Addiction Among Legal Professionals
When people think of drug and alcohol addiction, they might not think of successful working professionals who go home after work and struggle with serious substance abuse problems. But unfortunately, that’s precisely what addiction looks like for many people.
Case in point, individuals in the legal profession are more likely to suffer from drug abuse and alcohol misuse than individuals who work in most other professions. Why might this be, that those in such a career would struggle with addiction?
A Look at the Data
Addiction crops up in the legal profession with surprising frequency. A few factors that could contribute to this are:
- A significant amount of stressful and expensive schoolwork and higher education needed to get accepted to the bar.
- Just the career alone of being a lawyer is stressful, as there is a great deal of pressure on lawyers (especially on young lawyers) to win cases.
- Depending on the type of legal work, a lawyer might get into a moral crisis, such as by defending serious criminals. That weighs on lawyers after a while and could lead to behavioral problems.
- Defense lawyers often end up spending time with people who misuse drugs and alcohol.
- Prosecuting attorneys might end up feeling uncomfortable with themselves for making a defendant pay dearly with a significant amount of time spent in jail for a low-level crime.
Here’s a look at statistical data on the subject. According to one study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine that analyzed survey data from 12,825 legal professionals, about 20.6 percent of respondents admitted to hazardous alcohol consumption habits. The study found that at least 7 percent of survey respondents had struggled with drug use at some point. Furthermore, lawyers, paralegals, and legal professionals under the age of 30 were more likely to have a problem with drug or alcohol abuse than their older peers.
The research data also disclosed that mental, emotional, and psychological struggles among lawyers were prominent and contributing factors to addiction risk. About 28 percent of legal professionals said they struggled with depression, 19 percent struggled with anxiety, and 23 percent struggled with stress.
That study’s finding must also be taken with a grain of salt, as the actual percentages of legal professionals who use alcohol and drugs are likely quite higher. Quoting the study authors in their conclusion, “Because the questions in the survey asked about intimate issues, including issues that could jeopardize participants’ legal careers if asked in other contexts (e.g., illicit drug use), the participants may have withheld information or responded in ways that made them seem more favorable. The confidential nature of lawyer-assistance programs should be more widely publicized in an effort to overcome the privacy concerns that may create barriers between struggling attorneys and the help they need.”
The Crisis Begins in Law School
The crisis of substance abuse within the legal professions does not start in the legal profession, either. In fact, it can be traced back to law school. From the moment an individual decides to study law and enter this type of life, they take on specific risk factors and challenges that they might not otherwise face.
According to a helpful resource for law school students:
- About 90 percent of law school survey respondents have had an alcoholic beverage in the last 30 days.
- More than 20 percent of law school students reported binge drinking at least twice in the past two weeks.
- More than 20 percent of students have thought seriously about suicide sometime in their life, and 6.3 percent have thought seriously about suicide in the last 12 months.
- About 17 percent of respondents screened positive for depression (a risk factor for addiction).
The above data shows that destructive behavioral and emotional issues for lawyers begin as early as law school, and they become more damaging as time moves forward.
The Importance of Seeking Help
When a legal professional falls prey to an addiction to drugs and alcohol, they often feel compelled to keep this to themselves. They think that if they speak up about their addiction, they’ll either be ridiculed or disbarred. This is dangerous and wrong because when nothing is done to address an addiction, it almost always gets worse.
Furthermore, keeping the problem to oneself is not at all recommended among legal professionals. In fact, groups exist to ensure legal professionals get the help they need when they fall prey to a behavioral health crisis. One group, the American Bar Assistance Program, said this about how to address addiction in the legal profession:
“Invest in lawyer assistance programs and increase the availability of attorney-specific treatment.”
Another group, one cited earlier that discussed the dangers of substance abuse for law students, put out this advice for pre-law advisors, and the important role that such individuals play in ensuring that law school students are helped with behavioral health issues. “You are at the head of the pipeline and have access to these students before law school admissions, law school staff and faculty, the Board of Bar Examiners, and the practicing bar. The further a student advances toward becoming a practicing attorney [if they struggle with addiction during this time], the more his or her life will be negatively affected. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that your intervention could prevent real problems with future clients and with your student’s future family.”