Brian Cuban is a Dallas-based attorney, author and addiction-recovery advocate. He is a graduate of Penn State University and The University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Brian has been in long-term recovery from alcohol, cocaine and bulimia since April of 2007. His bestselling book, “The Addicted Lawyer: Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow, and Redemption,” examines how addiction and other mental health issues destroyed his legal career, and chronicles how he and others in the profession redefined their lives in recovery and found redemption. Brian speaks about addiction and related topics at law firms and legal events across the country.
People in every field must worry about the stigma associated with admitting they have a problem with drugs or alcohol and seeking support, but this seems to be an especially acute problem for lawyers. Why do you think that is?
For a number of reasons, lawyers who are struggling with substance abuse are often afraid to ask for help. They are dealing with multiple levels of stigma. First, there’s the societal stigma that anyone in this situation faces: the fact that many people continue to view addiction as a moral failing. If you admit to your partner, your family, your friends or colleagues, that you have lost control, the fear is that they will judge you. They will say, “Why can’t you just stop?” Of course, the definition of addiction is compulsive substance-seeking that continues despite predictable, harmful consequences. It is a condition, not a moral failing.
Second, you have the stigma that is particular to the legal profession. Lawyers are trained never to show vulnerability. In fact, and I say this tongue-in-cheek, we are trained to take advantage of weakness, not to show it. But the lynchpin of recovery is learning to show vulnerability, whether that’s in going to your Lawyer Assistance Program to ask for help, or starting therapy. The fear is having to be vulnerable in that space but also not trusting that the conversations will stay confidential. Fearing that the information will get out and that you will be judged and dismissed as weak by colleagues.
And finally there is the practical human fear: “If I take advantages of these resources, will my partnership track be screwed? Will I damage the career I’ve worked so hard to build?”
What do you think about the way “social drinking” plays such an important role in doing business and managing client relationships? Do you think the pandemic, with its focus on remote connections, has opened a space to change this practice and remove alcohol from the equation?
This is an important question because it reveals a misconception some people have about the role of alcohol. If a lawyer relieves stress by drinking, and he or she has mostly done that through social drinking with colleagues, the drinking is not going to stop just because the pandemic took away the opportunity to gather for drinks after work. People don’t stop drinking because the environment changes. That’s why it’s called problem drinking. In fact, we’ve seen a substantial increase in drinking and problem drinking during the pandemic. Law firms need to think about how to address that. They have to talk about the elephant in the room. They need to show interest in their employees’ well-being and ask how they are managing their stress while they are stuck at home. They need to be willing to have that conversation, and most, so far, are not.
What is the role of law firm leaders in changing this culture of silence and secrecy around substance abuse and asking for help?
Leaders have to move from systemic “band-aid” solutions to a person-centered approach on the individual level. A lot depends on the firm’s size. Big Law has the budget to put programs in place, stopgaps and touchpoints, to commit to the ABA Well-Being Pledge. And all these things are good and may encourage employees to seek resources and support.
But doing the big-picture stuff is not enough. Leaders also need to take responsibility for creating a humane environment for the individuals who work for them. I have been brought in many times as a speaker at large firms, and though my presence there should signal that the firm is taking well-being seriously, afterward I will receive messages from associates who say, “It’s all well and good to have these programs, but my managing partner is asking me to work 100 hours a week on a case that doesn’t have any real deadlines.” Leaders have to walk the walk too. This phenomenon can be even more pronounced in midsize and smaller firms that do not have the budget for programming. The managing partner’s number-one priority is providing excellent client service and protecting revenue. Profit margins are thin and attorneys are essentially commodified. If some attorneys can’t cope with what’s required, the leader will just replace them with others who can. That’s the mindset: Many leaders just don’t see the health and well-being of their employees as their problem.
What are some steps leaders can take to do better?
The most effective front line in any firm is their state’s Lawyer Assistance Program. This organization will come in and deliver education and programming for free, and all it costs the firm is an hour or two of their associates’ time. These organizations can guide leaders in setting this up and planning the kinds of talks that make the most sense for the specific audience. This is low-hanging fruit that requires no budget, so any firm, no matter how small, can do it. Raising awareness that these support programs exist is the most important first step.
At the same time, leaders need to understand that the problems don’t go away simply because you brought in someone to speak on substance abuse one time. The deeper work is creating a culture where lawyers actually believe their firms care about their well-being. This matters because it’s the right thing to do, but also because substance abuse impacts productivity and lawyer retention and client relationships, and all those things potentially cost the firm money.
It behooves all of us in the profession to take care of each other.
What are the most important things all lawyers, whether just starting out or leading a practice group or firm, can do to diminish the stigma around getting help?
For lawyers who are struggling themselves, they have to find a way to reach out to someone in a safe space, whether through the Lawyer Assistance Program, another kind of employee assistance program or simply a friend they trust, and say, “Here’s what’s going on. I’m concerned about what’s happening to me.” But it can be tough to have that level of self-awareness when you’re in the middle of it.
So equally important is the other side of that equation: Become the kind of person who is willing to be a trusted, nonjudgmental source of support. I recommend using what I call the Two-Ask Rule: First, you ask, “How are you doing?” Don’t ask “Are you OK?” because that has a stigma to it. The person who hears that may feel defensive: “Are you saying I’m not OK?” “How are you doing?” is more open-ended and allows a wider swath of responses. Second, you ask, “Do you know that if you want to talk I am here for you?” This question opens the door to trust.
The caveat is that this can’t be performance art. If you ask the question, you need to be ready to help. People know when someone isn’t being authentic, when the empathy is manufactured. Our bodies actually react differently to those signals. But if you are authentic and you follow the Two-Ask Rule, you have become a cog in the continuum of wellness. It may be four people down the line before the person is ready to talk. But the cumulative effect of people showing that authentic concern may be the thing that pushes that person to finally ask for help.