The short version is that a Silicon Valley patent lawyer who had been #1 in his law-school class died on his bathroom floor from a drug-related infection. His ex-wife found him. She also found his phone, which indicated his last communication with anyone had been a conference call at work. That is the “heartbreaking” and “haunting” detail many are talking about, discussing the competitive workaholic winner-take-all culture of law school and BigLaw practice.
Another detail is equally haunting:
For the last two years of his life, every time Peter and I were together — whether it was back-to-school night, our son’s cross country meets or our daughter’s high school graduation — people would ask me if he was O.K. They asked if he had cancer, an eating disorder, a metabolic disorder, AIDS. But they never asked about drugs.
Neither friends, nor law-firm management, nor the lawyer’s own ex-wife could conceive that this man had, for years, been consuming through various means “Vicodin, Tramadol, Adderall, cocaine, Xanax, crystal meth and a kaleidoscope of pills.”
People just can’t believe that a professional so seemingly successful could be a serious drug addict. And even if they could believe it, there are other barriers pointed out by an ABA Lawyers Assistance official quoted in the article:
Law-firm leadership…doesn’t really know what signs to look for when it comes to addiction. And when it’s happening, she said, they are so busy themselves, “they just don’t see it.”
So everyone is reading this article and talking, talking, talking about it. To honor the work of this lawyer’s ex-wife in revealing these details and spending so much effort to bring this story forward, it’s crucial to change and improve the profession. As lawyer Kendall Burchard said on Twitter:
Practicing atty, aspiring atty, or a family member/friend-read the article. Could be you or colleague, recognizing signs could save a life. https://t.co/xUOjNpiHAn
The question is, how to recognize signs and how to try to help. Listening is of course crucial. But someone, somewhere along the line, has to speak up in a way that is likely to help, or at least unlikely to prompt denial and more isolation and covering up. Please share comments on how to do that, here or on social media or really anywhere, with anyone in the legal profession. What the experts say about “how” will be a subject for another post.
What is the effect of drinking on listening skills?
This matters for lawyers who will be networking over a glass of wine or taking clients to dinner where alcohol is served. What appears to be a still-valid1975 psychiatric study predicted that drinking would have a variety of effects on communication:
In a group setting, low to moderate doses of alcohol would increase the amount of verbal communication, increase disruptions in communication, and decrease the level of acknowledgment of the other speaker’s communication.
This hypothesis was indeed supported by the study, a study with a most interesting protocol.
Participating couples (married or good friends for several months, and between the ages of 21-30) showed up a testing facility for an afternoon of mild intoxication and testing, or a placebo event. They consumed a “low dose” of either “80-proof vodka in a peppermint-flavored cocktail” or “the masking cocktail without vodka.” In the low-dose experiment, women drank .83 ml per kg of weight, so (after a bit of math) about 1.4 ounces for a 110-pound woman. Men drank 1 ml per kg of weight, so 2.7 ounces for a 175-pound man. In sessions separated by about a week, they tested the other option. And some test subjects came back for another alcohol test at 1.5ml per kg of weight.
After consuming the alcohol, they did some coordination tests and then a 20-minute conversation session. The second 10 minutes of the conversation were transcribed for study. Then participants were “fed and detained” until signs of intoxication wore off, and driven home.
The study’s main finding seems fairly intuitive:
Overall, alcohol appeared to make social communication more disorganized and intoxicated subjects seemed less likely to follow conventional rules of etiquette in their speech.
The specific behavioral findings were a little more complex. The study found “an increase in the amount of interrupting or overlapping speech” that was even more pronounced with the higher dose. Essentially: the more you drink, the more you interrupt.
Separately, the study found with the low dose, participants talked more in the sense of initiating more conversations, and used more words. With the higher dose, these trends reversed. Thus the more intoxicated participants interrupted more but used fewer words and started fewer conversations. And there was a modest but noticeable effect on what the study called acknowledgment, or “the degree to which [a statement] responds, in terms of the content and intent” to the prior statement.
The study authors weren’t exactly sure how these effects happened. They could be from the “disinhibition” and “egocentricity” of drinking, or they could be from “decreased auditory discrimination” and “impaired memory” which had been proven in a similar previous experiment.
The authors recommended further study. They also ended with a caveat on the “dyadic” setup of the study—meaning just two people speaking one-on-one to each other. The one-on-one setup may have made it relatively easier for participants to maintain the conversation. They noted prior work showing alcohol diminishes participants’ ability to hear complex auditory stimuli. Thus they suspected that intoxicated participants would show greater impairment, relative to the placebo, in a more complicated social situation with more people. Something like an attorney networking event, perhaps.
Postscript to this research: Here’s a 2004 master’s thesis on “alcohol in social context.” The study gathered 54 men (strangers) and assigned them to groups of three, then served them alcohol or a placebo while they stayed seated in their groups for 30 minutes. The study assessed their social behavior and emotional states, finding that the drinking groups did not necessarily talk more on a word count basis, but did engage in more socially coordinated communication within the group. In other words, more members of the group contributed to talk within the group as a whole. The study author reported mild surprise that study participants did not report “improved affect” or a better mood after the experiment. The author suggested that the participants may not have enjoyed the forced interaction of drinking and socializing with strangers. This brings us full circle back to networking.
What are the implications for attorneys who want to drink while still communicating effectively?
He was writing in 2012 about alcohol and networking, prompted by a Greedy Associates’ post with a “Drink-by-Drink Guide for Networking Events.” Instead of “5 Tips for Networking,” that post organized itself around a sequence of five hypothetical “drinks” from the first drink (“the icebreaker”) to the fifth drink (essentially, go home and send a bunch of LinkedIn invitations). The strategy for the “third drink” was to “shut up and listen” by “resist[ing] the urge to talk about yourself the whole night.”
The Greedy Associates’ post wasn’t actually encouraging networking lawyers to consume five drinks at any networking event. And that is a good thing. One takeaway from the present post is the following: if you get to that third drink too fast, shutting up and listening is probably not going to be an easy option.