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Lawyers And Substance Abuse

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 26, 2019

Substance abuse and addiction do not discern between types of people—it is a disease that can affect anyone, however, certain professions do show a greater disposition to these detrimental patterns of drug use and abuse. As a whole, research illustrates that lawyers struggle with substance abuse in a greater capacity than the average citizen.

Substance Abuse May Start In Law School

Many experts theorize that this issue begins in law school. In fact, The American Bar Association (ABA) published an article examining this very thing. Addiction may stem from many things, however, one very common precursor is mental health disorders. The article spoke of this concern, noting that students, upon entering into law school with average levels of happiness, found that “within the first six months, early signs of psychiatric problems, such as depression, anxiety, hostility, and paranoia, can be detected. After the first year of law school, as many as 40 percent of law students suffer from depression. Symptoms often persist through law school and into their later legal careers.”

The article also notes the following factors that may contribute to excessive use of drugs or alcohol:

  • Large amounts of stress derived from a highly competitive environment coupled with an often intense workload
  • An overwhelming teaching style
  • This profession may draw individuals that are prone to overachieving or being perfectionists
  • Greater opportunity to use drugs or alcohol
  • Define their sense of self from their measure of success within their studies
  • Losing touch with the causes that may have pushed them towards law in the first place (such as helping to increase the greater good of society).
  • Becoming overcome by pressure to cultivate a certain self-image and achieve a specific social standing, which may then lead to a person having a reduced sense of self-worth, sense of fulfillment, or wholesome values.
  • Being instructed to set aside emotional responses or personal opinions, in a manner that pits their beliefs against the positions they are representing.

Due to the requirements and trajectory of this career path, individuals do not often encounter a break from the stress. As they leave the stress of schooling behind, they now encounter the stress of their careers and the subsequent expectations.

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Constant Expectations May Fuel Substance Abuse

The law profession is a high-stress and demanding field. For lawyers, the caliber of their work affects the lives and wellbeing of their clients, a position that can be overwhelming, and push them beyond recognizing or nurturing their own needs. This may be because they are constantly exuding a professional demeanor that forces them to mask their own thoughts and reactions to the situations that they encounter within their cases.

Compelling in its honesty, the ABA article broached the notion that some lawyers may turn to substance abuse as a way to cope with internal struggles regarding the fact that “they have compromised their ethical principles and moral values. They may bend the rules to hold onto a key client or pursue ‘winning’ at all costs.” In response to this, they may experience “guilt and shame build up, they try to bury those feelings with drugs or alcohol.

When you consider the subject matter that many lawyers face within their cases—child abuse, violent crimes, custody battles, and divorce, among others—it becomes more evident why they may have a hard time sustaining morale. Paired with the unpredictable nature of the trials, lawyers may often experience large amounts of stress.

For many, there is constant pressure to maintain a certain amount of billable hours. Many lawyers have large caseloads and work excessive amounts of hours every week, with the potential to work nights and weekends, a practice that might remove them in a significant capacity from other aspects of their life, such as their family. It is also said that lawyers do not readily rely on their coworkers for support, hence, these combined factors may lead to a sense of alienation or isolation that they may attempt to squash with substance abuse.

Beyond this is the continued pressure to succeed, to obtain partner, or to outshine fellow associates. An individual might get frustrated with the specifications of their job, finding that instead of actively spending time on their own cases, they are doing more for their superiors, leading to a discrepancy between what they anticipated going into their career, and what it actually entails.

Substance Abuse Can Impact Your Career

Even if you’re not drinking or consuming drugs while on the job, your substance abuse or addiction may still negatively impact your career in countless ways. Substance abuse and addiction may impair your memory, focus, ability to concentrate, judgement, and decision-making skills. Your productivity and communication may falter, impacting not just yourself, but the peers who may rely on your work in order to do their job.

An APA publication, “If There Is One Bar a Lawyer Cannot Seem to Pass: Alcoholism in the Legal Profession,” reports that of attorneys who face formal disciplinary charges, 25 percent contend with an addiction or a mental illness, further elaborating 60 percent of all disciplinary cases involved substance abuse in some capacity. This article also noted that “60 percent of all malpractice claims and 85 percent of all trust fund violation cases involve substance abuse.”

Signs That Substance Abuse May Be Of Concern

Beyond the more general signs of substance dependence or abuse, a lawyer may exhibit certain signs within their professional life that are indicative of an underlying drug or alcohol problem. Some of the following signs were found within resources presented by The Mississippi Bar.

  • Changes in professional appearance—arriving to work or court unkempt or without proper professional attire
  • Inconsistencies in behavior, increased moodiness at work
  • Decreased performance or poor preparation for cases
  • Pleading or presenting decisions in court that seem ill-suited to the facts at hand
  • Malpractice and disciplinary actions
  • Absenteeism from meetings, hearings, or depositions
  • Changes or a reduction in billable hours

If you witness any of these or any other atypical behaviors in yourself, your loved one, or your associate, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Contrary to what you might think, instead of damaging a person’s career, you are actually giving them an opportunity to revitalize and protect their career.

Study Finds A High Prevalence Of Substance Use Among Attorneys

In early 2016, the Journal of Addiction Medicine published the results of a study that sought to determine the impact of both substance abuse and mental health concerns within American attorneys. The study looked at 12,825 licensed attorneys, who were employed at the time of participation. Researchers utilized the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), the self-report Depression Anxiety Stress Scales-21 (DASS-21), and the short-form Drug Abuse Screening Test-10 (DAST), to determine the scope of alcohol or drug abuse and a propensity towards depression, anxiety, or stress.

The study found that “Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise generally consistent with alcohol use disorders at a rate much higher than other populations.” Based on AUDIT qualifications, 20.6 percent, or one in five, exhibited scores that were “positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.”

To put this number in another light, we will compare it to the most recent study prior to this, which occurred in 1990, and highlighted that 18 percent of attorneys fell into the problematic range. In 25 years, the number rose by nearly 13 percent. Beyond this, and perhaps even more shocking, is when you compare this profession to the general public. According to data sourced from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in 2014, 6.8 percent of Americans aged 18 and older suffered from an alcohol use disorder. Thus, the rate of problematic drinking for American attorneys is three times that of the typical American.

Contrary to what is seen in other professions, and what was previously thought, as time passed and individuals remained in their professions longer, the percentage of problematic drinking actually decreased. The greatest amount of problematic drinking was seen in the youngest workers, specifically those under 30, at 32.3 percent. Men were also more apt to test positive for problematic drinking than women.

The study broke down drug use, finding that of those that reported substance use, in terms of weekly use, stimulants ranked number one, at 74.1 percent, followed by sedatives, tobacco, marijuana, and opioids at 51.3 percent, 46.8 percent, 31.0 percent, and 21.6 percent, respectively.

In terms of mental health results, the study found that men struggled more with depression, while women encountered higher levels of stress and anxiety. Overall, they found that 28 percent encountered depression, 19 percent, anxiety, and 23 percent, stress.

Perceptions Create Barriers For Treatment

Anytime a person struggles from substance abuse or addiction, they need help. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, some people choose not to seek treatment. A lawyer may be so accustomed to helping other people that they find the concept of helping themselves somewhat foreign, or secondary to their pursuits.

Another reason may be related to an unfortunate stigma that is attached to seeking or obtaining treatment. The Journal of Addiction Medicine study reported on this very thing, noting that individuals who had either sought treatment in the past or who had never, both expressed fears that people would find out that they were seeking help, or encounter issues of privacy or confidentiality within the treatment.

A lawyer might, like any person, may fall prey to the unfortunate mindset that addiction is a moral failing. They may come to believe that it speaks of their capacity to uphold the tenets of their job, rather than a treatable disease, effectively cutting themselves off from the resources that could help them.

Seeking Help

It is imperative that any individual with a drug or alcohol problem get help. For lawyers, they need to overcome concerns of stigma and seek help. Free and confidential service does exist within every state to help law students, lawyers, and other law professionals who may be struggling with substance abuse. In 1988, The American Bar Association recognized the severity of this concern, creating the Commission on Impaired Attorneys, which was a catalyst for the creation of state-to-state outreach initiatives, called lawyer assistance programs. You can find out more information about these programs here.

Beyond this, a wide variety of substance abuse and addiction treatment programs exist. Whether it be an outpatient or inpatient drug rehab, there is most certainly something that will fit your or your loved one’s needs. In addition, professional drug rehab programs exist, that will afford you the privacy and confidentiality that you crave while allowing you the tools, amenities, and support that you need to continue working while you’re receiving treatment.

Due to the apparent prevalence of mental health concerns, a good treatment facility should also be adept at addressing these concerns. If left untreated, the depression, stress, and anxiety that are shown to afflict this profession could aggravate a now sober person in a way that incites relapse. To avoid this risk, and to all-around strengthen their client’s health and well-being, many programs offer treatment for these co-occurring disorders.

Protect Your Health And Career

Addiction doesn’t just impact your personal life, it can influence, to the point of great detriment, your professional life and obligations. Please, don’t let this happen—if you’re already beginning to see this damage, reach out before it gains any more momentum.

At, our staff understands the pressures and demands of professional life, and we can help you develop and maintain the skills that are necessary to protect your sobriety and your job. We can answer any questions you have about seeking treatment or the financial obligations that are associated with it. Contact us today, and take the first step towards a healthier life and a better career.

The American Bar Association - Directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs

The Mississippi Bar - Substance Abuse/Dependency

Journal of Addiction Medicine - The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol Facts and Statistics

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