Alcoholic lawyers book a passage to dry dock

Barry Pritchard became a solicitor in 1960 but he cannot remember exactly when it was he became an alcoholic.

Pritchard can, however, clearly recall when he stopped drinking and started his recovery – 4 July 1984. US Independence Day.

For the past 13 years Pritchard has been dealing with his own problem and helping hundreds of other solicitors to confront theirs.

Now the 61-year-old, who left his Bournemouth practice in 1995 and retired to north Wales, has been appointed as co-ordinator of SolCare, a charity aiming to help solicitors suffering from stress, depression and, in particular, alcohol abuse.

He will be responsible for confronting a problem the profession has shied away from acknowledging and one that, on anecdotal evidence at least, is serious.

Cirrhosis of the liver among solicitors is two and a half times the national average, with only publicans, doctors and merchant seamen having higher rates of the alcohol induced disease.

In the US alcohol abuse among lawyers has been found to be the cause of up to 70 per cent of disciplinary cases.

And alcoholism can give rise to malpractice and expensive interventions from the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS). Pritchard says he has already prevented one intervention in a case where the solicitor's problems arose from alcoholism. Interventions can cost the Law Society up to £80,000.

The cost of clearing up after an alcoholic solicitor is one reason why the Law Society and the OSS have given SolCare a £70,000 budget for its first year.

It is a tight budget with Pritchard, SolCare's sole employee, already having nine cases on his desk despite that fact the charity is not launched until today (13 May).

Pritchard's job will be to help solicitors face their dependency problem and then refer them to a nearby agency that can help. He will also take calls from concerned colleagues or partners in firms who may be worried about a workmate's drinking problem or mental health.

“The whole basis of SolCare is confidentiality. What is said to me stays between me and that individual,” says Pritchard.

After making sure calls are not malicious Pritchard will speak to the individual, but if they fail to respond to this he will then undertake a “support initiative”, persuading workmates and family to confront the solicitor with a dependency problem and attempt to make him or her face up to it.

If this fails, unlike medical staff with dependency problems, solicitors will not be suspended from the profession.

Pritchard says he does not believe in making people undergo treatment under duress and the confidential aspect of his work rules out informing the Law Society or OSS of a lawyer's problem.

“If a support initiative does not work, that individual has to be left at the mercy of the system,” he says. And the client, he might add, is left at the mercy of the alcoholic solicitor.

Pritchard, along with 1994 Law Society president Charles Elly, who is SolCare's chairman, has long campaigned for such a body. He says there was an ignorance about the extent of alcoholism in the profession which the Law Society is now facing up to.

Pritchard dismisses suggestions that the Law Society is using SolCare to keep alcoholic solicitors at their desks or simply gloss over the problems the profession has.

The purpose of SolCare, he says, is to do what is best for the client and alcoholic solicitors' colleagues, reduce negligence claims against the profession, and help solicitors face up to and get treatment for their dependency problem.

“That's got to be beneficial in terms of costs and its got to be beneficial to the profession in terms of reputation.”

SolCare can be contacted in strict confidence on 01766 512222.