Substance Abuse Among Lawyers
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Lawyers are among the highest paid professionals in the country, earning more than $100,000 a year on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Many people associate this occupation with a life of luxury, assuming legal professionals don’t have the struggles of the lower class, but this is not the case. In fact, there’s a darker side to this career that isn’t as widely known as the perks: substance abuse and addiction. While approximately 10 percent of the average population is addicted to a substance, the percent of those in legal professions who are addicted is higher (18 percent), according to the Oregon State Bar.
Drug and alcohol addiction are two of the most common forms of addiction among lawyers, and they often stem from various psychological factors associated with the profession. But just as with any other health condition, help is available, and although there may be self-imposed barriers to seeking it, the number of treatment options far outweigh them.
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Why Lawyers Abuse Substances
Comparable to many other high-paying vocations, becoming a lawyer is not a fast and easy process. It requires years of college work, hours of studying, passion and dedication, and various challenging exams. But once lawyers begin practicing in the real world, new challenges arise, including stressful cases, difficult clients, competitive pressure and long days and nights. These aspects of the profession can lead to a number of mental health disorders, leaving many law professionals seeking prescription medications or finding comfort in a glass bottle. With the positive effects these substances can create, it can be easy for some lawyers and law students to begin abusing them, which can lead to addiction.
According to AmericanBar.org, many law students show signs of depression, anxiety, hostility and paranoia within six months of entering law school. After the first year of law school, 40 percent of students suffer from depression, which often continues through their careers. These individuals are also more likely to deal with certain mental disorders than others. A CNN analysis suggests that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to deal with depression compared to members of the general population.
A study conducted by Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission (ABA) on Lawyer Assistance Programs found that:
- 28 percent of lawyers struggle with depression
- 19 percent of lawyers demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.
- Younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest rates of depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.
Lawyers and Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol is one of the easiest substances to abuse for several reasons: it’s legal, easy to access and inexpensive, and it can produce desirable effects. Take a lawyer struggling with depression and anxiety, and add alcohol to the mix, and you could have the perfect recipe for disaster. For the law student who stresses daily about their classes and grades, daily drinking might be hard to resist. For the lawyer who lost another big case, it might be easy to drown their frustration and depression with alcohol. Regardless of the reason, many lawyers’ drinking can spiral out of control and into addiction.
According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs:
- More than 1 in 3 practicing attorneys are problem drinkers
- 40–70 percent of all disciplinary proceedings and malpractice actions involve substance abuse
- Lawyers experience alcohol use disorders at a far higher rate than other professionals, including doctors
- 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys are problem drinkers
These numbers may be alarming, but they’re proof that you’re not alone if you’re a lawyer struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction. The first step in getting help is admitting there’s a problem, and eliminating any self-imposed barriers.
Why Lawyers Don’t Seek Help
There are many reasons that lawyers and law students may postpone their decision to seek help for their alcohol or drug addiction.
- Confidentiality concerns: Many legal professionals have general concerns about confidentiality and are worried that certain individuals will find out. This fear can feed questions like, “Will I get fired? Will I lose their trust? Will I be seen as a failure?” These are understandable concerns, but many drug and alcohol hotlines and rehab centers, including The Recovery Village, abide by a strict confidentiality policy. This means that whatever information is shared will be kept private.
- Denial: Admitting to alcoholism or drug abuse may be seen as a weakness for some lawyers, causing many of them to deny they have a problem. Denial is a common hindrance to treatment for anyone. This is why it sometimes takes other people to get an addicted person to get help, either by an intervention or simply expressing their concerns.
- Fear: Some lawyers struggling with addiction may be able to admit to the addiction, but they may not be ready to give up the substance. One reason might be the fear of withdrawal symptoms, failure, or parting with something that has become part of daily life. But fear can be overcome, based on the thousands of lawyers and other individuals who have already been successfully treated for substance use disorders and are now in recovery.
- Uncertainty: Admitting to addiction and deciding to seek help are the first steps to recovery, but for some lawyers, the number of treatment options can be overwhelming. Perhaps you’re in this position, feeling uncertain about the care you need or what to expect. The Recovery Village is staffed with intake coordinators 24 hours a day, seven days a week, who can answer any questions you have about drug and alcohol treatment, even if you don’t enroll in a program.
- Shame: When lawyers are used to fighting for their clients, it might be difficult to reveal a problem involving drugs or alcohol, because it involves surrender. Some lawyers may see this surrender as a sign of weakness, or cause for embarrassment. They may also be ashamed of themselves for their actions or be afraid of bringing shame to their loved ones, clients or colleagues.
Regardless of what roadblocks you’ve created, they don’t need to stay there. You’re strong enough to knock them down and get the help you need.
Helpful Resources for Lawyers
There are many resources available to help lawyers struggling with alcoholism or any other substance use disorder, including:
- The Recovery Village: The Recovery Village is a network of rehabilitation centers that treat drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, etc.).
- Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAPs): Lawyer Assistance Programs provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues.
- Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation: The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation specializes in helping legal professionals address addiction and co-occurring mental health issues so they can return to their practice.
Accessing help from these resources begins with a simple, confidential phone consultation with a professional who will point you in the right direction for treatment.