Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JUNE 2007
Profiles in the Law
The Original "Lawyer in Transition":
The PLF's Michael Sweeney Retires

By Cliff Collins

Michael J. Sweeney

Michael J. Sweeney took his initial swig of alcohol at age 15. "I was an alcoholic the minute I took my first drink," he says. "I liked the way it made me feel, and I kept chasing that high."

He quit drinking when he was 35, but sensed he had a problem well before that. A University of Oregon graduate, Sweeney chose to go to law school at Gonzaga University even though he also was accepted at Oregon, thinking that would get him away from his drinking friends in college. However, shortly after arriving in Spokane, he picked up with new friends and continued imbibing there.

Not until he had taken care of his own addiction problem did he embark on his many years of helping others. He became an attorney counselor with the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program in 1989, and until his unanticipated retirement earlier this year, had been assistant director of OAAP since 2000.

A certified alcohol and drug counselor III, the highest level, he is one of the best-known individuals in Oregon — and one of the most recognized nationally — among those who help attorneys with alcohol problems.

He has helped countless Oregon State Bar members and family members, shepherding addicts into recovery and encouraging them to attend 12-step meetings. Many testify privately or publicly that he helped save their careers, and in many cases their lives.

Sweeney is the most selfless individual imaginable, says Andrew J. Bobzein, a Portland family lawyer. "His whole recovery life is serving others, helping whoever comes into his path," says Bobzein, adding that Sweeney spent many hours of his off-work time assisting people he met at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and elsewhere.

"It’s hard to believe how active he is in that Good Samaritan role," says Bobzein, adding that Sweeney’s dedication challenges all who know him to ask themselves, "If this guy can do this, why am I not doing more?"

"Through his compassion and expertise, he has helped hundreds of lawyers and their families and colleagues through difficult times," says Ira Zarov, chief executive officer of the Professional Liability Fund. Sweeney’s work has helped push Oregon to the forefront of attorney assistance programs, and also made both Sweeney and the state influential nationally in the field, Zarov says.

Itinerant Beginnings
Sweeney’s and his family’s early years were vagabond in nature, mostly as a result of his father’s alcoholism. Michael was born in Chicago, and the family shortly thereafter moved to Butte, Mont. He went to grade school in Ontario, Ore., and junior high in Grants Pass, and completed high school in Heppner, which he considers his hometown.

Beginning in the second grade, Sweeney was allowed to stay up late and watch "Perry Mason" on television. The show proved to be his biggest career influence, and from then on he wanted to become a lawyer. Sweeney paid for his own college and law school by working summers, mostly fighting forest fires, and as a result did not have to work during the school year. He finished at the U of O in three and a half years.

"I’ve worked every day since I was 15 years old," he says. "I’d start a summer job the day after school ended. There were no vacations. Law school teaches you that hard work is going to be rewarded. You get used to those long hours."

Sweeney’s plan was to teach law. But his mother came down with cancer after he finished law school, so he instead went back to Heppner to help her, where he practiced law for seven and a half years. After his then-wife was accepted to Reed College, the couple moved to Portland. He again looked into obtaining a master’s to teach legal history, but ended up investing with others in opening up an advertising company devoted to selling ads on bus benches.

For six years, he served as chief executive and corporate counsel to the company, called Ad Bench Inc. In that role Sweeney got his first exposure to legislative lobbying, a skill he would employ later in his extensive work to help the recovery community.

During his first year at Ad Bench Sweeney was still drinking, and things came to a head when his wife "started kicking me out of the house," he recalls. He then would go on two- to three-day binges. "I knew she was going to leave if I didn’t quit."

In 1984, Sweeney contacted the Professional Liability Fund’s alcohol assistance program, what would later become the OAAP. Don Muccigrosso, the assistance program’s founder, encouraged Sweeney to go to 12-step meetings and to connect with his program.

"Getting involved with the OAAP changed my life," Sweeney says. "It reached out and gave me a life preserver."

Rising in the Ranks
Five years after Sweeney entered recovery, he volunteered for 10 hours a week as an attorney counselor in the PLF program that had helped him. Within three to four weeks Sweeney was volunteering 40 hours a week. The PLF then asked him to write his own job description. Soon he was offered a permanent job.

Over the next 18 years, Sweeney helped the organization develop programs such as those for co-dependents and for adult children of alcoholics. He started the first program in the country for lawyers "in transition," which helps attorneys with career issues including: burnout and stress management; depression and anxiety; gambling, sex and Internet addiction; procrastination and time management; and relationship problems.

Like most pioneering efforts, this one met some resistance: Sweeney remembers that the PLF initially was "lukewarm" about whether the assistance program should expand into helping lawyers with career transitions. But he successfully convinced the organization that an unhappy lawyer is more likely to make mistakes.

Lawyers in Transition turned out to be one of the OAAP’s most popular programs, Sweeney notes. In 2006, the OAAP provided individual services to approximately 750 people. About 40 percent of them accessed the program for issues related to alcohol, drugs or mental health; the remaining 60 percent accessed it for career or other issues.

Over the years, Sweeney has been involved with numerous Oregon and national efforts and organizations related to his field. He served on several ABA committees related to alcohol and drug addiction, co-chairing one of them. He has served on the Oregon Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Programs, including a two-year term as chair, and has been co-chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Underage Drinking. He was president of the Oregon Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, a member of several OSB committees and a member of the first OSB House of Delegates.

He is a founding member of the Oregon Partnership, a statewide nonprofit organization dealing with prevention, education and treatment referral for alcoholics and addicts. In 2001, Sweeney received the Oregon Partnership Leadership Award for perseverance in advancing prevention and treatment in Oregon. In 2004, he was recognized by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence at the council’s 60th anniversary.

Sweeney also has authored several articles, some of which have been reprinted in bar journals around the nation. He is a frequent speaker and presenter at seminars and conferences, which he enjoys doing.

"Michael is a very inspirational person who has touched many lives," says Shari Gregory, the OAAP’s assistant director. "The blessing and curse of Michael is that he could never say no. He worked very hard, and was overcommitted as a result."

However, Sweeney’s nonstop whirlwind of activity and advocacy has come to an abrupt halt not of his choosing. In late February, the 57-year-old lawyer was diagnosed with Pick’s disease, a rare neurological disorder that affects decision-making ability and balance. Doctors and family advised him to cease working, to try to slow the disease’s progression.

"Watching from the sidelines is hard for him to do," observes Kelly Sweeney, his oldest daughter. "Everybody sees him as someone who works for others, and it comes second-nature to him." However, she adds that her father has remained optimistic, and is "slowing down a little, enjoying life a little more," including his three terrific grandchildren.

Michael Sweeney says of both Pick’s and alcoholism: "I didn’t ask for either one of them. They are (both) diseases." And even though Pick’s is considered a fatal disorder, Sweeney has high hopes that he will be "one of the first to survive" it.

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2007 Cliff Collins

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