Biglaw, Drugs

A Biglaw Associate’s Terrible Dilemma

The legal job market remains challenging, but there are some bright spots. As we reported on Friday, entry-level Biglaw hiring is up by almost 10 percent compared to last year.

Many law school students and graduates view working at a prestigious law firm as a cure-all. And it’s true that a starting salary of $160,000 is one of the best ways for law school grads to service six-figure debt loads.

But for some young lawyers, a Biglaw job is far from a panacea. The stress and long hours create new problems — problems that can be hard to solve while holding down a demanding law firm job.

Here is one associate’s very sad situation. What would you advise him or her to do?

We recently received this query in the Above the Law mailbag:

I’m an associate at a top-tier firm and a recent grad of T14 law school.

I need to go to rehab for a painkiller addiction. Around the same time I started work at the firm, I went from moderately heavy recreational use on weekends to what has become a 500 mg/day habit snorting pills from when I wake up to when I go to bed (pass out) — including at my desk and in bathrooms at my law firm. To give you a sense of what 500 mg means, when you have surgery for an ACL repair or labrum tear you tend to get 30 pills of Percocet (which is a combo of oxycodone and Tylenol) containing 5 mg of oxycodone each, for a total of 150 mg.

So it’s become quite clear that I need to go to rehab. I’ve tried stopping on my own — I’ve been able to be clean for a few weeks, but I can’t stay clean and I have yet to try rehab, so I have to do it.

My question is what do I tell work. According to my Google searches, going to rehab for substance abuse is a serious medical condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and thus technically I couldn’t be fired for coming clean about why I need to go away for at least four weeks and maybe more. But what do I tell the partners I work with? I thought about lying to the partners and fellow associates about why I need to go away for a while but being truthful with our human resources department.

I’d be curious to know if any of your readers have done this successfully — going away, getting help, and coming back to their jobs. If I can do a decent job while high out of my mind, I imagine I’ll probably be able to do an even better job sober — though maybe being numb is necessary for sanity when doing Biglaw grunt work.

This is a tough situation. My answer might depend upon how this person views their future at the firm.

If this person isn’t gunning for partner, but just planning to work at the firm for a few years before moving on, then honesty might be the best policy. Honesty will help in the recovery process, and the professional consequences of coming clean won’t be as dire.

If this person is still gunning for partner, that’s a tougher situation. Making partner is harder than ever, with even excellent and problem-free associates getting passed over, so admitting to this type of difficulty could seriously impair the person’s partnership prospects. (Yes, many Biglaw partners have substance abuse problems too, but they generally keep them under wraps, especially during the associate years.) If this person still aspires to partnership, then perhaps he or she should try to find help through channels short of inpatient rehab, such as therapy (group or individual).

Telling the truth to HR/Recruiting but not to the lawyers seems dicey. Take it from us here at ATL: Biglaw firms are hives of gossip. It’s likely that someone will tell; someone always does.

Readers, what advice would you offer to this associate? Have any of you left your firms for rehab, gotten the help you needed, and successfully returned to your Biglaw employment?

P.S. The ABA website helpfully offers a directory of lawyer assistance programs and a collection of national resources for lawyers struggling with different issues. Feel free to mention other resources in the comments to this post. Thanks.

Earlier: How Did The Law School Class Of 2013 Do In The Job Market?

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