When words such as “vice” and “temptation” are thrown about in conversation, comical pictures of the proverbial angel and devil sitting on the shoulders of the “temptee” may come to mind. The angel whispers sweet reminders of goodness while the little devil prods happily with promises of “it’s just this once” or “you will feel better.” The list of vices, if not endless, it is at least long. Virtue-based ethics revolves around “being and becoming a good, worthy human being.” (Northouse, 2018). People can be virtuous but that does not make them perfect. Likewise, a person can have a vice but not be completely imperfect.
Regardless of the shape a vice takes, at its core it is a trait or characteristic that makes one more likely to commit ethical violations. (Generally, we may believe pleasure is the goal: perhaps, a well-dressed man casually enjoying drinks after work as he makes conversation with an equally well-dressed woman in a nice restaurant. One may be less likely to envision that same man and woman in the very same restaurant, as he begs her to not order one more for the road. It is even less likely that you might envision the same woman the next morning, hungover at a desk in a corner office, signing off on a stack of documents without reading them so that she can make it to “lunch” at the bar down the street.
The practice of law is stressful – burnout is an occupational hazard. Burnout is a dysfunctional response to prolonged chronic and interpersonal stressors on the job. (Maslach, C., Shaufeli, W.B., & Leiter, M.P., 2001). Individuals who burnout eventually withdraw psychologically from their jobs, sometimes withdrawing physically as well. (Leiter & Maslach, 2004; 2005). Much of the time, people suffering burnout feel isolated and begin to feel badly about their job, the situation, themselves, and other people. If you have ever experienced burnout you recognize the signs: feeling emotionally and physically worn out, constant worry, irritability, cynicism, feeling hopeless, and most of all just wanting to leave work. . . forever. Most people cannot afford to leave work forever, so they choose instead to find some other way of coping. In 2016, The Florida Bar News published some rather startling statistics. A comprehensive study of almost 13,000 attorneys revealed that more than twenty percent of licensed attorneys “drink at levels that are considered to be ‘hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent.’” Lawyers under the age of thirty reported the highest drinking problem (31.9%). (Fla. Bar. News, March 15, 2016). Two years later, it isn’t getting better. In the January 2018 issue of The Florida Journal, an attorney recounted her morning routine of drinking wine and taking illegal drugs while getting ready for work. She described how her, “hours were odd,” “office was a mess,” and how she “frequently worked from home.” The author also discussed how most law firm related events involved alcohol. She eventually checked herself into a detoxification program and got help.
Also, in January 2018, The Florida Bar Journal published, “Florida Lawyers Assistance: Saving Lives and Legal Careers,” which included personal stories of attorneys who had developed alcohol and/or other substance abuse problems during their practice – including one who attended Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for the sole purpose of getting sober long enough to plan and successfully execute his suicide. He found help as well.
While stories of the pain suffered by these individual’s as they turned to alcohol and drugs to dull the pain are heartbreaking, there is also the very real ethical concerns of their conduct as officers of the court. One attorney admitted that he was so severely depressed that for months he avoided going to his office and neglected his clients. It is hard to imagine that anyone going to into the office after a breakfast of wine and cocaine can be said to have done his or her best work.
Temptations are “situational characteristics that create short-term motivations that can override larger goal-directed behavior.” (Fishback, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2003). For the lawyers who shared their stories in these articles, the temptation was often work-related events: happy hours, client dinners, networking events. Open bars are common for many events. Of course, for those with a predisposition to drinking, these events are especially difficult. Interestingly, some attorneys who have shared their struggles have shared that they drank rarely, occasionally or socially before they started to practice law. After hours, days, weeks, months, and yes, years, of constantly stressful work, adversarial conversations, families to take care of, mortgages to pay, relationships to manage, and a constant expectation to “win,” alcohol became a go-to way to dull the constant whirling.
This isn’t to imply that every attorney abuses alcohol or drugs – based on the statistics most attorneys do not. Neither has ever been a problem for me – I am much more likely to go for a walk, mediate, and then eat all the ice cream in my freezer before trying to go to sleep (a little balance is a good thing). But, I do not judge the attorneys discussed here as harshly as some might expect – the stress and temptations are real. A 2015 Florida Bar membership survey revealed that thirty-three percent of respondents considered high stress as a significant challenge. The same article listed out a few of the reasons and, just the continual 60-plus hour work weeks (not counting weekends,) in an adversarial and competitive world takes its toll.
It is difficult to work with high-functioning alcoholics – along with odd hours and messy offices, there may be outbursts of anger and other aggressive behavior. Unpredictability may also be a problem – whether it is what time s/he will show up or maybe whether s/he will show up all. Worse yet, there is the constant worry that s/he is hiding something that has or has not been done. The articles generally discuss the work-related concerns of attorneys who have given into the temptation of alcohol and/or drugs, but it is worth mentioning that ethical concerns are not always work-related. Stories of divorce, neglect of family obligations to have “one more for the road . . . again,” run through the lives of these men and women. Another thread that ran throughout: the darkness felt when they gave into temptation because they knew that any relief was fleeting. Equally as prevalent was the concern that while amid this spiral that they would/might/had violate the trust of clients and colleagues.
And, it is worth noting that not every attorney who has given into the temptation of alcohol or drugs has necessarily harmed clients and/or committed malpractice. It does, however, give rise to the question of what causes some people to give into temptation and indulge in whatever vice is theirs to bear – and how we and they handle the ethical questions and commitments that arise.
Fishback, A., Friedman, R.S., & Kruglanski, A.W. (2003). Leading us not into temptation: Momentary allurement elicit overriding goal activation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 296-309.
Maslach, C., Shaufeli, W.B., & Leiter, M.P., 2001, Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.
Maslach, C., Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry, World Psychiatry, 2016; 15(2): 103-111. Retrieved from http://ncbi.nlm.hih.gov.
Northouse, P.G., (2018). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Chapter 13. (8th ed.). SAGE: Thousand Oaks.
Pudlow, J. Young lawyer problem drinking on the rise: the traditional thinking was exactly the opposite. The Florida Bar News, March 15, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.floridabar.org/news/tfb-news/.
Smith, L. The Reality of High-Functioning Substance Abuse Among Lawyers. The Florida Bar Journal, January 2018, Vol. 92, No. 1. Retrieved from: https://www.floridabar.org/news/ftb-journal/.
Weinstein, S.M. Florida Lawyers Assistance: Saving Lives and Legal Careers. The Florida Bar Journal, January 2018, Vol. 92, No. 1. Retrieved from: https://www.floridabar.org/news/ftb-journal/.