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Ethics Opinions Every South Carolina Attorney Should Know: Part VIII, Substance Abuse

Attorneys are as prone to addiction issues or depression as any other group of humans.  The South Carolina Bar even has a support group, Lawyers Helping Lawyers, for attorneys suffering from depression or substance abuse.

However when substance abuse overwhelms an attorney’s ability to handle his or her responsibilities, the Supreme Court needs to intervene.  Typically, such discipline arises in conjunction with discipline for criminal convictions for drug possession, as it did in In the Matter of Tribert, 343 S.C. 326, 540 S.E.2d 467 (2000) (one year suspension).

However the reduced impulse control that is often a byproduct of substance abuse can lead to discipline for other issues such as inappropriate sexual activities with clients or staff. In the Matter of Yarborough, 337 S.C. 245, 524 S.E.2d 100 (1999) (public reprimand); In the Matter of Nelson, 333 S.C. 498, 510 S.E.2d 718 (1999) (nine month suspension).  In has also taken place in conjunction with misappropriation of client funds. In the Matter of Abney, 316 S.C. 182, 447 S.E.2d 848 (1994) (disbarred); In the Matter of Lempesis, 293 S.C. 510, 362 S.E.2d 10 (1987) (disbarred). Alcohol dependency does not excuse an attorney’s flagrant violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Id.

Any substance abuse problem that affects an attorney’s ability to adequately represent his or her clients violates Professional Conduct Rule 1.16(a)(2) (lawyer shall withdraw from representation if his physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client) and Rule 8.4(e) (lawyer shall not engage in conduct that is prejudicial to administration of justice).

Where an attorney is reinstated to the practice of law after being disbarred or suspended for a period on nine month or more, the Supreme Court may impose any conditions that are reasonably related to the grounds for the lawyer’s original suspension or disbarment.  Rule 33(i), South Carolina Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement.  The conditions may include abstention from the use of drugs or alcohol; active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous or other alcohol or drug rehabilitation program; and monitoring of the lawyer’s compliance with any other orders, such as abstinence from alcohol or drugs, or participation in alcohol or drug rehabilitation programs. Id.

The lesson of Tribert, et al: don’t let drugs or alcohol use impair your ability to practice law.

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