Drinking Problem Put Lawyer on Path to a Successful Practice

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Roughly 15 years ago, Hartford attorney Mary Alice Moore Leonhardt went out to lunch with a paralegal from her law firm. During the meal, the woman confessed that she had a drinking problem.

This was familiar territory to Moore Leonhardt, now 52, a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t taken a drink since November of 1987 and for years has had a practice that is in part focused on representing professionals with substance abuse problems. She helped the paralegal get involved with Alcoholics Anonymous, and after a while, the woman left her firm. Last Thanksgiving, however, she got a letter from the woman, thanking her for 15 years of sobriety, recounts the Connecticut Law Tribune, in an article reprinted by New York Lawyer (reg. req.).

Seeing people she has helped succeed in life is one of the high points of her job, Moore Leonhardt says. A number of those individuals are attorneys and judges—a recent survey found that some 15 to 18 percent of those in the legal profession have substance abuse issues, compared to 10 percent of the general population. She doesn’t know whether the number of attorneys with addiction issues is growing, but she says the number of those who are admitting they have a drinking problem and seeking help is definitely increasing.

About half of the attorney disciplinary cases involve substance abuse, according to Mark Dubois, chief disciplinary counsel for Connecticut’s Judicial Branch. Yet in Connecticut, as in a number of other states, lawyers who are able to come to grips with the fact that they have an addiction problem can usually get confidential help that allows them to continue practicing.

Moore Leonhardt was still a student at Suffolk University School of Law in Boston when she realized that her own drinking was a problem. After struggling to graduate, she went home and called a friend who was in Alcoholics Anonymous. For three months, she attended AA meetings almost daily.

“Like many alcoholics, it took me a while to remain sober and alcohol-free because I struggled with the idea that I was an alcoholic,” she tells the legal publication. “It took me a while to accept it.”

After working for another law firm for about 10 years, she started her own Hartford law firm in 1999. It focuses on employment law, and these days, when attorneys seek her help with a substance abuse problem, Moore Leonhardt refers them to Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. The group has chapters throughout the country. She herself has also started a business in Connecticut to offer confidential help to professionals in all fields.

Ironically, while substance abuse problems have destroyed a number of legal careers, her own alcoholism has been a plus factor for her:

“I have had extraordinary interactions with many special people in recovery over the past 20 years and my life is the better as a result of that,” she says, citing, among others, many friends with whom she can talk about the pressures of law practice. “If I hadn’t become an alcoholic, I would have missed out on all that.”

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