Author/attorney Lisa Smith to detail story of addiction and recovery at Dec. 2 solo and small-firm event
In the fall of 2014, Lisa Smith walked into the offices of the New York City law firm where she worked and informed her superiors that she once had a serious alcohol and substance abuse problem, and she was about to talk about it publicly everywhere she could.
Smith had just secured a book deal for her memoir, a harrowing account of her struggles with drinking and addiction while she was working at another law firm. She knew that going public with her story might result in some pushback at work, but she was looking to fight back against the secrecy and stigma that surrounded the legal industry and addiction.
“Some people said to use a pen name,” she recalled. “But I knew if I want to do some good with this and I want to help the next person, I have to own it.”
As it turned out, her law firm gave her their full support. Smith’s book, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, was published last year, and she spends much of her time now talking to lawyers and other audiences about the secret she kept for so long. She’s also the deputy executive director at her firm.
Smith, a New Jersey native and a Rutgers School of Law graduate, will be the lunchtime keynote speaker on Dec. 2 at Proven Practice Management Strategies for Solo and Small-Firm Attorneys, a daylong program to be held at the New Jersey Law Center by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). The day’s agenda is packed with practical tips on subjects like technology tools, social media use, insurance, data security, billing practices, and more. Education credits are available.
Solo and small-firm attorneys comprise the vast majority of New Jersey’s lawyers, and the New Jersey State Bar Association has made programming for that population a priority this year.
As Smith put it, solo and small-firm attorneys “have the whole weight of running the business on their shoulders, in addition to the practice of law, which is stressful enough,” she said. “They also have to be a small business owner.”
A 2016 national study of lawyers surveyed nearly 13,000 practicing attorneys and found that 21 percent of them qualified as problem drinkers. That’s twice the rate of incidence as the general population, according to Smith.
“The profession attracts overachievers, really driven people,” Smith said. “And that can frequently make for people who can get very focused and intense. That kind of intensity can get applied to someone’s drinking, which really ends in trouble.”
Also, the round-the-clock nature of the job can be stressful, “especially if you are a sole practitioner and there’s no one else to back you up. Client demands are 24-7, you’re never disconnected from your device…it is a huge impact.”
And finally, there’s the shame and the stigma. So much so that even when Smith decided to get help, she decided against inpatient rehabilitation because she didn’t want her firm to find out.
She notes that as far as she knows, no one at her old job was aware of her issues. “I was managing to keep up with my work and get everything in and nobody looked at me twice,” she said. There’s a lot of aspects of lawyer life—crazy hours, messy offices—that allow you to hide addiction, she said.
But now she talks about it whenever she can. And she often gets messages from people, via email or social media, asking for advice, asking if they might have a problem. “I respond to everybody,” she said. “It’s really kind of important to me. I do feel like it has helped people.”