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Too Many Lawyers Face Substance Abuse and Mental Illness


— August 21, 2019

Estimates of alcohol use among lawyers hovers at 85 percent, while only 65 percent of the average population drinks alcohol. One third of all attorneys have a drinking pattern that qualifies as problematic and potentially addictive.


Lawyers are known for their intense cases, relentlessly long hours, competitive work environments and ruthless amounts of stress. This lifestyle, coupled with high expectations and little room for error, leads to rates of substance abuse and mental health disorders that are greater than the average person’s, and even higher than those seen in other high-stress careers. 

Estimates of alcohol use among lawyers hovers at 85 percent, while only 65 percent of the average population drinks alcohol. One third of all attorneys have a drinking pattern that qualifies as problematic and potentially addictive. The legal profession and its relationship to substance use is alarming when compared to other professions – only 15 percent of medical doctors and 12 percent of highly educated workers overall report problematic alcohol use.

The idea of a doctor abusing substances is shocking – none of us want to receive surgery, anesthesia or get a prescription from a healthcare provider who isn’t thinking clearly. Yet, the same stigma rarely applies to lawyers, who are often thought to work hard and play harder. However, impaired judgment of attorneys can have a far-reaching negative impact on people and the communities in which we live. A person’s life could be quickly ruined if a custody agreement, will, contract or criminal defense were handled improperly due to substance abuse. 

Attorneys, Substance Abuse and Addiction

Alcohol is the number one substance abused by lawyers. Alcohol relieves stress by depressing brain function, making it difficult to have the brain capacity to worry. Prescription drugs are the second most commonly abused substance, followed by opioids and stimulants. It is not uncommon for an attorney addicted to alcohol to turn to opioids or stimulants to get through a demanding day of business with a hangover.

Alcohol addiction can be both physiological and behavioral. A person can develop physical dependence to alcohol, but a person doesn’t need to be physically addicted to have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. People who are addicted to alcohol drink despite the negative consequences that result from drinking, including problems with family, romantic relationships, friendships, career and finances.

Assorted bottles of alcohol on a shelf; image by Adam Wilson, via Unsplash.com.
Assorted bottles of alcohol on a shelf; image by Adam Wilson, via Unsplash.com.

Attorneys are more at risk for substance abuse and addiction during different phases of their careers. Addiction to alcohol is more likely during the beginning of a lawyer’s career and decreases slightly after practicing for over ten years. After practicing for twenty years, the risk of problematic drinking is reduced even further. This pattern suggests that the stress of earning one’s way to partner is crippling enough to turn to alcohol as a coping tool. Attorneys who work at private firms are much more likely than their peers in government, non profit or criminal law to abuse alcohol. This may imply a link between acceptability of drinking in professional culture in the private firm environment. 

Drug use and abuse is difficult to track in attorneys, because admitting to drug use can cost a lawyer their career. For this reason, drug use statistics aren’t as accurate as they could be. Still, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services ranks the legal profession as the ninth highest when surveying illicit drug use. 

In a rigorous survey of almost 13,000 attorneys, over five percent reported using stimulants or cocaine within the past year, with 75 percent of these people reporting using the drugs weekly. Sedative use was common in fifteen percent of those sampled, with half of those people reported using the drugs weekly. Marijuana use was around ten percent, while opioids were five percent.

Attorneys are at Risk for Mental Illness 

Lawyers skip sleep and meals to meet deadlines. An important case could mean weeks away from spouses and children. Sleep deprivation, exhaustion and loneliness are a perfect storm of dysfunction that could cause even the most resilient person to become anxious or depressed. 

Mental illness is a dark reality for many attorneys. Almost thirty percent of lawyers report depression, while almost twenty percent say they are anxious. When asked about the past, over sixty percent admit to having anxiety at some point in their career and almost half report being depressed during some of their time as an attorney. These rates are even higher when combined with alcohol abuse. 

The high rates of depression and substance abuse in attorneys suggest that happiness among this group may be subjectively different from one person to the next. A study that looked at lawyers and happiness found some surprising information. The data concluded that public service attorneys, despite much lower pay, reported higher levels of happiness than their colleagues with prestigious positions at large firms. Junior associates in firms, although in positions of lower pay and esteem, were no less happy than senior associates. 

Changing the Narrative Surrounding Attorneys and Addiction

Substance use disorders and mental health issues are so prominent in the legal community that the American Bar Association founded an initiative called The Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession to promote mental wellness. The campaign seeks to acknowledge the existing substance use and mental health problem within the legal community and then work to change education, policies and culture around substance use. Some of the country’s largest and most well-known firms have signed a pledge to the commitment to lawyer well-being.

Change, of course, takes time and transforming an entire culture may not be entirely possible. In a career where being successful means achieving status through competition and emotionless thinking, making a change toward mental well-being and proactive self-care seems nearly impossible. In the meantime, attorneys who are living with substance abuse and mental health issues will need to confront their problems head on, with the type of determination and grit that makes them successful at practicing law. 

Until legal professional culture can be overhauled, those within the profession who need help with substance abuse and mental health issues generally have generous health benefits or financial means, enabling them access to addiction professionals. Getting the right kind of help may mean a career hiatus of undetermined length, and this may be the hardest emotional hurdle for many lawyers to overcome. 

This article was authored by Dr. Sarah Toler, a medical expert at Addictions.com.

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