Earlier this month the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation released the findings of the first-ever national study on mental health issues and substance abuse relating to our nation’s attorneys. The results of the study are not good news for the legal profession.
The study, which consisted of roughly 15,000 attorneys from 19 states, concluded that 21 percent of licensed, working attorneys qualify under the definition of “problem drinkers.” Furthermore, 28 percent deal with some level of depression, while 19 percent show display symptoms related to anxiety.
As a member of the legal profession, I can attest to the pressures the work can create. Completing law school and passing the Bar Exam can be extremely demanding and stressful, in and of itself. Because attorneys are people too, they are just as vulnerable to the daily pressures of life, thus vulnerable to the same addictions everyone else is susceptible to.
I battled addiction before I decided to pursue a career in law, so I was fortunate enough to already have awareness and the coping skills to deal with it when I finally became an attorney. Unfortunately, people can succumb to this illness at different stages of their life and careers.
Patrick R. Krill, an attorney who led the study, said the data “paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people.”
The study also compared the rate of alcohol abuse among lawyers compared to other professionals and found the rate of abuse far greater in the legal profession. A statement from the American Bar Association tried to explain this phenomenon as follows: “Because many lawyers and judges are overachievers who carry an enormous workload, the tendency to ‘escape’ from daily problems through the use of drugs and alcohol is prevalent in the legal community.”
There is no doubt that pressure to perform can create tremendous anxiety. Young associate attorneys with little life experience and a desire to prove themselves are often putting in 60-plus-hour workweeks. That’s not to say that more mature experienced attorneys and firm partners aren’t exposed to the same pressures to succeed. Addiction doesn’t discriminate by age, race or class.
As is the case with many people, lawyers are often hesitant to seek out professional health because they fear the stigma of being associated with addiction, which some fear can affect their careers. Others simply don’t believe that they have a problem, again, lawyers are people too.
The website, asoberlawyer.com, run by an ‘anonymous’ recovering alcoholic attorney has some suggestions on combating this problem.
- He believes it is important for lawyers to get rid of the stigma behind seeking help for addiction and mental health problems. “This goes for not only addiction, but stress reduction, depression and anxiety. It should be part of how we lawyers stay healthy.”
- Encouraging attorneys in recovery to speak to lawyers. “There are many out there who are not anonymous and are more than happy to speak to firms. Brian Cuban (the brother of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) is a good example.”
- Law firms should employ in-house therapists/counselors. “Don’t refer people to employee assistance or outside help. Make associates meet with the counselor on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, regardless of whether they have any issues.”
Yes, addiction to drugs and alcohol is a nationwide problem, and attorneys are not immune to it. Neither are doctors and airline pilots. We need to address this problem, both as a society and as individuals. We need to find a balance between our professional lives and personal lives. What good are success and careers without a healthy bodies and minds?
Until next time, I’m Attorney Francine Ward helping you protect what’s yours. Join my conversation on Facebook, Twitter, or in one of my LinkedIn groups, Google+ Circles.