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The Connection: Lawyers, Addiction, and Abuse

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Attorneys often face immense pressure within their chosen profession, frequently beginning with the challenges to perform in law school. Later, the demands of the job and its associated stressors may lead to an increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ 2014 national report named alcohol as the number-one substance abuse–related problem for attorneys, followed by prescription drugs.1

Of the nearly 13,000 licensed, employed lawyers who were surveyed in a recent study, 85% had used alcohol in the past year, which is higher than the general population’s alcohol use rate of 70%. Additionally, a little more than 20% of participants engaged in harmful drinking on a regular basis, and nearly 16% used sedatives in the previous year.2,3

Who, What, Why, and How

Alcohol use is prevalent among lawyers and lawyers-to-be at many levels, from law school students to senior partners in large firms. Research indicates that younger attorneys just starting out in practice may be the most likely to develop substance abuse problems.4  

Specifically, lawyers in their first 10 years of practice have the highest rates of alcohol use, which decreases slightly after 21 or more years of experience. According to a study, for those lawyers who admitted that drinking was a problem, 44% said the problem began within their first 15 years of practice.2

There are many reasons why lawyers have higher rates of substance abuse than the general population:5

  • Practicing law is a stressful occupation and often involves working long hours.
  • Law students and practicing attorneys may use alcohol to relieve tension, relax, and escape problems.
  • Aspiring lawyers have to contend with grueling law school courses and passing the bar exam.
  • Experienced attorneys may have learned to cut corners to “win at any cost” and act unethically; when the guilt or stress catches up with them, they may drink or use drugs to avoid those feelings.

Another theory is that attorneys who enter the legal field tend to have certain personality characteristics, such as risk-taking, that make them more likely to become addicted to substances.5,6

Levels of depression, anxiety, and stress are also high among lawyers, and mental health concerns often accompany alcohol use disorders. Among lawyers in a recent study, 46% had depression and 61% reported significant anxiety during their careers. It is unclear which comes first, though: the drinking (which leads to emotional problems) or the emotional problems (which leads to drinking).2

Attorneys’ workplace culture—a consistent predictor of workplace drinking—may increase their susceptibility to substance use too. Job environments that are more accepting of alcohol use are more likely to have employees with alcohol problems, and research indicates that many law offices are quite permissive of drinking.7 For many attorneys, alcohol is readily available and socially acceptable at events, such as work-related gatherings. And it may be acceptable for lawyers to drink with clients during work hours to celebrate a win.7

For others, the need to work long hours may lead to taking drugs, such as stimulants, to increase energy and remain alert.

Effects

There are numerous adverse effects of substance abuse—both short- and long-term—that depend on the substance used, how much is taken, and how often it is used, among other factors. Some general physical and mental effects and potential outcomes of drug abuse and addiction include:8

  • Impairments in judgment.
  • Trouble making decisions.
  • Impaired learning.
  • Psychosis.
  • Mood disorders.
  • Dangerous changes in blood pressure.
  • Heart attack.
  • Heart disease.
  • Lung disease.
  • Liver damage.
  • Cancer.
  • Stroke.
  • Overdose.
  • Death.

Substance abuse can negatively impact a lawyer’s social life too, including:9

  • Having problems in social and intimate relationships; frequent arguments with a spouse or partner because of drug use.
  • Avoiding social situations in favor of using drugs or alcohol.
  • Giving up things they once used to enjoy.
  • Doing things that are not consistent with their long-held beliefs or values while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The professional cost of drug and alcohol abuse is significant for law students and attorneys, and the results of alcohol or drug addiction can be incredibly dramatic and destructive for the drug user as well as friends, family, and even colleagues. Drugs and alcohol may affect lawyers’ work performance in the following ways:9,10

  • Disciplinary action related to drug or alcohol use
  • Poor work quality
  • Arriving late or not showing up for meetings or court appearances
  • Avoiding partners, colleagues, and clients
  • Blaming others for missing deadlines or poor job performance
  • Neglecting cases
  • Finding it hard to perform basic legal duties
  • Forgetting to file motions
  • Missing important deadlines
  • Drinking before meeting with demanding clients
  • Feeling like you need a drink to deal with difficult cases
  • Disbarment, or the loss of license or admission to practice law

Detox

Alcohol and drug addiction is treatable, but the specific strategies vary depending on your particular needs. The first step in treatment is usually detox, which is a program that lasts a few days to a few weeks and helps you manage your withdrawal symptoms as the drugs leave your body.11

Withdrawal symptoms can be very uncomfortable and even deadly, depending on the substance used. Alcohol, for example, can produce severe withdrawal symptoms that, when not managed properly, could result in death. Some of the most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:11

  • Insomnia.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Tremors.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Nightmares.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Paranoia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Aggression.
  • Breathing problems.
  • Seizures.
  • Coma.
  • Suicide.

During detox, medical interventions are often used to help ease the discomfort of some of these symptoms, or to stave off the more serious ones altogether. Detox may take place in a hospital, a medical clinic, or another facility, where you are closely monitored to prevent or treat severe or fatal withdrawal symptoms.11

In addition to detox, there are several other types of treatments and programs available for lawyers with an addiction. Many law firms offer support for their employees to enter a treatment programs, which may include:1,5,12

  • Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP): Most states offer LAP programs for legal professionals, which provide advice and support for lawyers and law students who struggle with drug or alcohol problems. Most LAPs provide help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.6
  • Drug Rehabilitation Centers/Executive Detox: Many of these programs specialize in treating working professionals, including law students and attorneys. Executive detox treatment programs allow patients to continue working remotely while simultaneously receiving treatment, which may include assessment, detox, therapeutic interventions, and aftercare. The treatment may either be short- or long-term depending on your needs.6
  • Support Groups: Some firms allow group sessions to meet at work or in a confidential setting. They are led by a qualified professional—usually a therapist—who meets regularly with the lawyers in the firm who are battling addiction.
  • 12-Step Programs: Some firms offer 12-step programs for employees suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction, the most well-known of which are Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

Sources

  1. American Bar Association: Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. (2014). 2014 Comprehensive Survey of Lawyer Assistance Programs.
  2. Krill, P., Johnson, R., & Albert, L. (2016). The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys. Journal of Addiction Medicine. 10, 1, 46–52.
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
  4. ABA Journal. (2016). Younger lawyers are most at risk for substance abuse and mental health problems, a new study reports.
  5. Vivo, M. (2017). Solutions for addicted attorneys must start in law school, recovering lawyer says.
  6. Darcy, K. (2013). Gender, Leadership, and Addiction in the Legal Profession.
  7. Butler Center for Research. (2012). Attorneys and Substance Abuse.
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Health Consequences of Drug Misuse.
  9. Robinson, M. (2010). The Professional Cost of Untreated Addiction and Mental Illness in Practicing Lawyers.
  10. Krill, P. (2014). If There Is One Bar a Lawyer Cannot Seem to Pass: Alcoholism in the Legal Profession. The Brief, 44(1).
  11. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013). Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment: A Treatment Protocol.
  12. Greiner, M. (2001). Demystifying 12-Step Programs. GPSolo, 18(5).

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