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By Michael J. Burke | American Bar Association | $29.95 | 132 pages | 2008
“The client goes to jail, the lawyer goes to lunch.”
Michael Burke was a third-generation lawyer in a small town in Michigan who married his high school sweetheart in 1968, became victim to a drinking problem early in his career, entered treatment in 1977 and became a respected member of the recovery community. He subsequently fathered two girls, grew a very successful solo practice and went to prison in 2002 for defalcation of 1.5 million in client funds. No lunch that day for attorney Burke.
With all the popularity of drink, snort, smoke (take your pick) and tell-all books of late (A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, Dry by Augusten Burroughs, The Night of the Gun by David Carr), this book takes a different route. It is short (138 pages with index) is not titillating or gossipy (example: the author never identifies himself as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in keeping with the tradition of anonymity that other authors ignore), but is just the gritty and sad story of a good man doing bad things to himself, his family and friends; about a life hijacked by an uncontrollable and compulsive need to gamble. What the ABA and its Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs has seen fit to publish is a cautionary tale of a straight arrow gone badly off target, and how those with substance abuse issues are susceptible to what have come to be recognized as “process addictions” such as gambling, sex and internet pornography, eating, shopping and, yes all you legal billing machines, working. The addiction analogy I like best is the “Bop a Mole” game that we have all probably played with a hammer at the fair. Every time you knock an addiction down, another pops up to take its place. This is the lesson Michael Burke ignored in treatment.
Every story of addiction basically boils down to a Jeckyll and Hyde story, how one’s life becomes compartmentalized to the point of being two different people, and how we rationalize, deny, minimize, cheat and steal to keep this new person and the underlying activity alive. In Michael’s case he approached it like a lawyer, studied the literature on gaming, understood how to play and the underlying foundations of the games and even understood the “house advantage,” which is the immutable law that at the end or the day, the Casino makes the money, the gamblers lose. But that part of the brain, the part that responds to sex, cocaine and excitement, kept him on the road back and forth to the casinos day after day, week after week until he hit bottom and, after his own “night of the gun” (the book reports that 20 percent of all compulsive gamblers attempt suicide), Michael turned himself in to Discipline and the attorney general. He served three years in a level 1 state prison and now works for a treatment facility, touring and lecturing on his disease. After gambling away all the family savings, they are living on his wife’s salary as a special ed teacher. Mike’s money mostly goes to restitution (as do the royalties of this book). The blessing is that his family did stay together and supported him though this ordeal. This is not the norm, and Burk recognizes how lucky he is in that.
The take away for those of us who know people who have struggled with substance abuse issues is that there is something waiting to take the place of the bottle or pill when they are put aside. The advent of internet pornography and legalized gambling has opened the flood gates for a whole new crop of these “process” addictions, which are where alcohol was 50 years ago, just beginning to be looked at and treated for what they are, obsessive/compulsive behavior disorders that are a disease and not a moral shortcoming. Though Michael may have taken himself to the casinos initially, eventually it was the casinos that took him back as sure as they had a driver pick him up and take him to the table (which, in no small manner they did as a “high roller” on paid junkets many times).
Casinos are reported to earn more than half their income from problem, compulsive gamblers. Five percent of the population that purchases lottery tickets purchases 50 percent of those tickets. There are similar statistics for the alcoholic beverage industry. What his book highlights is how our society preys on these brain chemistry tricks and the compulsive behaviors it can trigger in those genetically susceptible.
The final chapter and appendix offer some solutions and resources for those in trouble with gambling, but more ink is spilled on the problem than the solution.
Fortunately in Tennessee, we are looking for solutions, and the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program has paid and trained professionals who offer free and confidential assessments and treatment solutions for those in crisis. The number to call is 1-877-424-8527. Ask for Laura Gatrell, Ted Rice or Jessica Copeland. They will be happy to assist in whatever way they can.
ANDY BRANHAM is executive director of Counsel on Call in Memphis and a Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program Commissioner.