided to leave for a month, I was terrified and grief-stricken. I could not fathom how we had arrived at that point, but I could not see any way out of my situation. But I was sure of two things: I did not have a drinking problem, and my wife just didn’t understand what I was enduring.
I joined Alcoholics Anonymous at that point, in a desperate bid to save my marriage by looking for help from a group of people about which I knew almost nothing. Initially I went in looking for ways to distinguish myself from these people, because I knew that I didn’t want to be an alcoholic. Alcoholics have terrible lives, and I didn’t want a terrible life.
I learned later that I was mistaken; alcoholics can have wonderful lives, so long as they aren’t drinking and are living a sober lifestyle.
My first attempt at sobriety lasted 174 days, just shy of six months. On day 175, I had a severe case of the “screw its,” which is what an alcoholic says just before he or she makes a bad decision. I had decided I wasn’t an alcoholic, and had convinced my sponsor of that fact, as well. That says a lot for my powers of rationalization and manipulation, but not so much for my honesty and integrity — at that point, anyway.
Throughout the fall of 2011 and into the beginning of 2012, I was back to drinking. My wife still didn’t like it, but she didn’t go on strike from the relationship entirely. We spent Christmas apart, but we were still approximating a couple. (She may differ with me on that last point. Since I was mostly crazy back then, she probably has a more-accurate memory.) As 2012 began, my drinking and spending continued spiraling, and I was rarely in my office in the afternoons. I had a friend I regularly met at the bar in the afternoons, and we drank together until just before dinnertime. I was regularly spending $30–$60 per day on alcohol and food. And although my beverage of choice was good beer, I had started moving into stronger cocktails, like gin and tonics, martinis, and scotch.
Suddenly (to me), a confluence of events occurred that removed from me any doubt that I had a drinking problem:
- My clients all dried up,
- I lost my office,
- My wife and I filed for bankruptcy, and
- My wife decided to move out and live on her own.
Well, shit. I suppose that’s what happens when everything else takes a back seat to drinking and fleeing from life. As terrible as that time was, it provided me with the wake-up call I needed. I knew I was in a bad place, and I knew needed to take action if I ever wanted to regain some sense of purposeful living.
What my practice is like now
It took me another year and a half of trying, stumbling, getting up, and trying again before I found the willingness and inspiration to commit to sobriety. I moved in with my parents and took a part-time cashier job at Home Depot making $7.85 per hour because I did not have a reliable-enough income to pay for anything. If you ever need a good dose of humility, take an entry-level customer service job that doesn’t pay enough to allow you to buy gas for your car and gas for your Soda Stream. (For the first six months, my parents were the ones paying for my gas as well, because I couldn’t even afford that much.)
Throughout that rebuilding period, I continued to take legal jobs when they appeared. And when I didn’t have enough paying work, I took pro bono work to keep building my skills and being useful. Eventually (around month 9 of sobriety), my head cleared fully and I was able to fully re-commit to taking regularly all of the actions necessary to sustain and build my practice again.
Having worked hard on addressing my fears and feelings of inadequacy, and continuing to work on doing the next right thing, small tasks that had become impossible began to fall into place again. I was finally able to answer the phone again. I was able to send email to clients that might say something they didn’t want to hear. I was able to provide realistic projected outcomes. I was able to assert that my service was valuable and worth paying for. My confidence was restored (or “stored,” I suppose, given that I never really had any in the past). I was finally able to take events as they came, address them as appropriate, and then move on to the next item — knowing I had given my best effort to the situation.
I am now approximately three months into the rebirth of my practice, and feel that I am practicing with a clear head for the first time. Living and working without alcohol or other avoidant behaviors is a fantastic experience. I love my job more than ever, and am reminded daily of why I practice and how much I love walking clients through the often-emotionally-erratic territory of dispute prevention and resolution.
When I feel fear or anxiety begin to rise, now, I pay attention to those indicators that something is out of balance and needs addressing. Sometimes, this is based on how others are (mis)treating me, while at other times it is indicative of setting unrealistic expectations for myself or committing myself to a client’s plan of action with which I fundamentally disagree.
Living sober requires alignment of my values, beliefs, and skills, and attention to my intuition — both in and out of my practice. I have also become far more patient with others and myself. I now know that it is okay not to know how to do everything; what is important is that I can use my resources to determine the proper paths forward and execute them.
Occasionally, I still have a day where my sole accomplishment is staying sober, and I have learned to accept that, because if I lose my sobriety, everything else goes with it (including my wife and cats, with whom I am again living). Over the last three months, my client base and income has continued to increase month over month. My schedule became busy enough that I was unable to maintain my Home Depot job and needed to focus solely on my practice.
I am now considering joining forces with other attorneys to further expand the practice while focusing in on my litigation practice. I have paid off nearly all my outstanding debts and am optimistic about my future. I am currently awaiting the arrival of my new car. Each day I wake up looking forward to what the day holds. Sobriety has made me happier than at any other time in my life. I can live without fear of the unknown or insecurity about my abilities to perform.
Today is day 348 of the rest of my life, and I know it will only be better tomorrow.