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Richard Bistrong
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Richard Bistrong: Good performance can hide destructive behavior

The New York Times published a harrowing story this month by Eilene Zimmerman about her ex-husband’s death from a drug overdose. He was a partner at Wilson Sonsini in Silicon Valley, practicing IP law.

It was heart breaking to read. And it stirred up a lot of memories for me.

On May 18th of this year, I marked ten years of clean and sober living, but still, when reading about Peter Zimmerman’s drug use and death, my first reaction was, “There but by the grace of God go I.”

His destructive behavior, like my own, had been hidden for years behind good performance.

Eilene Zimmerman missed the warning signs of addiction. Eventually she discovered her ex-husband’s body among ATM receipts and discarded syringes.

Dr. Daniel Angres, an associate professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told Eilene:

Law firms have a culture of keeping things underground, a conspiracy of silence. There is a desire not to embarrass people, and as long as they are performing, it’s easier to just avoid it. And there’s a lack of understanding that addiction is a disease.

I once fell asleep in the middle of a staff meeting. People at the meeting laughed, and my other colleagues were kind enough to humor me. For me, my cover story was easy: “Intense travel, late nights with customers, and jet lag.”

Terry Harrell, the chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, said in the NYT article that most people don’t know what to look for, and when there’s odd behavior, they’re so busy themselves that “they just don’t see it.”

Lisa Smith, a lawyer and recovering alcoholic and drug addict from Pillsbury Winthrop, told Eilene Zimmerman she “didn’t get a single negative performance review.”

That was true for me as well. My bosses said I was doing great, and that’s not because supervisors (Lisa Smith’s or mine) were naïve or gullible. But sometimes billable hours or sales successes cover a multitude of sins.

In recovery, we addicts learn how unabated addictions can lead to “jails, institutions and death.” I was lucky, jail struck before death.

Early on, after I was caught violating the FCPA and started cooperating with law enforcement, the DOJ required me to take monthly hair follicle drug tests. The prosecutors were very clear about what would happen if I failed even one drug test: My plea agreement would be vacated and I would go straight to prison.

That meant I was facing 8 to 11 years in jail — the sentence Judge Leon said he would have given if I hadn’t cooperated.

With such dire consequences dangling over me, the mandatory drug tests saved my life. I don’t think I could have maintained consistent sobriety on my own during those first days and months of clean living.

With ten years of sobriety, I no longer need to have three inches of my hair lopped off by a lab technician every month to embrace the wonders and gifts of sober living. But back then, I called the DOJ my “thirteenth step.”

And finally, for those who might try to fuse together my addiction with my lawlessness, don’t. I broke the law before I was an addict. But as I often share, I’ve yet to meet the person who says, “I was making a bunch of bad decisions, and then I became a drug addict and finally started making good ones.”

So what should you do when you see trouble signs in a colleague, even a successful one? A simple “Is everything ok?” with “If there’s anything I can do to help, just ask” might go a long way.

Your concerns and offers of help could be met with shoulder shrugs and perplexity. But when the moment comes when your colleague finally realizes help is warranted, realizing they “can’t fix self with self,” don’t be surprised if they return to you and take you up on that offer.

*     *     *

“The Lawyer, the Addict” by Eilene Zimmerman is here.


Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. In 2010 he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the FCPA and served fourteen-and-a-half months at a U.S. federal prison camp. He was named to Compliance Week’s list of Top Minds in 2017 and was one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015.

His popular real-life compliance training video, Behind the Bribe, produced in cooperation with Mastercard, was released in June.

Here’s the trailer:

To request a demo of the full eleven-minute video or a licensing fee schedule, please click here.

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  1. I love your candor, Richard. Law firms and corporate law departments are often very dysfunctional. As a contract worker, I get to see how a law firm really is – because I am unimportant, no one needs to be nice to me. The signs of drug and alcohol abuse in those firms that treat their contractors really shabbily are obvious and palpable. Disdain, condescension, even abusive yelling. And then there are firms that believe that drinking alcohol (or even using drugs) is the only way to "maintain and get business". For a profession that values precision in word and thought, sobriety is not very valued in the legal profession. But there are exceptions. For example, Hunton and Williams for a very long time has had an alcohol/drug abuse manager on staff. A partner in the firm, he has been called in to help those with aberrant behavior fix their lives. I think the profession of law would change much for the better of law firms followed the Hunton model.

  2. Outstanding post, Richard, spoken with real candor and conviction. You are such a powerful ambassador not just for anti-corruption and compliance, but for the crucial reality that nobody is immune from mistakes, and that nobody is so far gone that they cannot find a way back. It's good to have you.

  3. Dear Peter and Bill- Thank you so much for your comments and reflections on this post. As you can imagine, it's always a struggle to share what was such a dark side of my life, and your comments provide me with such a powerful source of continued inspiration. Peter, as your comments demonstrate, and what I did not appreciate, is that the environment of "bill, bill, bill" contains so many of the same elements as "sell, sell, sell," and which can result in professional performance providing ground cover to what can be a very awful personal reality. I hope that leaders such as Hunton and Williams might share their own approach, which is certainly a power of example. Bill, thank you so much for your comments. Your friendship and support have provided me with an endless pool of encouragement, and I so appreciate all your work in helping me to share my perspective and experience with the wider compliance community. Gents, again, my greatest appreciation for your remarks. – Richard

  4. Hi Richard. Thanks for your feedback & my apologies for the iPhone-induced typos. Here is a link to an article written by George Hettrick at Hunton & Williams about addiction and alcohol abuse in the law firm setting:
    George is about to retire. There are a long line of lawyers – including myself – who owe George a tremendous amount for his leadership in this area (oftentimes despite the odds).

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