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You Bet Your Life: Lawyers and Compulsive Gambling

By Robert L. Stenander

Pathological gambling is often called a hidden disease. It cannot be detected by breath or blood tests, nor does it leave needle marks. It may be a means of escaping from difficulties in marriage or work and many times will go unnoticed as a significant problem. High risk is a key part of the gamegamblers bet discovery, humiliation, and ultimately their lives.

Gambling addiction is a disorder of impulse control and is as debilitating as alcohol or drugs. The disorder (the terms “pathological gambling” and “compulsive gambling” may be used interchangeably) is chronic and progressive yet diagnosable and treatable, often through intervention programs and attending Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meetings.

The following 20 questions are asked of new GA attendees and are appropriate for anyone: men, women, lawyers, associates, clients, and friends. Pathological gamblers usually answer yes to at least seven of the questions and often many more. If an individual has trouble answering the questions truthfully, this denial is another sign that gambling has become a problem.

  1. Have you ever lost time from work owing to gambling?
  2. Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?
  3. Did gambling affect your reputation?
  4. Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
  5. Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?
  6. Did gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
  7. After losing did you feel you must return as soon as possible to win back your losses?
  8. After a win did you have a strong urge to return and win more?
  9. Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone?
  10. Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
  11. Have you ever sold anything to finance your gambling?
  12. Were you reluctant to use “gambling money” for normal expenditures?
  13. Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself and your family?
  14. Did you ever gamble longer than planned?
  15. Have you ever gambled to escape worry or trouble?
  16. Have you ever committed or considered committing an illegal act to finance gambling?
  17. Did gambling cause you to have difficulty in sleeping?
  18. Do arguments, disappointments, or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble?
  19. Did you ever have an urge to celebrate good fortune with a few hours of gambling?
  20. Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?

Lawyers in particular should remember that they have been trained to deal with problems and develop their “gut feeling” that something is wrong long before a case starts heading south. This instinct, although usually pushed aside and denied, is the same one that tells them that they have a gambling problem well before it becomes apparent to others. Lawyers just like other pathological gamblers follow the same progression as their addiction develops. They experience the same highs, become preoccupied with gambling, lose control, experience withdrawals, and finally become impaired just like an alcoholic or a drug addict.

Money is the key to action and excitement for gamblers. For the lawyer with access to cash, trust accounts, and fiduciary/confidential relationships, the result can be devastating, no matter how “good” a person the lawyer may be. All lawyers have stories about law school and the bar exam—how hard they had to work to achieve the license to practice law. Lawyers who embezzle (or as some try to put it, “borrow” or “take a loan from the trust account”) can just kiss that license good-bye.

Although it may seem like the odds are against them, pathological gamblers can be treated, and crossing the line into pathology can be prevented by early intervention. Keep in mind that this information applies to clients as well. The lawyer who meets with a client with financial problems—usually credit card debt and outstanding loans from family and friends—should consider whether this indicates a potential gambling problem. Suggesting legal solutions like bailouts, refinancing, and/or bankruptcy will not help a true gambler and most frequently allows the gambler to re-enter the action with new vigor-not to mention fresh funds. Lawyers should watch for the following warning signs; if you notice several of these behaviors, you’re quite likely looking at a gambling addict rather than an unfortunate debtor.

  • Excessive telephone use
  • A pattern of borrowing money
  • Boastful behaviors regarding gambling winnings
  • Signs of gambling paraphernalia such as racing forms, football pool cards, detailed sports data
  • Mood swings-often the manifestation of winning and loosing periods
  • Discomfort when discussing money or financial management
  • Patterns of binge shopping and spending
  • Problems with personal relationships
  • Unusual eagerness to promote activities with and participate in betting opportunities.

If these signs sound familiar or suggest a specific individual— even yourself—knowing where to turn will make intervention that much more likely. Lawyers have a moral, ethical, and professional duty to assist with wise counsel, whether to benefit themselves, the bar, or a client. Suggested “first steps” include the following:

  • Ask the individual to agree to a professional assessment of his or her gambling status, done by a certified gambling specialist.
  • Suggest the individual become involved in GA or a 12-step program such as Debtors Anonymous or Emotions Anonymous.
  • Research on compulsive gambling published by Harvard Medical School is available at
  • Contact your state’s Lawyers Assistance Program for guidance and referral suggestions. (Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program: 615-741-3238 or toll free, 877-424- 8527)

Below are additional steps to consider, perhaps, once treatment has begun and the gambler is more willing to honestly address the financial ramifications of his or her addiction:

  • Suggest the gambler get a financial counselor—one who also is knowledgeable about the addiction. Look in the yellow pages under credit and debt counseling services or ask a local GA group member for recommendations.
  • Suggest the individual hire an independent accountant to manage and control the gambler’s finances.

This article first appeared in GP Solo magazine, January/ February 2004, Volume 21, Number 1 and is reprinted with permission of the ABA. © American Bar Association

TLAP Has Moved!
The Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) has moved!

As of July 1, 2004, the new address is:

200 4th Ave. N., Ste 810
Nashville, TN 37219

Phone: 615-741-3238
The toll free number remains the same:

About the Author
Robert L. Stenander is a counselor and corporate services clinician at Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Illinois. A lawyer himself, he specializes in gambling addiction counseling and has been certified by the American Compulsive Gambling Certification Board.

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