Depression and addiction can lead to disaster for lawyers

By Dan Heilman

Dolan Media Newswires

According to various studies, around one-quarter of the lawyers who face formal disciplinary charges are identified as suffering from addiction or other mental illness. Addiction is but one manifestation of mental illness that can easily strike in a high-stress profession such as law.

A recent program presented by Minnesota CLE focused on how lawyers are especially at risk for addiction and depression, and used as an example a prominent attorney whose alcoholism and gambling addiction led to prison time and nearly to suicide.

Michael J. Burke appeared with Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of St. Paul-based Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers to present "Stress, Trauma, Mental Health and Addiction in the Legal Profession."

The program used Burke's story to underscore the risk factors at play for the types of personalities that tend to gravitate toward practicing law.

"Lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to suffer from depression," said Bibelhausen. "We want to reduce the stigma about these issues--that's what stands in the way of getting help."

From drinking to gambling

Burke was once a successful Michigan attorney. Because his father moonlighted as the liquor control commissioner, access to alcohol was easy and plentiful, and Burke discovered he had "an incredibly high tolerance to alcohol."

He drank his way through college, but quit for his first year of law school--only to have the addiction return with a vengeance after that. After numerous benders and blackouts, his wife of 10 years confronted him about drinking problem, and he agreed to a 30-day treatment program.

In treatment, Burke learned about the concept of trading addictions--the process by which one recovers from one addiction only to replace it with another. His practice thrived with a roster full of fellow alcoholics, who, he said, "make great clients. Their lives are always a mess."

A business trip to Miami was accompanied by a day trip to a Bahamian casino--a trip whose details he didn't share with his family. Before long Burke had devoured several books about blackjack strategy, and learned how to "count" cards to increase his chances at the tables. After several trips to Las Vegas, he was rated as a high roller and was having casinos flying him out and offering free accommodations.

Every time he returned home, he would show his wife a wad of cash. But more and more often, the cash was coming from his own bank account to cover up his losses.

"The foundation of every addiction is built on lies," Burke said.

The 1994 opening of the Casino Windsor in suburban Detroit proved to be the turning point. Burke would sneak to the casino several times a week, feeding his addiction with regular cash gifts from a wealthy female client who hoped to have a romantic relationship with Burke. He said when he spurned the woman, she went to the Michigan State Bar Association, filed a grievance against Burke and threatened to sue.

Burke promised to pay her back, but the gambling continued until one day in 2000 when he found himself holding a pistol to his head.

"It was the single greatest feeling of my life," Burke recalled. "I knew I wouldn't have to face my family, my community, or my victims."

But knowing that suicide would only bring ruin to his wife and two daughters, Burke put the gun down and eventually realized that he needed help--after one last spree.

"In my last month of gambling I lost $600,000, and I don't remember being in the casino one time," he said. "I turned myself in to a lawyers and judges assistance program at Michigan Bar. My family had no idea what I'd been doing."

Lawyers at risk

Burke was arraigned on one count of embezzlement and was sentenced to three-to-10 years in prison along with having to pay $1.6 million in restitution to his victims.

Now, out of prison, Burke speaks to lawyers' groups about avoiding depression and addiction. His book, "Never Enough: One Lawyer's True Story of How He Gambled His Career Away," was published by the American Bar Association. All the proceeds from the book will go to Burke's victims.

When he speaks, Burke is never far from a sobering statistic:

* Two-thirds of compulsive gamblers will steal to gamble or to resolve problems related to gambling.

* One-in-five compulsive gamblers commits suicide, the highest suicide rate of any addiction.

* 7 percent of gamblers do 50 percent of the gambling.

* 75 percent of compulsive gamblers come from a substance abuse background.

"After a while, winning and losing no longer mattered," he said. "The only time they couldn't get me was when I was in front of that slot machine."

Stress and mental health issues are the leading triggers for depression and addiction, and lawyers are especially susceptible, said Bibelhausen. Part of the reason for that is because so much of practicing law requires not only that lawyers see issues as black or white, but that the lawyer be a natural pessimist. "Lawyers always look for what could go wrong," she said.

Stress and depression can deepen depending on a lawyer's practice area, she added. In business law, for instance, it's understood that lawyers are the ones who give bad news. "You're not helping develop the business, you're the one telling the owners what they can't do," Bibelhausen said. "You're seen as a roadblock--pure overhead."

Throw in the fact that lawyers are trained to be emotionally detached from stressful situations, and it's easy to see how they can find themselves in trouble. Lawyer probations from the Office of Lawyers' Professional Responsibility are related to psychological disorders 13 percent of the time; half of the currently open OLPR cases are based on client neglect and non-communication, and 23 percent are based on non-cooperation by lawyers.

"That's a depressed person who's not opening a letter, or someone who doesn't want to respond to people," Bibelhausen said. "It's not unusual for a lawyer to be gloomy and cynical. A lot of lawyers say half-jokingly, 'This is how we are.'"

Published: Mon, Mar 11, 2013