Attorneys Battling Alcoholism and Depression

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Passing the bar exam for licensure to practice law is well known to be an intensely difficult test, one that challenges even the most prepared candidate. But according to a recent study, lawyers may be facing even greater difficulties after conquering the bar exam.

A Revealing National Study

The American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation funded a national study to determine rates of substance use and other mental health concerns among attorneys. It included a sampling of more than 12,000 licensed, employed attorneys from nineteen different states.

The results of the study found substantial rates of behavioral health problems among participants. In particular, attorneys showed elevated rates for problem drinking that were three times that of the general population. Further alarming results from the study include the following statistics:

  • 20.6% of attorneys screened positive for harmful and potentially addictive drinking. This is three times higher than the national average among adults, which according to the National Institutes of Health is around seven percent.
  • 22.6% reported the use of alcohol or other substances was problematic at some point in their lives. Among these, 27.6% reported problematic use manifested before law school, 14.2% during law school, 43.7% within 15 years of completing law school, and 14.6% more than 15 years after completing law school.
  • 61% of the respondents reported dealing with anxiety.
  • 45.7% indicated they were suffering from depression.
  • Additional mental health conditions were also reported, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (12.5%), panic disorder (8.0%) and bipolar disorder (2.4%).
  • 11.5% of the participants reported suicidal thoughts at some point during their career, 2.9% reported self-injurious behaviors, and 0.7% reported at least 1 prior suicide attempt.

Why Do Attorneys Have Higher Risk?

With these self-reported levels of alcohol use, depression, anxiety and stress among attorneys, it seems that those in the legal profession may be dealing with unique risks, which contribute to the increased rates found in the study.

The national study did not attempt to identify the origins of the reported problems, but the reviewing panel did offer some comments in the discussion portion of the report.

For example, attorneys working in law firms had the highest rates of alcohol abuse. This may indicate a strong cultural aspect to the problems facing lawyers. Additional factors that may cause elevated risk for hazardous drinking or other mental health concerns are:

  • Student debt. Lawyers often face large financial burdens accrued during law school, typically over $100,000.
  • Work-related socializing. Lawyers are encouraged to entertain clients, which often involves alcohol.
  • Long Hours. Most lawyers have extensive work hours, with the average lawyer spending 60 to 80 hours a week on the job.
  • Workload. Many lawyers and judges are overachievers who carry an enormous workload, which may encourage the tendency to escape from daily problems through the use of drugs and alcohol.
  • Competitive pressures. The inherent complexities of the profession create high expectations for performance and precision.
  • Career reputation. Forty percent of lawyers indicated a fear that pursuing help or treatment would have negative impact on their career and reputation, and thus chose to handle the problems on their own.

What Can Be Done to Help?

Addiction and mental health conditions among lawyers are not only a concern for the attorneys themselves, but they can lead to negative issues for their clients as well. Problems like neglect, malpractice and many other issues become more likely. So what can be done to address this situation?

The good news is that alcohol dependence and abuse, as well as depression, anxiety and stress are all treatable. The treatment strategies vary, based upon the individual needs and an assessment by a healthcare professional.

In general, attorneys will benefit from the same types of treatments and recovery programs available to others, such as colleague intervention, outpatient programs or counseling, residential inpatient programs and support groups.

However, due to some of the unique challenges faced by those in the legal profession, there is also a need for attorney-specific resources. In response to this need, organizations are working to develop programs tailored toward legal professionals, with specialized treatment services featuring profession-specific guidelines for recovery management.

According to the American Bar Association, each state operates lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) designed to support lawyers, judges, students and other legal professionals who may be in need.

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