When I spoke to the National Conference Of Bar Presidents in Vancouver, one of the weaknesses in our profession I noted was our often reluctance to say something when we see a colleague struggling. We don’t want to butt in. We are afraid we might be wrong. We are worried about causing a scene. Ruining a personal or professional relationship. There are a myriad of reasons to stay silent instead of risking that you might be right. I wonder how many times a lawyer looked at my friend and law colleague Gary and said nothing as he struggled. I know I did not do or say enough.
Summer 2013: A muggy, hot morning headed over the 100-degree mark, not unusual for a Dallas summer. I’m taking my usual drive to my favorite Starbucks.
I drive past the same bus stop every day. To the average commuter, the bus stop had nothing to set it off from any other. Just one more city hub with people waiting to go to different parts of their lives: jobs, family, shopping. This particular bus stop always catches my attention, because to me it symbolizes more. I know it as a way-station for those in various stages of drug and alcohol recovery and descent. The apartment complex across the street houses many recovering addicts. It’s cheap (by Dallas standards) and within walking distance of a local AA group. The bus line also takes people close to several sober-living homes. Different stories from all walks of life confirm that addiction does not discriminate.
This morning, I see one such story with whom I’m intimately familiar standing at the bus stop. It’s my old colleague, Gary, waiting for the bus. Also a lawyer, Gary has an undergraduate degree from Boston College, summa cum laude, near the top of his class at Antioch School of Law, and then on to a great sports-related job with NBC in New York City. He wasn’t just a lawyer; he was a distinguished lawyer
I’d met Gary in 2003 (four years before I got sober) when we both worked of-counsel to a local Dallas general practice firm. At the time, I was trying to hold my life together between addiction, failed marriages, and an eating disorder. While the reality is that there is no such thing as a “high functioning lawyer’ when addiction is concerned, I had bought in being one. Being “high-functioning” was a blessing and a curse. In my mind, I needed no help despite the daily snorting of cocaine in the bathroom of the firm or on my office desk. It provided just the pickup I needed sometimes, and it all made perfect sense to me. I viewed my law firm bathroom/coke breaks as a performance enhancer that would allow me to do my job better. To make me a more confident attorney, if only for a few moments.
I tried a case with Gary — a bench trial contract matter. It was the last time I’d appear in court to litigate a case. Sober and brilliant, Gary ran the show. I admired his skill, but didn’t envy him. Being in the courtroom made me sick to my stomach. A sickness only alcohol and cocaine could cure. I couldn’t wait to be done with trial. But Gary was truly talented, and he knew exactly what he was doing. We had a good result.
Then Gary disappeared. He’d done so sporadically over the years since I first met him. I knew what that meant. Gary would go through stretches of stellar representation of his clients, and then there’d be periods of complaints of neglect, and even rumors that he’d show up to client meetings apparently high. Then an arrest on an outstanding warrant in the middle of a court hearing. Doing what so many lawyers do when dealing with problem drinking or drugs issues. Avoiding dealing with them until the consequences catch up to the problem.
On this day, Gary doesn’t see me drive by him at the bus stop. He’s staring at the ground, just waiting. I’ve called him recently and noticed that his voicemail was full. I know what that means. I suspect many addicts and their families know what that means. Gary has “gone out.” He’s not sober.
I pull a U-turn so I can drive up alongside and offer him a ride. He gets in. He’s been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and is headed to the transitional living sober home where he’s a resident. The only thing standing between him and living on the street.
After he gets in the car, Gary asks if I know he’s been disbarred. I’d seen it in the local legal periodical. As often happens with lawyers and addiction, some money due to his clients never made it to them. State Bars take a dim view of stealing from clients, and addiction is no excuse. It’s a surprisingly common story, and there’s an unsurprisingly common explanation from Gary. It’s all a big mistake, he claims. He’s lost everything, but he’s still in denial, still trying to cling to a reputation that was far in the past long before news of his disbarment broke in the legal periodicals. I don’t say anything in response to Gary’s excuses. I understand. I was once full of them.
On the way to the transitional home, we stop at a diner, and I buy Gary lunch. We talk about nothing in particular. We’ve previously spoken many times of relapses, failed stints in rehab, going to AA meetings together, and “one day at a time.” What more can I say to him? The feeling of helplessness so many trying to help know so well.
Then, as I drop him off, he makes a request. Just a few bucks, he says, “until I get back on my feet.” For a few months, it becomes our routine. The bus stop. The drive. The excuses. The money. I just listen to what Gary has to say.
Then one day, he’s gone again. I give him a call, and his voicemail is full again. I worry. I check with the sober house, and he’s no longer there. He’s tested positive for drugs and has been kicked out. He’s gone. Onto the streets.
July 2013: My cell phone rings. A 516 area code — Long Island, where some of Gary’s family lives. It’s Gary. He’s moved back home. Maybe he’s thinking that returning to family and roots will save him. I’d had the same experience, if only instinctively, when I moved from Pittsburgh to Dallas to live with my brothers. If recovery were only that simple.
He also tells me he’s sober and working as an attorney — he’s licensed in New York. I bite my tongue. Am I ethically bound to say something about his disbarment in Texas to the State Bar of New York? I struggle with the conflict between my view as a lawyer and as a person in recovery. It’s not my recovery. It’s his. I congratulate Gary on the progress he’s made.
November 2013: I recently appeared on the Katie Show, a now off-the-air talk show featuring Katie Couric, to talk about my battle with body dysmorphic disorder, and of course that includes my recovery from addiction. I’m now preparing for a “watch party” at a local restaurant.
I get a Facebook message from Gary. The message is cheerful and includes a photo of a plane ticket to Dallas for the watch party.
It’s the last time I hear from him.
The message comes from his ex-wife, and the Google explosion of his name tells the story. At age 54, Gary has been fatally struck by a tractor trailer. He was walking along the middle of the highway when it happened. It’s unknown whether he’d been drinking, but it doesn’t matter. He’s gone. He never “got it” in recovery. It’s not that he didn’t want it. He tried. He tried every day.
One piece of encouragement. One kind word. One life empowering moment can light that path up. Your friend, family member, legal colleague, or fellow law student. Find the words. Take the risk. They are waiting for your support and empathy.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.