Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Lawyer’s Overdose Death Brings Drug Crisis Home

BARCARESThe heart-wrenching story of a high-powered patent lawyer who died after a long – and largely secret – struggle with substance abuse should be required reading for every practitioner.

Eilene Zimmerman wrote “The Lawyer, the Addict” after she found her former husband Peter dead from a drug overdose.

Her poignant and profoundly human story struck a nerve in July when it appeared in the New York Times. The article was the top-trending item on the Times website. Responses poured in. Similar tales were told.

And once again, the legal profession was forced to look in the mirror and ask why so many of its best and brightest are in personal crisis.

“Peter was intelligent, ambitious and most of all hard-working, perhaps because his decision to go to law school was such an enormous commitment — financially, logistically and emotionally — that he could justify it only by being the very best,” Zimmerman writes. “And he was. In law school he was editor of the law review and number one in his class. He gave the speech at graduation.”

On the NPR show Here & Now, Zimmerman said Peter had been suffering for years:

“It is a shame that Peter had to die for someone to be able to say what he was saying for so long, ‘I can’t keep doing this, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, it is going to kill me working like this. He sort of missed the whole point of working hard in any profession is to have a life. He kind of missed ‘the life.’ He missed so much stuff with his kids because he didn’t make it or he was working or he was on a business trip. It is hard to imagine anybody who worked more than he did except other attorneys.”

In retrospect, she realizes that his struggles were always hiding in plain sight.

“I think what was the most shocking is that there were all these glaring red flags. I think that because he was wealthy, white, well-educated, and lived in this posh neighborhood, IV-drug abuse never even entered the mind. We had every other explanation for it. Maybe he had an eating disorder. Maybe he was hiding AIDS. Maybe he was bipolar. We just couldn’t think of it.”

Taking Care of One Another

One legal commentator who listened to the interview – and was deeply moved by it – says the story is a wakeup call for practicing attorneys and anyone considering law school.

“I could not help but also think of her writing as a warning for those who are about to enroll in law school, sit for the bar exam, or begin their careers as attorneys,” writes Renwei Chung, diversity columnist for Above The Law. “Her story about her ex-husband and the data she shares

on the various types of drug use in our profession also serve as a reflection of how brutal being a lawyer can be.”

Here are some excerpts from Zimmerman’s tragic tale:

· “Lawyers are using lots of substances to prop themselves up in an incredible punishing profession, especially at Biglaw firms.”

· “Lawyers and judges have twice the addiction rate when it comes to opioid abuse than the general population does. I did talk to other attorneys and I talked to a judge, who had been a heroin addict, and several had been opioid addicts. They all said they would have never admitted it if they hadn’t been caught. One guy said ‘If you admit you have a problem, there’s ten guys standing behind you ready to take your place.’”

· “Peter was really dedicated to his clients. Almost to the point where it was a pathology. If they called, he left whatever we were doing. He would miss any meeting for a client, you know he would work on a vacation. I think that single-minded dedication really served his firm and his clients well. He was really good at what he did, but at what price?”

· “The further I probed, the more apparent it became that drug abuse among America’s lawyers is on the rise and deeply hidden.”

· “People enter law school with a certain set of values and a certain level of passion and humanity. They come out the other side without it. It gets stripped out.”

For more information – or to get confidential help for yourself or someone you know – contact BarCARES, the NC Lawyer Assistance Program or a health professional today.


· “Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves?”

· NPR Here and Now podcast · Above The Law

· Eilene Zimmerman, The Lawyer, The Addict · BarCARES


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

Read More by Jay >

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