David S. Mercer '70, Lawyer & mental health advocate

David Mercer '70Political Science Major
Currently working in: Alexandria, Virginia

 The Record, October 2011 -- "I HAVE MADE a lot of decisions for all the wrong reasons," says David S. Mercer '70. "I am lucky that my life has worked out as well as it has."

An accomplished lawyer and partner in the Alexandria-based firm MercerTrigiani, Mercer is using that good fortune to help other lawyers and members of the legal profession overcome alcoholism, a disease he has been fighting for 25 years. He has been a driving force in the advancement of Lawyers Helping Lawyers, a confidential, non-disciplinary program helping lawyers, judges, paralegals, and other members of the profession get treatment for all mental health issues.

Mercer's legal specialty is community associations-condominium boards and homeowners associations. However, his real passion is helping people who need it. This developed in earnest when two colleagues reached out to him in 1986. "They came to me and said, 'We think you have a drinking problem'."

"I found myself not able not to drink. I had a beautiful family, beautiful children, and a beautiful house. I thought it all looked perfect from the outside, but I knew something wasn't right. I was focusing too much on consuming alcohol."

"Sixteen to 18 percent of legal professionals may have a problem with substance abuse. There are 44,000 licensed attorneys in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Every year 150 come through Lawyers Helping Lawyers. Many more need help."
lawyer and mental health advocate

Next came one of those occasions where Mercer made a decision for the wrong reasons. He needed to find a rehab facility, so he asked a colleague recovering from alcoholism. The colleague recommended a 30-day program, which Mercer thought was too long. "I found a place in Havre de Grace, Maryland, that was only 28 days. Havre de Grace also sits right on the Chesapeake Bay and happens to be the duck carving capitol of the world. Duck hunting is one of my passions, so that was the place I picked."

Another significant decision Mercer made for all the wrong reasons was coming to Hampden-Sydney College. His two older brothers played football at Randolph-Macon College. The coach there knew Mercer would soon be entering college and offered him a position on the team-the same position his brothers had played. At a football camp before college, Hampden-Sydney Football Coach Stokeley Fulton approached Mercer at camp and asked him about playing for the Tigers. Mercer told him he wanted to be a running back and Fulton agreed. The deal was done.

"I don't even remember filling out an application. I know I had never been to Hampden-Sydney and I don't think I knew anything about it. The first time I saw it was when I showed up for football camp before school started. Fortunately, I loved it. Hampden-Sydney College is an unbelievable setting with unbelievable people, and I had unbelievable times. Even though my rationale was shallow, everything worked out wonderfully."

As a political science student, Mercer was particularly fond of Dr. Robert T. Hubard. Not only did he take many of Hubard's classes, but also Mercer found a comrade in him. They both spent much of their time on crutches-Mercer from his football injuries and Hubard from polio.

After graduating from the University of Richmond law school, Mercer was hired as a lawyer and lobbyist. He was thrust into the then-new world of vertical real estate, following the passage of the 1974 Virginia Condominium Act. After a successful career in the field, he considered retiring in 2007 but decided instead to create a boutique firm with his law colleague Pia Trigiani.

"When I first started practicing law, the man who hired me said I needed to do two things to get the most out of my career: give back to the community and do pro bono work. So, I joined the Jaycees and the Board of Directors of the Boys Club. I also did court-appointed criminal defense for ten years. When Pia and I started our firm we said everyone there had to have a 'glass half-full' approach. We wanted to dictate the environment of the practice and we wanted that environment to be positive."

Having been through his own treatment for alcoholism, Mercer is using his natural positivity to promote Lawyers Helping Lawyers and to reach out to people who need help.

"Alcoholism is a disease recognized by the American Medical Association," says Mercer. "It is not a lack of will power or mental fortitude. When I learned that it is a disease, I wanted to know the prescription. For me, it was going to a rehab facility and following the Alcoholics Anonymous program."

This meant making profound changes in his life. He stopped traveling for a year and spent every night at home with his family. Every day at noon he went to an AA meeting. He removed the people, habits, and events in his life that contributed to his drinking problem.

"The 12th and final step of the AA program is to help another alcoholic. That is what I am doing through Lawyers Helping Lawyers. Whether I am raising awareness, educating people, or talking with someone who may have a drinking problem, I am helping another alcoholic."

He says, "I like to be in the field, taking the call. My life changed for the better when I was approached in a loving, compassionate way by my colleagues. My favorite way-because it worked for me-is to approach a person in a loving, caring way and say, 'The jig is up'."

"Sixteen to 18 percent of legal professionals may have a problem with substance abuse. There are 44,000 licensed attorneys in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Every year 150 come through Lawyers Helping Lawyers. Many more need help."

Mercer loves his job and his family, but his passion is helping people. There may have been some wrong reasons along the way, but it has turned out to be a great decision.