This is the property of the Daily Journal Corporation and fully protected by copyright. It is made available only to Daily Journal subscribers for personal or collaborative purposes and may not be distributed, reproduced, modified, stored or transferred without written permission. Please click "Reprint" to order presentation-ready copies to distribute to clients or use in commercial marketing materials or for permission to post on a website. and copyright (showing year of publication) at the bottom.

Bottoming Out at the Top

By Kari Santos | Dec. 2, 2014

Law Office Management

Dec. 2, 2014

Bottoming Out at the Top

One law firm partner's road to sobriety, with help along the way

After what most agreed was a highly successful career, I retired as the founding partner of a big firm in San Francisco in December 1996. I had turned 66 that year, the retirement age under our partnership agreement. And though my career looked good on paper, the truth was that I scaled back on practicing law because I had a sick secret: I was dying from the ravages of alcoholism.

As a founder of our firm I was on a very fast track - trying cases and appeals, teaching Evidence, Trusts, and Legal Process at San Francisco Law School at night, rainmaking, working for the general community with United Way and as a campaign chair and later president of the Jewish Welfare Federation (now the Jewish Community Federation). I was also a clinically diagnosed hypochondriac, and this fast track preyed on my neurotic fears of injury or imminent death by heart attack or stroke. Counterintuitively, I treated those fears with alcohol.

This went on for years, and ultimately I drank around the clock as a "maintenance drinker" and functioning alcoholic. My drink of choice was vodka: Initially I drank only at meals and bedtime, but I progressed to drinking every three or four hours. My office had a fully stocked bar to facilitate my drinking. But my life was filled with fear for my health and guilt that I was addicted to alcohol.

For some time I had even been considering suicide. I remember that on the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989 - three-and-a-half decades into my legal career - I was home alone in Marin County, fantasizing about hiring a contract killer to burglarize our home and kill me, thus evading the suicide "incontestability" clause in a large, recently acquired life insurance policy. In the years that followed, I pondered suicide episodically but made no attempts and kept those thoughts to myself: Alcohol had so deeply affected my mind and thinking that at the time suicidal thoughts seemed rational.

But 1996 was the year that changed my life.

One Sunday morning in August, a Marin County deputy sheriff arrived at my house with a court order issued under section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, authorizing my involuntary 72-hour detention on the ground that I was a threat to myself. Earlier that morning my physician had called me to set up a racquetball game. During that conversation as I declined his invitation, I mentioned suicide, prompting him to place a 911 call.

I was, indeed, intoxicated at the time. I noticed the blinking red light on the squadron car in our driveway, as well as people I did not recognize, and I confronted the deputy with profanity. After a brief colloquy concerning my state of undress (I was wearing a robe) the deputy told me to put my hands behind my back, placed me in handcuffs, and pushed me into the rear seat of the car. I was taken to Marin General Hospital, where I was detained in a locked-down psych ward.

I still don't have any memory of my first 13 days there - although my oldest son visited for an hour and my wife came over daily, I'm told. By day 14, I had enough clarity to ask the head nurse how could I get out of this "cuckoo's nest." On day 15, I appeared, along with a lawyer from the public defender's office, before a Marin Court commissioner to petition for my release.

The hospital's staff doctor testified to my condition: I needed a cane to walk due to myopathy and neuropathy of the lower extremities, and I had a grossly enlarged liver and renal failure - all from alcoholism. The doctor's opinion: If I continued to drink, within three months I'd be either dead or institutionalized, with neither mind nor memory. The judge denied my petition. Unless I agreed to go to residential rehabilitation, I would become a ward of the public guardian of Marin County.

On day 19, I was released to Michael Neustadt, owner and operator of Serenity Knolls, a rehabilitation center, to begin my 28-day stay, the third leg of this journey. We detoured to a restaurant where I attended my first meeting of The Other Bar, a network of California lawyers and judges who are recovering from substance abuse. I detested it because I was still in denial about being an alcoholic, and embarrassed to see judges and lawyers, some of whom I knew well. Moreover, the conversation about a "higher power" was too evangelical for me. Ironically, though, The Other Bar saved my life.

At Serenity Knolls, a bucolic rehabilitation facility nestled in the hills of northern Marin County, I found myself so emotionally and spiritually bereft that even the fresh, pine-scented air annoyed me. I was among about 30 other residents of every age, gender, race, and religion. I was the oldest by far, on paper the best educated, and convinced, foolishly, that I was the smartest - too smart for the twelve steps or a higher power. But after listening and paying attention to the counselors and residents, I came to realize that I was no different from the others and we all had a chronic but treatable disease.

When I completed the program, my wife picked me up and we drove home, passing bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. Since alcohol had permeated every aspect of my personal, private, and professional life, it was inconceivable to me then that I could eschew drinking forever. But my Knolls experience and The Other Bar reminded me that I had a chronic disease, and the doctor's testimony reminded me that I was under a death sentence.

Fortunately, those were sufficient motivators not only to get sober (not a drink since August 4, 1996) but also to enter the world of recovery and lose the desire to drink. It wouldn't be enough merely to abstain from alcohol: I would need to actively reach out and help other alcoholics as well. These are the lessons that I have learned in The Other Bar, where I have been a board member for 17 years and now serve as vice president. As I approach my 85th year, these lessons have served me and others well. Most important, I am grateful I learned them in time.

Jerome I. Braun, now retired, is a founding partner of Farella Braun + Martel in San Francisco, the chief fundraiser for The Other Bar ( and a co-chair of its One Billable Hour Campaign.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

For reprint rights:

Email for prices.
Direct dial: 949-702-5390

If you would like to purchase a copy of your Daily Journal photo, call (213) 229-5558.

Send a letter to the editor: