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Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Legal Profession: A Challenge

By Corinne Nabors, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2020

In the 2019 series of student blog posts for Legal Problem Solving, students are digging into the American Bar Association's 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services to explore how far we've come in 2019 and what remains to do in the innovation of legal services delivery.

In 2016, the ABA issued a comprehensive study on the issue of drug and alcohol abuse among lawyers. Before the study, it was assumed that lawyers had a higher than average substance abuse problem, but there were few studies confirming these assumptions. After surveying over 12,800 practicing attorneys, the study results were shocking.

Study results show 20.6% of lawyers were considered “problematic drinkers,” with younger lawyers having a significantly higher proportion than older lawyers. Furthermore, 22.6% of participants answered that they have felt their alcohol use to be problematic at some point in their lives, and nearly 58% said that this problem began during law school or within fifteen years of completing law school. To put it in perspective, the rate of problematic drinkers in the general population is 6%, and among highly educated professionals, it is 11.8%. Clearly, the legal profession has an alcohol problem.

As far as drug use is concerned, attorneys surveyed engaged in a wide variety of illicit and licit substances including: sedatives, tobacco, marijuana, and opioids. Weekly usage was reported as 74.1%. The rates of low, intermediate, substantial, and severe drug use were 76%, 20.9%, 3%, and 0.1% respectively.

It should come as no surprise given the above results that the study also reported a high rate of mental health issues among lawyers. The most common mental health conditions and rates were as follows: anxiety (61.1%), depression (45.7%), social anxiety (16.1%), ADHD (12.5%), panic disorder (8%), and bipolar disorder (2.4%). In addition, 11.5% of survey respondents reported feeling suicidal thoughts at some point during their career.

Many of these problems begin in law school. A 2014 study of law students found that 43% of law students binge drank in the past two weeks (compared to 36% of other grad students). 25% of law students reported using marijuana, 6% reported using cocaine, and 4% reported ecstasy use in the past year (compared to 14%, 2%, and 1%, respectively, among other graduate students). Although they reported in lower rates than among working lawyers, law students still suffered heavily from mental health concerns and suicidal thoughts.

The ABA has taken some steps to help lawyers combat drug and alcohol abuse. The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (“CoLAP”) works to “assure that every judge, lawyer and law student has access to support and assistance when confronting alcoholism, substance use disorders or mental health issues.” The main way CoLAP accomplishes this mission is by supporting local Lawyer Assistance Programs in providing services to those lawyers in need.

The CoLAP website provides a list of resources for lawyers struggling with everything from eating disorders to suicidal thoughts. They also host informational events, videos, and podcasts designed to raise awareness about the nature of addiction. One such video, Fear Not: Speaking out to End Stigma, sends the message that those with substance abuse or mental health problems should feel safe admitting these issues and seeking help.

While the ABA has taken valiant first steps in combatting the issue of substance abuse in the legal profession, there are still more progress to be made. The de-stigmatization campaign started by Fear Not: Speaking out to End Stigma is admirable, but it is not enough. Society as a whole stigmatizes and shames those with substance abuse problems, but this issue is not to be debated in this blog post.

Instead, the legal profession needs to focus on de-stigmatizing the process of seeking help for addiction. It should not be a matter of shame to admit you have a problem and need help correcting it. This message should be spread throughout law schools, law firms, and all areas of the legal field. The ABA should work with law firms to establish more anonymous treatment options and reassure struggling lawyers that there will not be repercussions for seeking such help.

Once law students or lawyers ask for help, they need access to resources that actually help them. Money is always a finite resource, but it can be diverted more efficiently to assist recovering lawyers. The ABA and law firms should both contribute more energy, resources, and, of course, money to support treatment and recovery programs. Supporting the health and wellness of their lawyers will only benefit them. Lawyers with substance abuse issues are massive detriments to their organization’s productivity and efficiency.

However, this problem cannot be fixed at the law firm level alone. Educating, supporting, and rehabilitating law students is a crucial step in the fight against substance abuse. Law students need to understand the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, but they also need to learn why the legal profession is prone to such abuses. Understanding the pressures and demands of high-stress legal environments will help young lawyers prepare themselves for mental and physical triggers that can lead to substance abuse.

The legal profession should also evaluate these pressures and triggers and aim to ameliorate them. The high rate of substance abuse among lawyers is not as much an indication that lawyers often have addictive personalities as it is a sign that the legal profession is flawed. A system that causes its members to self-destruct at astonishing rates is far from ideal.

Overall, the issue of substance abuse among lawyers is indicative of widespread flaws in the legal profession. The answer to the high rates of substance abuse in the legal profession cannot be solved with one answer. There needs to be both top-down and bottom-up solutions implemented. The legal profession as a whole needs to reevaluate its priorities and systems, and individual lawyers need to be supported throughout their career.

Find resources for lawyers seeking help for substance abuse, mental wellness, and more on the ABA's CoLAP website: