That is what one attorney told me during one of my attorney-clerk lunches at the firm this past summer. He was just speaking in the general sense. Giving me pointers about life and telling me stories about his time at Enron making ethical business decisions that would make a great professional responsibility exam question. This experienced attorney was a fast talker. He stayed up working until 2:00 a.m. at the office for consecutive nights the week before to complete work on an urgent corporate deal. His group was terribly understaffed. But he wasn’t a user nor an abuser. He was smarter than that.
As our class is aware from author Lisa Smith’s visit discussing her story, it is sadly not uncommon for smart overachieving young lawyers full of potential to succumb to alcohol and cocaine abuse, particularly when working in the high-strung, late-night, sleepless trenches or front lines of a big corporate law firm. The combined pressure to succeed and compulsion to decompress is not a unique trait to many corporate lawyers. Many litigators, solo practitioners, and even public interest lawyers also share this often vicious Type A personality as they face insurmountable challenges in their practicing years. For many lawyers, well-being becomes at risk as a result of a “chicken or egg” causality dilemma between the sufferings of work (or possibly from factors out of work) and the addictive, seemingly well-being enhancing, properties of their drug of choice.
A study from 2016 conducted jointly by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs found that young lawyers are most at risk of engaging in substance use. The study found that almost 21 percent of licensed, employed lawyers are considered problem drinkers, and for lawyers under the age of 30, it’s a whopping 32 percent. And when it comes to lawyers using stimulants, sedatives, tobacco, marijuana, and opioids, the study found that the lawyers using stimulants had the highest weekly usage (at 74 percent).
The adversarial pressure-cooker work/deadline environment of practicing law may contribute to triggering substance use, but another root of this problem may derive from the academically competitive and alcohol-friendly social environment of law schools. At Vanderbilt Law, there are usually at least two events per week where many students drink alcohol. One of these events (“Bar Review”) is not technically sponsored by the school, but two third year law students manage it, and many students attend it on Thursday evenings at different bars in town to unwind and socialize with their peers in a non-law school environment. The other event (“Black Acre”) occurs every Friday afternoon at the law school. Two kegs are provided at every Black Acre. A lot of other law schools have their own variants of Bar Review and Black Acre.
Sometimes, but not often, there may be additional law school events in a week that provide alcohol. For example, the law school student board puts on an annual Halloween party, “law-prom”, and a fundraiser for legal aid. Sometimes important guest lecturers visit the law school, and the school may host a reception that includes a bar serving alcohol, right outside the doors of the lecture hall. Furthermore, during football season, the law school student board hosts tailgates before every home football game near the football stadium on a parking lot. While most of these aforementioned events go on, Black Acre and Bar Review will usually still occur that same week.
It is important to consider that none of these law school events are mandatory. And just because alcohol is an option at an event does not mean all students present drink alcohol. In fact, many law students do not attend most or all of these events. And of the law students who do attend these events, it’s likely that most of them choose to drink responsibly (not binge drink). Additionally, Vanderbilt Law School is not the only school on campus doing these kinds of events. The neighbors across the street in Owen have their own versions of Bar Review and Black Acre. The med school hosts tailgates before football games. Also, all grad students who are officers of student organizations, and who will serve alcohol at events, are required to undergo host responsibility training.
Sometimes things can get out of hand. Vanderbilt Law School’s annual fundraiser for legal aid last spring looked like an uncontrolled undergrad frat party. Every year the school’s fundraiser has a theme. Most people dress up to fit that theme. When I was a 1L, the theme was the zoo, so people dressed up as zoo animals. Last year, the theme was fairy tales, so people dressed up as Disney princes and princesses. It’s a fun event, but some students who attended the fundraiser last year complained that many people were too intoxicated. In fact, some of the students in charge of the event were so intoxicated that they were unable to properly manage the public auction going on. Perhaps it would be better if the law school held a more formal and professional black and white tie event for their fundraisers, because I can guarantee that the fundraisers I attend in the future as a practicing attorney aren’t going to be fairy tale themed.
Recently, there’s been a movement at the law school, and at Vanderbilt in general, to promote more mental health awareness and to eliminate the promotion of alcohol at school events. In fact, the law school administration is considering limiting the Black Acre alcohol consumption to two drinks per person or decreasing the size of the plastic cups offered to students. I think this is a great idea. And this change might have already gone into effect. After Lisa Smith came to visit our class in Legal Problem Solving almost two months ago, I went to Black Acre that week, and I didn’t drink any alcohol. It was the first time in my law school career where I did not have at least one alcoholic drink at Black Acre. I don’t go to every Black Acre, but I used to try to go to most of them. I felt no urge to drink that day, and I think the existence of this class egged me on to opt out of drinking at Black Acre. I haven’t been back to Black Acre since that week.
For all of our law school’s problems, Vanderbilt Law School still rates extremely high for best quality of life among law schools, according to The Princeton Review. Maybe it’s because of our collegial student body. Or our awesome student organizations. Or because we are in Nashville. But I wonder: how does the alcohol variable fit into the equation here? Is it even considered as part of the “quality of life” measure?
It’s no secret that law school students across the country are known for drinking, but law school students are generally known not to drink for the purpose of partying like an undergrad frat bro who likes beer; rather, law school students are known to drink for the purpose of decompressing. To relieve that pressure. But are law school students any different than business school students? Med school students? Undergrads in general? Anyone? Why is it that young lawyers are at such a high risk of engaging in substance use? Why do law school students and lawyers have this stigma?
Last weekend I visited my friend in Tuscaloosa. My friend attends law school at the University of Alabama. It was game day and I had a great time, but it astonished me that their law school’s tailgate was at an actual bar and the tailgate began at 8:00am for a 7:00pm game. Maybe that’s a problem. Or maybe it’s like that everywhere at that school, but this kind of thing certainly doesn’t help the law school student or lawyer stigma.
Practicing law will be challenging, but there are much better, healthier alternatives to decompress than drinking alcohol or doing something as terrible as using cocaine. Why do some law students engage in cocaine use? Whatever the ill-advised reason, law school students should be aware that cocaine use has a number of lasting effects, including paranoia, agitation, aggressive behavior, brain damage, and damage to one’s nose. You don’t want any of that. And neither do any of the people you work with want to deal with your agitated and aggressive behavior that comes from such use. If you have to stay up late to work, have some coffee instead, or better yet: work smarter, not harder. Work on improving your time management: make time to meditate, get outside more, try to have a workout routine, and try to get enough sleep.
We must be cognizant of the faults of our profession. We are a profession chock-full of competitive, intellectually curious Type A individuals who want to achieve great perfection in our work, and great success in our careers. With these characteristics, some of us have a tendency to bring our hard-working and curious mentality to doing sinful activities, such as binge drinking alcohol or partaking in drugs. The demands of our type of work induce great amounts of stress on us, and we then seek avenues to destress. Some of these paths to destress can be self-harming, and it is important that law students and young professionals recognize that it is more healthy and wise to seek out the self-improving (not self-harming) destressing outlets.
Be smart. You don’t want to be seeing this:
You want clarity in your vision. If you drink or use other drugs, life starts getting fuzzy. Be responsible. Be cognizant of your actions and the consequences of your actions. And most of all: Keep your nose clean.