Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

This lawyer’s trouble with opioids has changed his legal career — for the better | Jenice Armstrong

James Helm turned down a “dream job” with a big law firm to help those who struggle the way he once did.

James Helm, 28, of Media, was inspired by what he learned in rehab to start a law firm that would help clients.
James Helm, 28, of Media, was inspired by what he learned in rehab to start a law firm that would help clients.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Attorney James Helm’s “marketing campaign” is unlike any I’ve ever seen from a lawyer.

I discovered him on Instagram, on the popular site @NoGunZone, which tracks city violence.

At the time, Helm — a personal injury attorney — was promoting a giveaway of diapers, socks, toothpaste, backpacks, and other items to help single mothers.

Weeks later, I noticed that he had posted a crazy video in which he poses as an accident victim with back pain who hires a lawyer, also played by him, who then gets paid with money that falls from the ceiling while he dances underneath. I giggled and thought, what personal-injury attorney spoofs his own profession?

» READ MORE: Teenage genealogist has a gift for linking your past to your present

But what really caught my attention about Helm’s Instagram page is the fact that he’s so open about being in recovery from opioid addiction.

“Someone has to show people [in addiction] that there is a way out,” says Helm, “that we do recover and do amazing things.”

Helm’s substance abuse began the way many addictions do: His doctor prescribed him pills.

Helm, now 28, was a freshman on the wrestling team at Penncrest High School in Media when he tore his right rotator cuff and was given legal painkillers. Two years later, he was back in surgery — this time for his left shoulder — and again prescribed opiates.

He was young and impressionable, and he allowed himself to be influenced by certain kids around him who used opioids recreationally. By his junior year, Helm was using them that way as well.

And so began his double life: By day, he was Penncrest’s three-time student body president, taking advanced placement classes. By night, he popped pills and drank in an effort to fit in with the kids who partied that way.

“I still remember this girl at a party being like, ‘James, you’re doing this?’ And me being like, ‘Yeaah! I can do this, too. I can fit in with this crowd,' " recalls Helm. “I think that’s why a lot of [young] people” abuse drugs.

» READ MORE: The Soup Squad gang proves you can help others even when you need help yourself

Despite his reliance on opioids, Helm managed to make his way through Penn State and later earned joint graduate degrees in law and business from Rutgers University in 2018. So from the outside, he had it going on.

But on the inside, Helm was in chaos. He was well aware that what he was doing to himself wasn’t much different from what the people with opioid addictions were doing in Kensington, where their ravaged bodies are the community’s most tragic landmarks.

“I have so much compassion for those people because I understand they didn’t start like that," he says. “They probably started with the same 5 milligram Percocet pill I did — and things got worse.”

Things were definitely getting worse for him. A romantic relationship had ended, and he worried that his escalating addiction would interfere with his schooling and the law career he was trying to launch.

At the advice of a therapist, Helm entered a residential rehab facility in August 2016 but left after just six days because he didn’t want to cancel any of the 53 interviews he’d lined up with law firms. Instead, he enrolled in an outpatient rehab-after-work program in Haddonfield, N.J., where nobody knew him.

“Around the 60-day mark, a light bulb started going off,” he said. “I started to have fun in this new life. I reevaluated my relationship with God. I started to rediscover fitness. I started to rediscover [myself] as a kid.”

That summer, he nabbed a dream position as a summer associate at a top-tier law firm. When it ended, he was offered a permanent full-time position with a starting salary of $120,000.

“It was the job offer I thought I always wanted — it was validation that I had gotten this dream that I had set for myself. But I slowly started to have these doubts,” Helm said, about realizing that what had most appealed to him about the job was the status it would convey.

“I wanted to say I worked there. I wanted other people [to be impressed] that I worked there,” he admitted.

The soul-searching process of rehab had him questioning some of the things he once thought were so important.

“I guess I had a new perspective on valuing my happiness and self-worth" before anything else, he said.

Looking for clarity, he attended a motivational seminar led by self-help guru Tony Robbins and found the courage to turn down the job offer and open his own personal-injury firm. He decided he would donate 10 percent of the company’s net profits to various anti-drug causes.

"In recovery, I saw people at some of the worst points of their life,” Helm said. “I thought, what if a law firm could not only help someone win their legal case, but also impact others’ lives for the better?”

Helm launched his practice — called TopDog Law — in February 2019, under the legal mentorship of Robert Fine of Fine & Staud, who also gave him free office space inside the firm’s building at 1333 Race St.

“He is turning marketing and advertising in the legal profession on his head,” Fine pointed out. "Nobody has done what he is doing.”

It remains to be seen how far Helm’s social-media posts will take him in the legal profession. But I hope that his transparency about his past will give others who struggle with addiction the courage to seek help.

Especially lawyers.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that a staggering 28 percent of licensed, employed attorneys struggle with depression; 20.6 percent qualify as problem drinkers; and 19 percent suffer from anxiety — all at a higher rate than other professionals. Younger attorneys (those in the first 10 years of their practice, as Helm is) showed the highest incidence of these issues.

“Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations,” the study concludes. “Mental health stress is also significant. These data underscore the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs, and also the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.”

If Helm’s story helps a lawyer — or anyone else — who is fighting addiction, he’ll have truly earned the title “TopDog.”