The alcoholic client: identification, recommendation, and (maybe) rehabilitation.

AuthorWear, Nancy C.

`Counsel has au obligation to the client to point the direction to help.'

Of the many ways a lawyer can lose a client, probably none is more effective than for the lawyer to say, "You are an alcoholic." Or, "You have a problem with liquor." Or, "You got arrested because you were drunk."

Nevertheless, the lawyer who does not learn to identify, assess, and advise the client who is a problem drinker and may be an alcoholic cannot adequately serve that client, and may unwittingly do more harm than good. Moreover, as a practical matter, there are many, many people who suffer from alcohol abuse, so that there is hardly a lawyer who will not meet such a client. This article will discuss those topics, and will offer the practitioner one or two proven ways to deliver the necessary message while keeping (and helping) the client.

Certain areas of legal practice are more likely to expose counsel to substantial numbers of clients for whom alcohol is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. DUI defense is one obvious category, and one where attorneys expect some clients to have persistent alcohol-related legal problems. Other areas of concentration, however, require counsel to recognize that alcohol is a factor because the client or other or additional parties are victims of alcoholism. Counsel must be alert for the fact that the victim and witnesses in a criminal case may be alcohol involved as well as or instead of the defendant. See McGlynn v. State, Case No. 96-1953 (Fla. 4th DCA, July 30, 1997) (defendant was sober, but the perceptions and testimony of the victim and most prosecution and defense witnesses were significantly affected by alcohol). And alcohol is a central feature in marry family law cases, where either or both of the parties may abuse alcohol, and the entire family will inevitably be affected.

The aim of this article is to help attorneys provide effective legal assistance to an alcoholic client whether that is the card that is face up (as in a DUI case), or face down (as in family law, bankruptcy, criminal law, or some other area of legal specialization). For the purposes of this discussion, the assumption will be that alcohol is a significant factor in the client's life, whether the client (or the lawyer) is yet ready to admit it.

Driving Under the Influence

First time arrests for DUI are as common to "earth people"[1] as to alcoholics, so how does the lawyer, meeting the client for the first time, tell which category is represented by the frightened soul who is sitting in the visitor's chair at the initial interview? At this early stage of the relationship, counsel must survey the wreckage with a clear eye. For example, the circumstances of the arrest may tell the advocate much about the client's real situation vis-a-vis alcohol. A high breath or blood alcohol reading without many outward signs of intoxication is often an indicator of alcohol addiction, as habitual users learn to function superficially well after taking on a substantial quantity of booze. Other factors that should be noted by the attorney in determining whether the client is probably an alcoholic include the client's involvement in a one-car crash, presence of a high-income client at a low-income tavern, the client's solo drinking, late night bar-hopping by the client on a week night, or the client's daytime DUI arrest. While there may well be innocent explanations for such circumstances, these are not typical occurrences for nonalcoholics.

Violence in word or deed toward the arresting officer, rescue workers, or the defendant's companions or spouse should further alert counsel to the likelihood of the client's alcohol abuse, while a client who was ejected from a bar or was denied further service is frequently an alcoholic.

Undoubtedly, the greatest confirmation of counsel's suspicions that the client is an alcoholic is a prior conviction for DUI. A prior arrest is a persuasive indicator, but a prior conviction, especially in Florida[2] since 1990, should cause counsel to assume that the client is indeed an alcoholic. This is so because the cost, inconvenience, and embarrassment that a DUI conviction has imposed since the 1990 enactment of F.S. [sections] 322.2615 are so onerous that no rational person would voluntarily repeat the experience. In 1990 the legislature added preconviction driver license suspension and restricted driving on a special license, post-conviction mandatory probation, community service hours, alcohol counseling, further and possibly different driver license restrictions, and a...

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