Written By LCLMA Executive Director Stacey A. L. Best, Esq.
As anyone who has been to law school knows, if you didn’t know before you arrived, there is a flip side to every argument. Other times, rather than a flip side, the response is “yes, and.” When I first wrote about labeling and LCL, I wrote from the perspective of experiencing being labeled. In that piece, I remarked briefly on the impact labeling can have on its subject. Being labeled by others can make us ashamed of ourselves. The damage from destructive self-talk is more than a fleeting reality. It can cause us to normalize our limiting labels, and in turn, impose limitations on others.
We are all acculturated by the environments where we spend time, often in ways that we don’t recognize. From inside, we are not required to think much about our identity as belonging to the culture, except when there is a challenge to a cultural norm. If we reflected, each of us has witnessed, experienced, or executed the enforcement of cultural norms, and it wasn’t always kind. Similarly, violating a cultural norm is one of the quickest ways to be recognized as an “outsider.” Often it is this power of membership that helps maintain the status quo, even when the status quo is harmful. We can literally be frozen with fear because we don’t want to be different or alone.
Even in environments developed to be supportive, the status quo is only good until it isn’t. To grow, we must regularly revisit norms to determine whether they still serve us, and what’s more whether they have become harmful. This check on utility is an imperative in a diverse community since no one is really to be considered an “outsider.” Instead of the set-it-and-forget-it mindset, a productive analysis can include a thoughtful consideration of norms and traditions, what they were initially designed to accomplish, and how they are best transmitted.
Some may be familiar with the illustrative story of a mother who, before cooking a ham every year for the holiday dinner, cut the end off. When her daughter began hosting holiday meals, she too cut the end of the ham off before baking. One day, the daughter’s husband, curious about his wife’s habit, asked her mother the reason for the tradition. The mother replied, “I don’t know why my daughter does it, but I did it because the ham wouldn’t fit in the roasting pan.”
In many instances, certainly those related to identity, traditions and norms were established for a protective reason and can become held dear. Since coming to LCL, I have encountered several traditions. I learned the hard way about one of these, through the shame and chagrin of committing a faux pas. What I learned was that the recovery community has a tradition of using first name and initial. I was told that this tradition was created to protect members from the stigma that attached to being known in the legal community as someone who “couldn’t handle their alcohol.” It guarded against shaming.
I have certainly observed out-of-hand-rejection and the lowered career trajectory of those who have a “record” that suggests they might be a problemed employee. I can appreciate the purpose and practice of anonymity. I have also been afforded the privilege of attending an open recovery meeting where I observed that this anonymity silently offered comradery and the egalitarian nature of being human. Beyond all this, I respect the right of everyone to identify themselves, including by withholding private information. Someone who is in recovery and has become a very different person need not disclose they are in recovery.
As someone who is not familiar with the traditions of the recovery community, I do not assume that someone coordinating or providing administrative support is in recovery, even if that mattered. Some members of the recovery community though, I am told, think differently about the juxtaposition. As a woman of color, I do understand looking for subtle cues to recognize when I am interacting with Black folks hoping for some comradery. It should come as no surprise then, that there is a similar thing in recovery culture where judgment and stigma also pose risks to thriving.
In 2022, I hope the stigma associated with being in recovery is diminishing. Certainly, the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly’s “Fighting Stigma,” series, including the segment co-written by Attorney Amanda Rowan reflecting on her journey through stigma in recovery is playing an important part. At LCL, we are helping fight stigma by standing with those willing to disclose that they are in recovery and separating struggle from dysfunction.
Recently, a person gave their full name as a contact person for a recovery meeting. Perhaps hoping to save me from myself, someone citing the tradition of anonymity, urged me to remove the last name of the person from the LCL website. I certainly have been known to repeat a faux pas or two in my lifetime, but no, not this time (see Dikembe Mutombo wagging his finger).
As I understood it, the person knew others might “suspect” she was in recovery, but nonetheless chose to have her name listed. When someone in the recovery community gives me their full name as the contact for a recovery event, I take it that the person has decided the stigma of being in recovery has no power over them. Someone who is not in recovery may well be oblivious to the potential labeling taking place, but I applaud the rebel with a clue.
We are LCL. At LCL we applaud those standing up against stigma. Whether because of tradition or concern about consequences, we also support the right of a member of the legal community to be anonymous about their sobriety. We respect the right of everyone to define themselves and grow as they go.
At LCL, our mission is big enough to support well-being and recovery, so however you define yourself, we are here. If you or someone you know needs support for sobriety, mental health, ethics, practice management, or well-being, send them to us at LCL. After all, we are every Massachusetts lawyer’s office.
is the executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, MA (LCL). She is especially interested in issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion and leadership.
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