Mental Health and Addiction in the Legal Profession with Brian Cuban
Since beginning his recovery from cocaine and alcohol addition in 2007, Brian Cuban has become a leading advocate for awareness and change within the legal community of mental health and substance abuse. He is the author of two books, Shattered Image, which chronicles his struggles with body dysmorphia disorder, and The Addicted Lawyer, a book about his and other lawyers’ substance use issues and recoveries.
In Episode 14 of Lawyerpreneur, we discuss not only Brian’s addiction and recovery but how he built a business so that he can help the greatest number of people. And Brian tells us that while he wants to help as many people as possible, there is great value in helping one person at a time and being a link in their chain to recovery.
Today’s show is sponsored by ALPS, the nation’s largest direct writer of lawyers’ malpractice insurance. Right now you can get 25% off one CLE seminar from ALPS. Go to alpsinsurance.com/cle and use promo code LAWYERPRENEUR upon check-out.
Mental Health and Addiction in the Legal Profession with Brian Cuban
Jeremy Richter: My guest today is Brian Cuban. Brian is at the forefront of advocacy and awareness for lawyers struggling with mental health and substance use issues. He is the author of two books Shattered Image, which chronicles his struggles with body dysmorphia disorder, and The Addicted Lawyer, a book about his and other lawyers’ substance use issues and recoveries. Brian, welcome to the show.
Brian Cuban: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.
Jeremy Richter: I put a lot of thought into this interview since we traded emails a while back. I read your book and just really a lot about this because it’s an important issue that a lot of lawyers deal with. So what I’d like to start first with is can you give us a little background about who you are in your story to have some context around our conversation?
Brian Cuban: Happy to. I’m a lawyer. I live in Dallas, Texas, but I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I’m the middle of three boys. A lot of people know my older brother Mark — the Mavs and Shark Tank — and I have a younger brother Jeff who also lives in Dallas. We all live actually within walking distance to each other. We’re very close. Throughout much of my life, I struggled with depression, alcohol use disorder, “alcoholism,” cocaine addiction, and two eating disorders, bulimia and exercise bulimia, which is obsessive compulsive exercise for the primary purpose of offsetting calories. And that certainly impacted my ability to practice as a both competent ethical lawyer and eventually got to the point where I became suicidal in the summer of 2005.
My first of two trips to a psychiatric facility after my two brothers at the urging of a friend came to check on me and found me with a 45 automatic on my nightstand and a lot of drugs and alcohol scattered about. And there would be another trip to that same facility in 2007, taken by my, at that time girlfriend now my wife, after a drug and alcohol induced blackout that lasted a couple days. I lost all my clients, went to work for Mark for a while when he first bought the Mavs. I failed miserably at that because of drugs and alcohol. Three failed marriages, all imploding because of my drug and alcohol use that I tried to keep hidden from them. And so it’s been quite a rollercoaster, but I’ve now been in recovery for over 13 years. Going on 13 and a half years from all of those things. So I’m getting through one day at a time here, and it’s a good thing. Yeah, good thing and I’ve pivoted is the term.
Jeremy Richter: And I think we need to get “disrupt” in here somewhere just…
Brian Cuban: Disruptive and webinar. I’m tired of webinar. I call it a zoominar. So I pivoted and now I’ve always been a feeler Jeremy and in the legal profession, especially the Myers Briggs confirms I’m a feeler if you put any stock in the Myers Briggs. But the legal profession is a profession of thinkers according to the Myers Briggs. So I pivoted to a thing that feelers do — as a mental health recovery advocate. I wrote two books about my struggle and branded myself now as somebody who gets asked to speak about these issues at law firms, particularly in BigLaw and the Am Law firm, and at conferences, nonprofit recovery events, and the like. And then law schools. And so I guess from that standpoint, I’ve taken an entrepreneurial bent. But I certainly don’t consider myself an entrepreneur in the sense of my brother, Mark.
Jeremy Richter: Sure. Well, I want to start with your books, because they’re the topics are incredibly personal. And the way you approach it is personal. Like I wrote, my third book came out this year, and I thought when I wrote it, that some of the things I were wrote about — fears of failure and rejection, that sort of thing — I thought at the time that that was personal, and then I read The Addicted Lawyer and the way that you were able to write that narrative the way that you did, and I feel like that took a lot of courage. And, you know, comparatively, I was scratching the surface.
Brian Cuban: No. You know what? Anytime — it doesn’t matter who it is, okay, I’m not the only recovery book out there, right? There only a few of us for the legal profession, but I’m not the only recovery book. Everyone is courageous. When you have to put aside — allow yourself to be vulnerable, drop the wall, and set aside the projection of being judged, whatever level you did it on, that’s courageous.
Jeremy Richter: So how did you come to the decision to write those books and put that out there?
Brian Cuban: Well, Shattered Image was more a journey of self-discovery. It was a cathartic book as most first recovery memoirs are. They tend to be cathartic journeys for people because for many, and for me, it was the first time I put a lot of those things out there. And so especially in Shattered Image revolves around more my eating disorders and body image than it does particularly addiction, and my struggle with steroids, anabolic steroids, so it was really my opportunity to cleanse and to really let it out and to heal. For The Addicted Lawyer, it was more a reflection on the things I saw going through the process that I felt had not been covered and were stigmatized above and beyond the normal stigma of addiction in the legal profession. The Addicted Lawyer was less of a cathartic journey and more of a call to action for the profession.
Jeremy Richter: And have you seen profession wide results from The Addicted Lawyer? I mean, are things moving in a positive direction?
Brian Cuban: Absolutely. I mean, I wouldn’t attribute it to The Addicted Lawyer. In 2015 or 2016, the American Bar Association, combined with the Hazelden Betty Ford clinic, put out a study about 10,000 to 15,000 lawyers, which found that we deal with problem-drinking (“alcoholism”) at a rate over twice the general population, 20-21%. We deal with depression at a rate significantly higher. We have a suicide rate significantly higher. So this came out, and it really set the ball rolling in terms of awareness. And it was just “blind luck,” to use the term, that my book happened to come out right at the same time that study did. I had no idea it was coming out. So my book kind of rode that wave. And I got the author, wonderful guy does wonderful work, Patrick Krill to write the preface to my book. And so it all started, and then another book came out — Lisa Smith, A Girl Walks Out of a Bar — and we started having this conversation. And then the American Bar Association created their wellness pledge, primarily geared towards BigLaw and large corporations and such, but it’s taking a broad hold below that. So they came out with their mental health wellness packet and protocol. So things are moving forward. Do we have a lot of work to do? Absolutely. Do we yet understand how the pandemic has affected a profession already struggling? No, we may not know that until someone looks at the data a year from now.
Jeremy Richter: Why is it been so important to you, as you have started your recovery process in 2007, to have a role in helping others?
Brian Cuban: It has been important because, if my experience, strength, and hope, and sharing my trauma can break the stigma for one person, that person may go on and break the stigma for another person. And that person may go on and break the stigma for another person. You become a chain in recovery and empathy and part of a compassionate community that you have no idea where it’ll end down the road. One person, one life. So they hopefully will not go through what I went through.
Jeremy Richter: At what point in your recovery process did you become, comfortable with the idea of advocating to a broader audience for awareness of mental health and substance use issues?
Brian Cuban: Well, that started with my eating disorder, Jeremy, back in I think it was 2008. My family didn’t even know about my struggles with bulimia until I wrote my book. That’s how stigmatized eating disorders are for males. Even though about 25% of those with eating disorders are males, only 1 in 10 males will seek treatment. It’s very stigmatized, because it’s seen as more of a female disorder. So a lot of males suffer in silence.
I was on the internet, and I came across an article about a model by the name of [Ana Carolina Reston]. I’d never heard of her before. I think she was a Brazilian model who died from complications related to anorexia and at just a brutal, low weight at the time she passed. And there were a lot of comments, and I’m looking through the comments. And at that time, I really hadn’t told anyone, not even my psychiatrist. And all of a sudden, I saw comments from males who were struggling themselves, talking about how they felt alone, and I realized I wasn’t alone is a guy struggling an eating disorder. To show you how stigmatizing and overpowering that stigma could be, I was in my 40s. I’m an educated lawyer. And in my mind, even though logically I know it’s not true, in terms of the overwhelming feeling, I felt like I was the only person, the only guy struggling with an eating disorder. And it was right around then I said, screw it. I’m going to put this out there. And I wrote my first recovery article about my struggle with bulimia. And I put it on my blog at that time. And I closed that blog, but I think I carried it over and put the original article is on my current blog.
Jeremy Richter: So how did you go from writing that first article to ultimately you’ve established a business where you speak and advocate so that you can help the greatest number of people? What did that look like for you?
Brian Cuban: I first started as an eating disorder recovery speaker, and I can’t be in I have to be I don’t want to be intellectually dishonest here. My last name has a lot to do with the interest I get, especially as a guy with an eating disorder. That’s not all of it, I hope. And I think I’ve worked hard on my speaking skills, and I’ve become a sought-after speaker because of my storytelling skills. But you can’t — I mean, that’s a part of it, right? And that that helped me get gigs early on. And I started speaking at a lot of colleges. And then I when I started focusing on the addiction aspects, I did a lot of recovery events and it just kind of builds on itself. And I work very hard on my public speaking skills — as I stutter as I say that. So, cutting out all the tics and treating it as a business, watching myself in the mirror, cutting out the oohs and the ahh’s and the you-know’s and the likes, just like that.
So I work hard on that as my or as an art. And I became better. and I actually I started my public speaking — this is a good story. I started out — and I recommend public speakers do this if they want to get into the profession. I started out speaking at local rotary clubs here in Dallas about eating disorders. You don’t get paid. But you go in, you get a free breakfast or a free lunch. And the thing is, is you can make mistakes and you’re not going to get roasted, right? You can — and I hate saying “right” too — but you’re not going to get roasted. And the very first one I did, I was talking about body dysmorphic disorders and eating disorders here in Dallas. I walk in there and it’s this group of 50 year old men. And I here I’m a 40-something year old guy going to talk about having an eating disorder. Talk about a tough audience.
So I go through my spiel, I can see the drool coming out of their heads, not really. Afterwards, a few of them came up to me and not necessarily themselves but talking about their granddaughter or their child who’s struggling with an eating disorder, and thank you me for being open about it. I get back to my computer — this was the middle of early days of Twitter — and I get on and there’s a message. There’s a tweet from a young girl and it said, “My father’s a lawyer, he was at your talk today. We were having dinner for the first time in a year. Thank you.” Part of my talk is talking about the closeness of my family, how it’s no accident that my brothers and I live within walking distance to each other, when we grew up in Pittsburgh. And that until my father passed, he lived across the street from me. Literally, not metaphorically. He literally lived across the street. And so I talk about how this family will have — family, which I feel very privileged to have that is a privilege. Because a lot of people struggling with addiction, don’t have it, have no one. They’re on the streets. They’re in underserved communities, one-parent family, incarcerated. So I feel very privileged to have had this familial structure that aided my recovery. So you never know what’s going to resonate with the audience.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really good.
Brian Cuban: And I thought that first talk was an abject failure. But it was an outstanding success because I helped one person!
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that seems to be something that you keep coming back to — just one person is enough.
Brian Cuban: One person, that’s right. One person, one life. Then another person, one life. He who changes one person changes the world.
Jeremy Richter: You talked about in The Addicted Lawyer that you realized you weren’t put on this earth to be a lawyer. And I want to ask you some questions about that. Because I think there’s a lot of folks who decide to go to law school, when they’re coming out of undergrad, it’s kind of a path of least resistance as compared to going and finding a job and having to start doing adult things. Because it lets you stay in that cocoon of school for just a few more years. Was that the situation for you going to law school?
Brian Cuban: Yes and no. Mine was a kind of a unique thought process. I wanted to be a police officer at Penn State. That would have worked out well. I would have been the first guy in the evidence room frame, not the man at all for the blow, believe me. But I’m sitting in the placement office at Penn State my senior year, flipping through police officer jobs, and there are two guys sitting next to me. And they’re having a conversation about taking the LSATs, the Law School Admission Test, and going to Pitt Law, which is where I’m from. And I start listening to them. I’ve never thought about being a lawyer before. There are no lawyers in my family. I didn’t know any lawyers at 21 years old at that point.
But the bells start going off in my head. Bells of, I can stay in law school for three years. I can stay in school for three more years and I can binge and purge, I can run the 10 and 20 miles a day that I’ve gotten used to, and I can drink. And I can engage in the same survival behaviors that I engaged in at Penn State. Day to day, moment to moment, second to second. And not have to go out in the world. Because that’s all I cared about at that time was survival. I couldn’t see beyond the tip of my nose, let alone three years down the road. That’s why I went to law school.
Now that reason may be, those facts situation may be kind of unique, but I’ve spoken at a lot of law schools. And what is not unique, Jeremy, is law students emailing me, coming up to me, and telling me they don’t want to be there. Or they felt pressure to go there, or they pressured themselves to go there. First generation. Everyone in the family’s lawyer. Brother’s a lawyer. Parents pressuring them to excel. Pressuring themselves to excel. And really not having thought through the whole mental health process of that thought process.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah. Well and then the pressure doesn’t alleviate after you get out. What do you say to those folks in that situation?
Brian Cuban: I say you have to sit back. Take a deep breath. Take a hot shower. Practice some mindfulness and cleanse out the negative thoughts and think for a second, why are you here? What processes mental health-wise can you put in place, regardless of what got you here, to maximize how you want to be when you leave here?
Jeremy Richter: And one of the things you said in the book was that even though you weren’t put here to be a lawyer, that the way of thinking that you learned as a lawyer has been able to benefit you, including in your recovery. Can you kind of expound on that?
Brian Cuban: Sure. Law school does pound in a way of thinking some people don’t like, that Socratic method, but it makes a person more analytic. And it’s hard to be analytic when you’re in the middle of a cocaine binge. It’s hard to be analytic when you’re pounding down beers. So it is really allowed me in recovery to be very analytic about the path I take moving forward, and look not so much from — and people in 12-step and I got sober in 12 step. And for those who don’t know, the most well known alcohol-focused 12-step is Alcoholics Anonymous, which is not quite as analytic, right? It’s put faith in this faith, and that’s great. I mean, I still go to 12-step meetings, but to look at different pathways from a cost-benefit ratio analysis right? What is the benefit of this? What is the destructive side of this? What is the benefit? How can this pathway hurt me? Not just here, but here, I am much better now when thinking three steps down the road, and everything I do versus reacting to what’s in front of my face. I think law school helped me achieve that ability.
Jeremy Richter: Was there a particular thing that caused me to realize that lawyering is not for me? You talked about being a feeler earlier. And then once you came to that realization, what did you do with it?
Brian Cuban: It was more of a continuum, Jeremy, than any kind of bright line moment. You have to understand the pathway. I moved to Dallas in ’86. I passed the Pennsylvania bar, but I haven’t taken the Texas bar. My first time I took the Texas bar, my study aids in a hotel room in Fort Worth, were 3 ½ ounces of cocaine, a fifth of Jack Daniels, and in a liter of Tab. And so as you might imagine, I failed. And I failed it again. And I went to work as a claims adjuster. And then I finally passed the bar, and I became just a very — and I say this with all due deference to the wonderful plaintiff lawyers I know — but I was just so deep into drugs and alcohol, I became an unethical, that this the stereotype — there’s a reason there’s a stereotype — unethical “ambulance chaser,” which happens to be the title of my new book coming out. And so when I finally moved into recovery, I look back who I was on who I was, and now looking in the mirror at who I am, and I am a lot better than who I was. And so that kind of shifted my pathway to the exit from the legal profession.
Jeremy Richter: This may be a dumb question. Do you think that you needed to journey through addiction and recovery, to be able to find your calling?
Brian Cuban: It’s a very common question. I don’t believe in revisionist recovery. I can look back and say if this happened. If that happened, who knows, right? With all the timeline pathways could be the alternate universe pathways. What I don’t I can’t sit here and regret is the pathway that got me here sitting talking to you. How can I regret that? Now I am on my past 14 years with my then-girlfriend and now my wife of over 3 ½ years. How can I regret that? I’m moving into 13 ½ years sober with a new career and able to love myself. How can I regret that? What I do regret is the collateral damage. I regret the people I hurt. Absolutely. And the people who got hurt along the way. And I can’t turn back the clock, but what I can do is make living amends by how I conduct myself. How I help others.
Jeremy Richter: That’s good. And you know, you wrote about that in the book that a part of recovery is beginning to work on repairing the relationships. And you said specifically that for you, it requires remaining alert to your path rather than shutting it out. What does that look like?
Brian Cuban: It looks like recognizing my triggers. I have to be aware of my emotional triggers, my environmental triggers. I was bullied severely growing up — fat shamed, physically assaulted because of my weight. And I still work on those things with my psychiatrist. As far as environmental triggers, I’m comfortable around alcohol, that really isn’t a thing. But I always try to evaluate whether I’m on the beam or off the beam emotionally. Because what I don’t ever want to lose awareness is that relapses can always be tapping me on the shoulder and I’m not aware of it because I’m in the middle of an emotional, a self-absorbed emotional bubble, that I don’t see it coming. And so yes, I do try to be self-aware of all of those things. That’s recovery. Am I afraid of those things? No, not at all. Do I evaluate those things? Of course. I don’t subscribe to a lot of the, “If I drink, I will die” kind of things. And we’ve learned a lot of these things at 12-step. And for a lot of people, you have to have those mindsets, because you will … yeah. I just looked at it more, “What’s the upside?” I didn’t like alcohol. What’s the upside to even thinking about it? Cocaine did nothing but ruin my life. Alcohol did nothing but ruin my life at that time. And drugs dropped me down into a hole where I considered suicide. Why would I want to go back to that? So I think of it — maybe it comes out to the same, maybe it’s just semantics, right? If you drink, you die. Do cocaine, you die. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I look at it more from the facts of my life.
Jeremy Richter: I think a lot of the things that you wrote, in The Addicted Lawyer, a lot of wisdom that you shared, is so transferable to other aspects of our lives. And that’s one thing that I really liked about the book is that it’s about recovery. But it’s not just for people who are in recovery. And I took away so much of it, that, for example, in the context of recovery wrote, I guess I’ll quote yourself to yourself here. “You have to do more than just want it. You have to take steps. They don’t have to be big ones. Baby steps are fine.” And that’s the same thing when I talk to people about pursuing their passions — if they want to be a writer or an artist or start a new business, they don’t have to do everything all at once. They don’t have to immediately quit their job and get into it. Baby steps are fine. And I just think that that thought process was really transferable to a lot of other aspects.
Brian Cuban: Sure, I mean, in the issues around peeling back the layers of your life have application across the board, right. I think everyone is dragging around some portion of their little boy or little girl through their lives on a suitcase without unpacking it because it’s painful. Some people get by like that and they’re fine. Some people, the suitcase becomes stuffed and opens up and turns into disruptive behavior. But I think everyone deals with that. I’m a big believer in the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences and impacting future behaviors. That doesn’t mean it turns into destructive behaviors. I think everyone’s carrying around something. Yeah.
Jeremy Richter: Another aspect of this, I think that you talked about in the book was being an introvert in an extroverted profession, which is something that I’ve dealt with too. It’s something that I’ve presented on. How did that affect you?
Brian Cuban: Well, let’s get into the stats. A guy named Larry Richards did a study where — he’s a lawyer and a performance management consultant — did a study using the Myers Briggs that basically helped — I’m trying to think of it — about only 4.5. It’s a profession of thinkers, the legal profession. I’m a feeler. I forget what my letters were, but I was a feeler, and only about 4.5% of lawyers in the profession (using that sample size in that study) are feelers, right? So what does that mean to me?
Well, I cry movie trailers. I internalized this dead bird in the road for a month. And those are the stereotypical things we talked about. But that kind of explains it, right? Someone’s dog or cat passing on Facebook brings me down for the next three days, because I wear those things on my sleeve. And that doesn’t mean someone can’t be a good lawyer as a feeler. But what I encourage people to do in the book is take a look at that and see how you can maximize that in your occupation. We’re not all meant to be hard asses, right? Arguing with people across the deposition table. Figure out how to maximize what your emotional strengths are. Yeah, well, that’s what I did. I went it a profession of feelers, because I am adverse — I don’t like conflict. I’m not a fan of the adversarial profession.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, I can identify with that. I avoid conflict to the extent possible. My wife will see me, especially now with everything — there are so many videos on Twitter that some are hopeful, and some are … not. And you know, sometimes she’ll look over and I’ll have like, tears in my eyes and she’ll just shake your head because she knows that’s part of who I am.
Brian Cuban: Well, another example is, Mark built himself up as a salesperson, right? I remember us having a conversation about getting sales. I can’t do that. Well, why not? Because you have to call people and they’re going to yell at you. Can’t do it. I don’t want anyone — what did I do wrong? Why are you mad at me? So I project out all these things, right? And I’m told that’s just something you have to get over. But it terrifies me that I’m going to pick up the phone, and someone’s going to yell at me. What did I do?
Jeremy Richter: So a lot of people who are introverts think I couldn’t do public speaking. Because, you know, all the engagement, that sort of thing. And I think some of that is self-imposed limitations. But also, in my own experience, you know, it’s different than being in a roomful at a party of people that you’re trying to engage seven different people in a conversation at the same time. I’m an introverted person, but I can get up in front of people and talk. For you, how did you know work on those things?
Brian Cuban: I think passion offsets a lot of those fears. And at least for me to start — was I nervous and did I sweat? Yes. I changed shirts every time I spoke. Because I was terrified of what people thought of me. And I still go through that. I saw Prince William — there was an article on CNN, I think it’s Prince William, if he was the one married to the television person…
Jeremy Richter: Harry is married to the actress.
Brian Cuban: Ah, Meghan. Okay, so it’s Prince Harry. It was one of them was talking about public speaking and how as part of his coping mechanism, he doesn’t wear his glasses, so he can’t really see the audience. I do the same thing. I do the exact same thing. I do not wear my glasses when I speak, because it keeps me calm. So you figure out ways to cope, and passion gets over a lot of that. And you work on your skill. With information and with working on the art comes confidence. And the recovery speaking’s a little different. I try to tell people — look, people are not as interested in every little technical perfection as they are in making sure you’re authentic. And now you tell your story. Be authentic. Being authentic will mask a lot of speaking glitches.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, I think that’s really true. I want to end this with a message of hope. And I think this is all been a very positive, uplifting conversation. And so here’s something you wrote in the book: “Not everyone is meant to be a hard-ass. Pivot. Juke. Set your new path. Get healthy doing it. Be happy doing it. Exploring the ways you are a unique individual can certainly help with recovery.” And I think that applies, like we talked about earlier, not just to people who are in recovery from some sort of addiction, but to all of us more broadly.
Brian Cuban: It could be dealing with depression or anxiety or bipolar. They’re I mean, I focus on addiction and but alcohol and drugs and depression, but mental health issues are much broader than that.
Jeremy Richter: Well, I really appreciate you coming on the show today and taking the time to do this. I think it was really helpful and you said a lot of things that can be inspiring to folks.
Brian Cuban: Jeremy, I really appreciate your having me on. Anytime you want to do it again, let me know. Thanks so much. Take care.
Jeremy Richter: If you’ve enjoyed the show, you can support it by rating it on Apple podcasts or wherever it is you’re listening. And make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss anything. You can also support the show on Patreon at patreon.com/lawyerpreneur. Thanks for listening