The Real State of Substance Abuse Among Lawyers

Lawyers drink.

The image of lawyers clinking their glasses—to celebrate a victory, mourn a loss, close a deal, or for pretty much any old excuse—has long been part of the legal culture. Yet there has been little or no research into the true state of substance abuse and mental illness in the law for 25 years. That changed this year with the publication of a new study of over 12,000 lawyers in 19 states. The results, as the study’s lead author put it, are “disheartening but not surprising.”

The research shows that lawyers grapple with significantly higher rates of problematic alcohol and drug use than other professionals and the rest of the population, including depression, anxiety, and stress.

The Data

The study, conducted by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, surveyed lawyers about alcohol and drug use and mental health challenges.

In the 25 years since the last major study, lawyers have continued to abuse alcohol at alarmingly high rates. Over 20% of lawyers surveyed indicated problematic drinking. In comparison, the study reported, only 11.8% of a highly educated workforce screened positive by the same measure in a separate study. Only 6.8% of the general adult population has alcohol abuse disorders, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Men had a significantly higher proportion of positive screens for problematic alcohol use than women did. On one measure, which assessed how much and how often someone drinks, over a third (36%) of lawyers scored at levels consistent with hazardous drinking. Compare that with only 15% of physicians on the same measure.

In a reversal from earlier studies, the new research revealed that the first ten years of practice are the most highly correlated with problematic drinking. Younger attorneys were significantly more likely than their older colleagues to report hazardous use of alcohol. Of the respondents who believed their alcohol use was a problem, nearly 44% reported that the problem surfaced within 15 years of leaving law school, compared with only 14% reporting that the problem arose during law school and 27% saying it began earlier than law school. The study concludes, “it is reasonable to surmise from these findings that being in the early stages of one’s legal career is strongly correlated with a high risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.”

Mental health problems often co-occur with alcohol and substance abuse. This study revealed high levels of depression, stress, and anxiety among attorneys, and the levels were particularly high among those screening positive for alcohol abuse. Specifically, 28% of those surveyed reported mild or high levels of depression, 19% reported anxiety, and 23% reported mild or high stress.

Finally, unlike the general population, lawyers are less likely to seek treatment unless they are required to.

What Next?

Although the results of the study are alarming, the lead author of the study, Patrick Krill, of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, hopes that the profession will see the research as an opportunity. “I hope that the time and attention paid to the issues raised by the research will be an opportunity for the profession to begin charting a new course.”

The profession’s new course will have to involve systemic change. Krill notes that no group of attorneys is immune from problematic substance use or from mental health challenges. Across regions, practice areas, and practice settings, the findings showed consistently high rates of alcohol use and mental health challenges. The widespread nature of the problem, Krill observes, will require the involvement of lawyers themselves, law schools, and law firms, in addition to existing lawyers assistance programs.

Changing the Culture

Krill notes that, in the long term, shifts in culture will be important. “Any way you look at it, this data is very alarming,” Krill said. “[It] paints a picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people.”

Currently, heavy drinking is normalized across the board in the legal profession, especially within many law firms. To make matters worse, competition, perfection, and conflict can create the perfect breeding ground for alcoholism and substance abuse, particularly when the law is, by nature, stressful and intense. Krill suggests that leading law firms (e.g., AmLaw 100 firms) and top-ranked law schools take a hard look at how they could support change. They have an opportunity to change the definition what qualifies as acceptable behavior.

Law schools have an especially important role to play since they teach the next generation of lawyers the values and norms of the profession. Linda Albert, who co-authored the new study and is a representative of the ABA’s Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, suggests that law schools mandate classes on drug and alcohol issues, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between impaired lawyers and ethical violations. Albert adds that law schools need to improve the messaging that getting help is the responsible, strong course of action. Young attorneys, Krill says, need to enter their working years with “their eyes wide open” to the risks of substance abuse.

Krill adds that behavioral health needs to be more closely tied to attorney competence, performance, and even to the bottom line. He emphasizes, though, that an attorney who has recovered from addiction, mental illness, or other substance abuse problems, can often be a superb attorney. Sometimes the people who have recovered are “better professionals,” he notes, because they are clear mentally and are committed to ethical, honest work, some of the highest values of our profession.

Individual attorneys should not wait for systemic change, though. If you suspect you may be struggling with a mental health issue or substance abuse challenge, don’t wait to seek help. Every state has a lawyers assistance program, and there are many other treatment options as well. A directory of programs can be found at the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. If there is a silver lining to the study, lawyers should now realize they are not alone and help is available.

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