Attorneys make powerful contributions to society and the legal system. But how effectively can they contribute when impaired by alcohol or drug use?
Nearly everyone knows someone who has dealt with a drug or alcohol problem. Scarcely an American family has gone untouched by alcoholism or the unprecedented opioid epidemic.
And even though you might think successful corporate lawyers are immune to addiction, the truth is: Those in the legal profession are more at risk. Addiction is no respecter of persons; it doesn’t favor the unsuccessful. In fact, those in the legal profession are statistically more vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse than those in few other professions.
Substance abuse among all types of attorneys is on the rise and well hidden. And drinking is so ingrained in the legal culture, alcoholism has practically become normalized within the legal profession. Because of the social acceptance of alcohol, many people do not realize they have a problem and require treatment for a progressive illness.
But alcoholism isn’t normal. Addiction is abnormality.
Addiction and Mental Health Issues in Attorneys
Dozens of emotional client emails to sift through and reply professionally. Ongoing 60 to 80-hour work weeks. Exhaustion. Stress. The opposition. The client. Having been trained to remain unemotional, lawyers do whatever it takes to get the job done, to win the case, make clients happy and earn a winner’s reputation. But what happens when the stress collides with whatever it takes?
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs conducted a recent study on drug and alcohol abuse in lawyers. 75 percent of the 12, 825 lawyers studied refused to answer personal drug-use questions for the study’s survey. This fact alone could imply a high use of substances among attorneys, or at the least, raise an eyebrow.
The landmark study found alarmingly high rates of mental health issues and addiction problems among attorneys, rates much higher than those among the general public. Specifically, the study concluded attorneys undeniably experience alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations and also experience significant mental health distress.
The researchers also discovered:
- 21 percent screened positive for problem drinking
- 28 percent struggle with depression
- 19 percent deal with anxiety
- 23 percent experience stress
Junior attorneys and younger attorneys in the first ten years of practice exhibit the highest rates of depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse. All rates and statistics could be even higher, because not all participants completed all study surveys.
Finally, researchers underscore the need for attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions. This is one reason why we believe individualized care is best for attorneys.
Substance Abuse Can Cost Your Legal Career
The term substance abuse comprises using illegal drugs, and/or using alcohol, prescription drugs and legal substances in excess or in improper ways. The brain is the ultimate tool of a lawyer. What are you doing to your best instrument when you use drugs or alcohol? A few of the long-term consequences of substance abuse are:
- Impaired memory
- Impaired focus and ability to concentrate
- Judgment and decision-making skills diminished
- Faltered productivity and communication skills
Disciplinary actions against lawyers involve some type of substance abuse 50 to 75 percent of the time, according to a research study by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Malpractice claims against attorneys fall in the same bracket.
The American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs reports alcohol to be the number one substance abuse problem for lawyers.
Why is alcohol the drug of choice for lawyers?
- Alcohol is legal
- It’s socially acceptable
- In some situations, it seems almost occupationally mandated
- It’s easy to access and inexpensive
Steven Wall, managing partner of the renowned law firm Morgan Lewis, recently told his personal story of dealing with alcoholism as a practicing attorney.
Wall has battled an alcohol problem for many years. He attributes his alcoholism to his heredity, his personality and how he handled the enormous stress of his job.
People in any profession who work more than 50 hours a week are three times more likely to abuse alcohol. Being of high-driven ambition and obsessed with overachievement, Wall is characteristically representative of the driven lawyer.
The enormous stress of the job for many attorneys comes in the form of pleasing demanding clients, fears of losing clients and therefore losing income, dealing with injustices and frequent bad news.
Wall has spent a lifetime fighting his addiction, giving up alcohol off and on over the years, until one day after an epic bender, he was confronted by his wife and his boss. They threatened the loss of his family and his job. Wall got the help that was demanded and has been in recovery for 9 years now.
Many attorneys enjoy the thrill of the competition in earning the BigLaw dream. They learn to suppress their personal problems to maintain their reputation. But when getting ahead involves substance use, major life repercussions occur.
The win-lose high stakes outcomes and competitive high-performance culture seem to create within some the need to drink.
Culture of Privacy
The attorney culture is to keep things underground; the career is built on a conspiracy of secrets. Perhaps the scariest part of an alcohol problem for a lawyer is the firm finding out.
Add to that the nature of addiction — anyone with an addiction has to become a pro at hiding things in order to pursue their addiction — and the fear of being discovered an alcoholic is valid. However, with confidential addiction treatment, an individual’s reputation remains intact and their respect undiminished.
Addiction is a disease that can happen to anybody. Wealthy, accomplished, successful men and women can and do have drug and alcohol problems. It has nothing to do with intelligence level. It has nothing to do with level of success, income or any other one thing. It is a treatable condition with the help of an addiction therapist.
The ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs identifies prescription drugs to be the second most abused substance in the legal profession.
Eileen Zimmerman recently wrote about her ex-husband’s difficulties as a top-notch lawyer working to stay on top of his game, and using drugs to do it. Ms. Zimmerman says her ex-husband was highly intelligent, a chemist before becoming a lawyer, a father, and a drug addict.
Her ex-husband, whom she refers to simply as Peter, was a man with overwhelming work responsibilities and an extreme dedication to his job. The last call he made, sick and dying, was for work. A dial-in to a conference call.
High-achieving attorneys often have unrealistic expectations of themselves and their abilities, believing in 60-hour work weeks for 20 years, like Peter. Peers with a superman mentality and an allegiance to billable hours create a competitive culture of unattainable goals.
Peter had a predisposition towards melancholy. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mood disorders are not uncommon among attorneys.
According to some studies, lawyers have one of the highest rates of depression by occupation. Some suggest nearly 40 percent of criminal litigation attorneys and law students suffer from depression. The legal field also carries a higher-than-average rate of suicide.
Peter, a high-powered Silicon Valley attorney, ultimately died not by suicide or overdose, but from a systemic bacterial infection common to intravenous drug users.
The stigma of addiction within the corporate world and law industry deters lawyers from seeking help or admitting they need treatment. An attorney’s reputation among peers and clients weighs supremely when considering options.
Although stigma proves an impediment to treatment, there are untold numbers who overcome addiction through confidential addiction therapy services.
Prescription Drug Abuse in Lawyers
Unless you’re the kind of attorney out of Better Call Saul, you’re deeply concerned with staying on the right side of the law. That includes a personal life above reproach and keeping up appearances.
Many experts theorize substance abuse starts in law school. Perhaps the closest reality to a Vulcan education is law school. Set aside emotion, lose personal opinions and beliefs, disregard the irrelevant, and understand the letter of the law is ne plus ultra.
From law school Adderall to long-hours cocaine, from stress-relief opioids to over-tired Ambien, attorneys are doing whatever it takes to get the job done and get an edge or take it off.
Opioids and stimulants often go hand in hand with alcohol. In fact, these drugs are sometimes used to combat the alcohol withdrawal. And prescription drugs are legal, technically.
Stimulant addiction often starts in law school. Study nights, cramming, and overnighters are often coupled with beaucoup cups of coffee, energy drinks and “study drugs” like Adderall, cocaine and crack. Drug diversion (using a prescription drug for an unlawful purpose) then graduates into workplaces where competition and stress levels are high.
An evaluation for ADHD is done by gathering information from the patient, not by a physical blood test, so it’s relatively easy to tell a physician you have ADHD and walk out of their office with a prescription for Adderall or Vyvanse. People use stimulants to focus better and faster, to be more productive and to gain better ability to concentrate, but self-medicating leads to serious health risks.
Many successful driven professionals have ADHD and have a medical necessity for prescription stimulants. However, even in the presence of true medical need, addiction can develop. Being under exceptional stress is a risk factor in developing a drug addiction, even when the patient is taking the medication under a doctor’s supervision.
Opioid use often starts with a valid prescription. Countless cases of post-operation pain pills morph into black-market Oxy usage and needles filled with heroin.
The more stress an individual has, the more vulnerable they are to physical pain.
People also take opioids recreationally. No matter if the habit started with a prescription pad, from raiding someone else’s medicine cabinet, or somewhere else, once an opioid habit sets in, professional treatment is needed.
Benzos are often used to help people sleep and to reduce anxiety. This class of drug is often abused and is highly addictive in nature.
In taking addictive prescription drugs, a dependence is built, and then a tolerance, which requires more frequent and higher dosing. At that point the person who is addicted to benzos may ask their doctor for a higher dose and quantity, go doctor shopping or obtain more pills illegally.
Other Addictive Prescriptions
Ambien is a sedative-hypnotic drug that does not fall in the benzodiazepine class. It is similar in some respects, like in addictive properties, and is frequently abused.
There are many other medications, barbiturates for example, that are habit forming drugs of abuse.
Evaluating an Attorney’s Individualized Needs
Too often, the pressure to stay on top leads to drug and alcohol abuse. The adversarial fight for survival coupled with substance abuse grinds a person down. One-on-one therapy is crucial to:
- Get to the root of the problem
- Develop techniques for managing stress effectively
- Safely taper off drug and alcohol use
- Explore healthy coping mechanisms
It is common for lawyers to sacrifice their own well-being for their job. Work goals often interfere with their relationships and families. We understand the chronic stress and isolation of working long hours alone in stressful conditions, and we understand the risk factors that make attorneys vulnerable to alcohol and drug addictions.
Addiction Therapist Near Me
Those looking for a psychiatrist in NYC, find Fifth Avenue Psychiatry in New York offers the benefits of mental health and stress management therapy.
Some of our key differentiators are:
- Emphasis on individualized, personal care
- Award-winning doctors
- Professional psychotherapy
- No group work, all therapy is personalized one-on-one work
- Medication Assisted Treatment (M.A.T.)
- Detox at home as an outpatient
- Treatment for co-occurring disorders
As licensed drug and alcohol counselors, we understand the specific challenges that high-income earners face and the need for more support within this segment of the business community.
If you’re an attorney struggling with an alcohol or drug problem, the evidence proves you are not alone. You are strong enough to break through the barriers and the stigma and get the help you need.