Learn / Addicted Attorneys: How to Identify Your Addiction and Get the Help You Need
A 2016 study held by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association found that out of the participating 12,825 licensed attorneys, 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers,1 while 28 percent struggle with mild or more serious depression and 19 percent struggle with anxiety.
What’s worse, only 3,419 lawyers responded to the question about drug use. As explained by the study’s lead author, Patrick Krill, in the New York Times:
“It’s left to speculation what motivated 75 percent of attorneys to skip over the section on drug use as if it wasn’t there.”
Substance use disorder among lawyers isn’t just prevalent in the United States. In fact, much of the Western world’s legal profession is built on drink and drugs. But the true problem does not lie in the substance use itself, it lies within the culture surrounding it.
In this blog post, we shed light on some of the common factors of addiction for those in the legal profession, why lawyers need to be vigilant in recognizing them, and how you can seek the help you or a colleague might need to get sober and stay sober.
In July 2017, the New York Times published an article about the life of Peter, a high-level Silicon Valley attorney who overdosed on drugs.2
According to the article, it was a problem that his ex-wife, children, colleagues and close friends didn’t see coming. Further, it was a problem Peter felt he could fight on his own, but he failed to make the necessary priority adjustments to make time for doing so. His work always came first.
The article is eye-opening for any lawyer experiencing similar issues, and we urge you to read it. In the article, the writer depicts a scene prior to Peter’s death. The line reads:
“Of all the heartbreaking details of [Peter’s] story, the one that continues to haunt me is this: The history on his cell phone shows the last call he ever made was for work. Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call.”
In any scenario, it’s difficult to understand why humans put their work before their own lives.
Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to let others down. Perhaps it’s because self-punishment is an all too common illness we’ve yet to talk about. Whatever it is, work is work and will remain so for the rest of time. Your health is precious; and it requires intentional effort to keep it stable.
There are many reasons people turn to drugs to deal with the realities of life. Failed careers, a lack of income, the death of a family member, stress … each person becomes addicted for their own reasons.
In the legal profession, however, there are some specific warning signs to watch out for. For example:
We can only work so hard.
We need sleep, food, water and rest to ensure we can sustain a peak level of performance in anything we do. But due to the nature of the legal profession, lawyers tend to work more than most other people.
Sure, they might bill 40 or 50 hours of work in a week, but in truth, lawyers likely work 60 or 70 hours3 just to keep up.
Balancing this level of work with a social life often means staying awake and “on” to get the job done, and some people may turn to artificial substitutes. According to the same study, 5.6 percent of respondents used cocaine, crack and other stimulants, 5.6 percent used opioids, and nearly 16 percent used sedatives to turn themselves off after a long day.
Be sure to recognize the signs of overworking and proactively deal with these problems by speaking up. There’s no shame in admitting you need help.
In Peter’s story, it was expressed that he didn’t have enough time to spend with his family and that he’d often go out in the evening and not return.
Isolation is an all too common addiction factor, and it makes it difficult for people to identify personality changes. If you begin to notice that you’d rather be alone and taking drugs instead of around the people you love, it’s time to speak up and seek expert help.
Often people use smoking, alcohol and drugs as ways of trying to evade the reality of a situation and “calm down” when life gets overwhelming. In 2015, Bloomberg estimated that workplace stress contributes $190 billion in healthcare expenses4 and more than 120,000 deaths each year.
Given the nature of hard work, stress can be classified as an epidemic in the legal profession.5 Last year, legal website Above The Law wrote an article titled Stressed-Out Lawyers in First 10 Years of Practice More Likely to Have Mental-Health and Wellness Issues and they’re accurate in their statement.
As explained in the article:
“If you know 10 lawyers, three of them are likely depressed, and two of them are suffering from a drinking problem or anxiety.”
The stigma behind going to rehab is slowly diminishing, and the acceptance of seeking help is becoming more prevalent.
In the medical profession, which is also a high pressure, high-stress career path, doctors can enter rehab, get the treatment they need, and still continue practicing medicine once they’re sober.
The legal profession is similar. No longer should you or your colleagues fear losing your legal license and getting fired; you’re human. However, continuing down a path of substance use and overworking can be detrimental to any career.
We finish this article by addressing you personally:
If you notice that you’re becoming reliant on drugs, it’s difficult to balance work and life, or if you’re failing to treat yourself with the respect you deserve, help is available.
The United States has several lawyer assistance programs and we urge you to pick up the phone and call them.
If you feel that rehabilitation is your ticket to recovery, we urge you to find a rehab center that fits your needs.
Remember: You are not alone.
Certain factors increase the likelihood of addiction among lawyers. These include the normalization of drinking and drug use, overwork, and chronic stress.
Self-reported figures show 22.6% of lawyers engaged in problematic drug use or drinking at one point in their lives. Actual numbers may be higher. (75% of respondents in the same study skipped over questions about drug use.)
If you were disbarred due to drinking or drug use, you can practice again under 3 conditions:
1. You received appropriate rehabilitation.
2. You’ve abstained from drinking and drug use for one year minimum.
3. You’ll likely continue to abstain.
Krill, Patrick R. JD, LLM; Johnson, Ryan MA; Albert, Linda MSSW The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, Journal of Addiction Medicine: January/February 2016 – Volume 10 – Issue 1 – p 46-52 doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000182
Zimmerman, Eilene. “The Lawyer, the Addict.” The New York Times, 15 July 2017. NYTimes.com
Abramson, Leigh McMullan. “Is There a Career in Law That Doesn’t Lead to Burnout?” The Atlantic, 10 Sept. 2015
Kitroeff, Natalie. “Work Anxiety Kills Thousands of Americans Every Year” Bloomberg, 30 Jan. 2015
Zaretsky, S. (2018, August 21). Stressed-out lawyers in first 10 years of practice more likely to have mental-health and wellness issues—Above the law.
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