Ethics Counsel on www.OKbar.org

A True Avocation

By Travis Pickens

Q & A with Clif Gooding

You have done a great deal of work through Lawyers Helping Lawyers and other organizations helping not only lawyers with addictions but also many others. What has drawn you to this work?

Nothing has been more important or satisfying to me in my 29 years of being an attorney than the work that I get to do on the LHL committee. My passion comes from my own experiences and understanding of the diseases of alcoholism and addiction. These are the most devastating illnesses and involve others in a way no other human disease can. With these diseases comes destruction of all the things worthwhile in a person’s life. They smother everyone whose lives touch the alcoholic or addict. Alcoholism and addiction breed resentments, financial ruin, broken homes, lost jobs along with the obliteration of families. If one of these sufferers can be rescued, then it is worthwhile. But mostly, I was drawn to this work because, at one point in time, someone cared enough about me to make the same type of effort. As a result, I received the gift of sobriety and believe it is my responsibility to pass it on.

The ABA estimates a larger percentage of attorneys are impacted by some form of substance abuse than the general public. Why are lawyers more susceptible to drug and alcohol addictions?

About 10 percent of the population are believed to be predisposed as alcoholics. I believe, because of the nature of our profession and the public’s scrutiny of us, that it may seem that way because, when an attorney gets in trouble because of alcohol or drugs, that more attention is drawn. Perhaps as a result, it may seem more are affected. I know that it generally starts earlier — college, law school: the competitive nature, the pressure to perform, the hard work, perfectionism demanded. A lot of pressure builds on individuals. They turn to an outlet.

I believe that as a result of job stress, difficult job market, client demands, etc., attorneys may look for relief. Sometimes that shows up in the wrong form, such as drugs and alcohol. As you know LHL deals with more than just alcohol and drug issues. We get a lot of calls with depression, job stress and other mental health issues. And in all these areas, we may see the presence of drugs and alcohol.
 
The numbers of lawyers using the services provided by LHL have risen over the past year. Do you think that means the problems are greater, or the awareness and willingness to seek help are greater?

I don’t believe the number of impacted lawyers has changed. I believe in the last few years because of a concentrated effort on behalf of the LHL committee, awareness has been raised. A good amount of that has come with the help and leadership of the Oklahoma Bar Association making LHL a priority. Those in our profession who are willing to be more open about their problem and have been willing to speak in the public forum have perhaps allowed more people to feel safe about coming forward. The stigma of the disease has been a huge reason people don’t want to seek help, which builds denial; and the horrible spiral of the disease continues.
 
What is the first thing you tell someone who is considering getting help?

Willingness is the key. Recovery is available for everyone. The trouble is that it’s not for all who need it, but rather for those who want it. When someone tells me they are willing, my first question is, are they willing to go to any lengths to stay sober? If they are, then they have the opportunity to be in recovery, provided they remain willing to maintain a certain simple attitude and are willing to work toward a solution that would be outlined for them.

What sustains someone fighting an addiction on a day-to-day basis?

You hit the nail on the head. Day to day. It has to be on a one-day-at-a-time basis. We don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow. They have to be where their feet are, in the here and now. There has to be a surrender and then a reliance on something greater than themselves. In many cases, that reliance is on a higher power — a spiritual solution. It is not our place or anyone’s place to dictate what that power is or is not, but upon the individual’s understanding of the power. Dr. Carl Jung described it in the “nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of men and women are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.”

You have a busy bankruptcy practice but speak to several lawyers and non-lawyers every day who check in with you. What keeps you inspired to help these lawyers and others?

You know, it is a true avocation. I believe, for me, that being an attorney is something I do between helping these individuals. The nature of my practice is such that it allows me the opportunity to be available to those who are in need. I have an incredibly strong staff and attorneys who get what I do. Many of the personnel in the system with whom I work are very accommodating when the need arises for me to be away, or out early. I am grateful that many of the judges around the state feel comfortable calling when they suspect there may be an issue with someone. But most of all I am blessed with a wife who through all of my difficulties, has stood by me and allows me to go and do whatever is necessary to help others. It’s what has been asked of me, and I don’t question it. I just always believe it will all work out.

Mr. Pickens is OBA ethics counsel. Have an ethics question? It’s a member benefit, and all inquiries are confidential. Contact him at travisp@okbar.org or 405-416-7055; 800-522-8065.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Jan. 12, 2013 -- Volume 84, No. 2.