Addiction in the Legal Profession

Evaluating an Individual’s Treatment Needs
Addiction among Lawyers, Judges, Clerks

substance abuse in the legal professionLawyers are frequently subject to ridicule and scorn by the general public, but behind the jokes and banter, they are known for their relentless work in confusing and complicated legal matters. Behind the scenes, many young men and women in law firms push themselves beyond their mental and physical limitations by abusing drugs and alcohol. Addiction in the legal profession is a massive problem that has led to many promising careers and lives cut short, and the industry is slowly doing what needs to be done in order to save its hardest workers.

Suicide and Adversity among Lawyers

Addiction in the legal profession is a sign of a much larger condition, a condition that is so serious that CNN asked, “Why are lawyers killing themselves?” According to the Centers for Disease Control, lawyers rank among the professionals with the highest rates of suicide as arranged by job; ahead of them are physicians, pharmacists, and dentists. However, while people employed in respective healthcare fields enjoy some level of teamwork and cooperation, lawyers are often encouraged (or outright told) to look out for themselves; the director of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program told CNN that “adversity is the nature of our game.”
Why are lawyers killing themselvesWorking as a lawyer creates unique difficulties; there are the unsocial hours spent working on cases involving issues of violence, death, and other forms of injustice, and there are also complex and tedious cases that need attention. The end result is that lawyers are often stretched emotionally and mentally thin, but without the high regard that is often given to doctors. Many attorneys and their paralegals work on these kinds of cases every day, while still being expected to represent themselves, their clients, and their firms professionally to the point of perfectionism, with meticulous efficiency and stoicism.

Unsurprisingly, this line of work takes an incredible toll on people. The Journal of Occupational Medicine noted that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely than employees in other professions to develop major depressive disorder.

Canada’s Legal Professional Assistance Conference noted that a symptom of this strain is that “the legal profession has a rate of alcoholism significantly higher than the general adult population,” with alcoholism making up as much as 95 percent of all forms of substance abuse among lawyers and judges. Similarly, lawyers are two times more likely to abuse alcohol than workers in other jobs, and as far back as 1996, a study by the Law Society of Upper Canada discovered that as many as half the lawyers who were facing some form of disciplinary action reported that abuse of drugs and alcohol played a role in their conduct.

Lawyers and Depression

Not everyone can become a lawyer, and it takes a different kind of character to survive and excel in the legal profession. In “The Depressed Lawyer,” Psychology Today writes that most of the people who become career lawyers are driven by ambition and a compulsion to overachieve. Such people have a relentless drive to be perfect, and not just at the job; the drive manifests in the need to have a perfect family life, which is why many lawyers still attempt to have families, even as they spend weekends and holidays at the office. In her book Creative Recovery, psychologist Susan Raeburn referred to these as “poles of intensity,” which exert an almost magnetic effect on certain kinds of people. Some seek a relentless flow of thrills and excitement; others want to be overwhelmed by professional challenges because even as they struggle to keep up and cope with the fallout, that is the environment where they feel most at home. As Raeburn puts it, such people “have a lot of accelerator and not much brake.”

Even substance abuse fits into that perfectionist paradigm; a lawyer who drinks copiously might frame the drug and alcohol consumption as a necessary and acceptable component (and cost) of maintaining the lifestyle. What makes this an even bigger problem is that such people are not inclined to seek help, either refusing to believe they have a problem or that the effects of their behavior are their responsibility, or insisting that they alone can (and should) control the problem.

A Cultural Nature of Problem Drinking

This kind of a merciless work and personal ethic in the legal profession might have been praised as workaholism in another era, but the sheer scale of the human stories have become harder to sweep under the carpet. In studying “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” the American Bar Association discovered in 2016 that one in every three practicing lawyers meets the criteria for problem drinking, based on the amount of alcohol consumed and the frequency of consumption. In surveying 12,825 licensed legal professionals in 19 states, ABA noted that 28 percent of them suffered from depression and 19 percent from anxiety. The study, published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, defined problem drinking as the consumption of alcohol in a way that is dangerous, harmful, and potentially dependent. The New York Times noted that by that criteria, lawyers had rates of problem drinking that were far in excess of the 15 percent of doctors who abuse alcohol.

Cultural Nature of lawyers alcoholismA surprising finding in the study was that junior associates working in law firms accounted for the highest rates of alcohol abuse, followed by senior associates, and then junior partners. Patrick Krill, one of the study’s coauthors and a lawyer who runs a substance abuse treatment program for legal professionals, said that there is a “cultural nature of problem drinking” in law firms, one that normalizes dangerous and harmful levels of alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism for the stress of the job. Junior associates, many of them young, inexperienced (with less than 10 years of experience), willing to please and make a good impression, and pressured not to lose face in front of their clients (and lose cases), are quickly indoctrinated into that culture. Even away from the office, lawyers are constantly encouraged to socialize with their clients, with lunch and dinner engagements often involving alcohol.

Depressed in Law School

For many of the lawyers who reported problem drinking, the problem began as far back as law school. As Above the Law puts it, “If you’re in law school, you’re probably depressed.” Lawyers are, by nature of their line of work, “more prone to clinical depression and substance abuse problems.” Many law students struggle with mental health issues, and they do not seek help. The law schools and universities they attend offer infrequent and inadequate resources for counseling and assistance.

At Yale Law School, for example, 206 students in a 296-student sample (70 percent) said they experienced stress as a result of the intensity of their studies. But the bigger problem is the cultural standard that being clinically stressed was seen as a “badge of honor,” and where the ultimate goal is to “win the rat race.” A persistent fear of being thought of as stupid or lazy compelled many students to overwork themselves, and then not report mental health problems, because of the impression that being unable to cope with the rigors of law school meant that a given student would fail in a law firm. Even students who did not report suffering any challenges to their mental health admitted to feeling some level of stress and even a form of mild depression. Generally, the morale of the student sample was notably low.

depressed lawyers involve in AddictionAbove the Law noted that it was “unsurprising” that none of the students in the Yale Law School sample asked for help. They were afraid of the stigma associated with admitting weakness or the perception that by doing so students “demonstrate unworthiness to the professors who can guide your future career.” The severity of the problem is broken down by demographic. Male students are more likely to suffer in silence than female students, and the same is true for straight students versus LGBT students. In addition, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to get help than white American students and students from higher economic backgrounds.

The issue of severe mental stress continues long after graduation. Above the Law warned that, for many students, being in a lifestyle that encourages and celebrates the siege mentality is part and parcel of being in the legal profession.

While many lawyers began drinking while still students, 44 percent of lawyers reported drinking abusively during the 15 years of their practice. The Journal of Addiction Medicine article concluded that the period of time in the early stages of a legal career has a strong correlation with a high chance of developing a dependence on alcohol. Younger lawyers tend to have more challenges than their older, more experienced peers: student debt that often totals over $100,000, and the difficulty of finding a job in a rabidly competitive and shrinking, entry-level job market.

Academic Overachievers and Simultaneous Alcoholism

An example of this is told by Lisa F. Smith, a New York City writer and lawyer. In the Washington Post, she writes of how becoming an associate at a top NYC law firm and her descent into alcoholism and drug addiction were “almost simultaneous.” Every year, the best law firms in the country are filled with “academic overachievers,” who, fresh off the grueling gauntlet of law school, are ready to realize their dreams on the first day of their job.
Academic Overachievers causes lawyers alcoholismThe reality, however, is starkly different. Instead of passionately arguing cases, almost all of the new hires are saddled with menial, tedious paperwork to assist higher-ranking partners while still locked in ferocious competition with their other fellow new hires, all similarly gifted, similarly burned out, and similarly eager to make a good impression. For the first few months and years of work, “success” might mean nothing more than working on paperwork all weekend. Failure, on the other hand, can be much worse, to the point where finding any kind of outlet and release for the stress usually manifests in some form of problematic behavior: compulsive shopping, compulsive eating, and, most typically, compulsive drinking.

Regularly working over the weekend is not just bad for long-term mental health, it also creates its own risk of addiction. The BMJ journal noted in 2015 that employees who work more than 48 hours every week are 11 times more likely to abuse alcohol compared to workers who stick to the standard 40 hours. Employees who worked 55 hours a week had a 13 percent chance of developing an alcohol addiction. Even at law firms that have policies to restrict the amount of overtime hours, employees and their supervisors are regularly compelled (and even encouraged) to work beyond their limits, with the goal of achieving faster promotions, making more money, and making a favorable impression.

Of course, overtime restrictions do not extend to work that can be taken home. Half of adult workers bring their work home with them, a University of Torontoprofessor noted, which compounds the mental strain that is already experienced at the office.

Functional Alcoholism and Lawyers

Both inside and outside the offices of a law firm, the mantra of “work hard, play hard” is dominant. The ability to drink hard after a long day and still be at their desk by 8 a.m. the following morning is a mark of pride, especially for the junior associates, and especially for female employees, many of whom are subjected to double standards of expectations of professional conduct on the basis of their gender.

“Why do lawyers drink so much?” asked Above the Law. The simple answer is, “Because they can.” The same drive that makes members of the legal profession push themselves to inhuman lengths is the same drive that fuels functional alcoholism, the consumption of dangerous quantities of alcohol with alarming regularity, while still making it to the office on time. Functional alcoholism complements the legal lifestyle so much that, according to Above the Law, lawyers can drink on the job. It is common practice for partners, associates, and paralegals to keep stashes of drinks in their offices for late nights and working weekends. The legal profession grants its workers enough flexibility and reward to drink and be on the job at the same time.

The New York Times quotes a recovering alcoholic, and now a licensed mental health counselor and author of a book on high-functioning alcoholism, as saying that nearly half the people who might meet the criteria for alcoholism are of the high-functioning variety, including judges and lawyers. However, even the veneer of efficiency and success cannot disguise the physical and psychological harm of a dangerous alcohol habit, harms that are often greater than non-functional alcoholism. Problems are allowed to grow until the only sign that something is wrong is a terminal incident, such as a DUI (or some other alcohol-related arrest), eviction, divorce, or some other personal or professional catastrophe. For a lawyer, this kind of failure could be career-ending.

The Rise of Stimulants

high functioning cocaine addictTraditionally, alcohol has been the go-to poison for many in the legal profession, but the rise of prescription and illegal drugs has birthed a new range of destructive habits. Getting ahold of stimulants like Adderall, Concerta, and Vyvanse no longer requires a prescription. There is enough of those substances (or their generic equivalents) on the black market that a late-night phone call or email will result in a handful of pills delivered to the lawyer’s doorstep, keeping exhaustion and fatigue at bay. Similar orders can be placed for cocaine or methamphetamine. In 2006, a British lawyer was sentenced to seven years in jail for running a “cocaine factory” in his apartment. One barrister told The Guardian that “cocaine and cannabis are consumed regularly” at the highest levels of British law, to the point where an entire section of the black market made an incredible profit by catering to lawyers on an “anytime, anywhere” basis.

Surviving on Study Drugs

Using stimulants to get through the night has its origins in college campuses. Students, desperate to have presentations prepared and papers submitted before deadlines, have taken to consuming Adderall or Ritalin (meant to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) to keep them mentally alert and awake. In 2008, the Journal of American College Health estimated that 34 percent of the students at a “large, public, southeastern research university” illegally took ADHD medication to reduce fatigue during times of high stress while also increasing their mental acuity and memory. Most of the students did not know how the drugs they took worked, or what they were originally intended for. Many felt that since the drugs worked, and since they were legally created (not “street” drugs), there was nothing ethically or medically questionable about taking them. Abuse of ADHD stimulants can cause anxiety, addiction, or hallucinations (especially if taken in conjunction with other substances, like alcohol, which is notoriously prevalent on college campuses), but the enduring message is that such “study drugs” are what is needed to graduate at the top of the class and secure a lucrative career.

The New York Times wrote that this kind of drug diversion (using a prescription drug for an unlawful purpose) has “graduated” into the workforce, especially in jobs that have high levels of stress and competition. A woman who spoke to the Times about her Adderall habit said that without taking it, her job would have been “like playing tennis with a wood racket.” It is necessary, in other words – necessary to survive, necessary to be the best, and necessary to be seen as a high-achieving employee.
lawyers alcoholism because of study stressHigh-achieving employees don’t ask for help, either with the work they are responsible for or when their substance abuse starts to get the better of them. While drug consumption may be tacitly allowed (or even encouraged), addiction itself is strongly stigmatized, and CBC Newsnotes that “lawyers face much greater stigma than other professionals when revealing mental health or addiction issues.” One element of that problem is that depressed and addicted lawyers not only hurt themselves, but they hurt their clients too. A Vancouver lawyer who experienced “terrible anxiety” and an alcohol addiction as a result of his workload admitted that “the quality of service” he provided to his clients suffered in terms of how well he treated them, how quickly he responded to their messages, and even how well he listened to and comforted them.

Employee Assistance Programs

In writing in CNN of the “drinking problem” that is plaguing the legal profession, Patrick Krill (who coauthored the Journal of Addiction Medicine study) notes that the “stunning” number of lawyers and attorneys who meet the criteria for problem drinking has drawn a lot of attention to the dangerous effects that the culture of overwork creates, especially on young lawyers: mental health problems, addiction, and, for too many, suicide.

For this reason, a number of law firms have tried to create more balanced and healthy workplaces for their employees, by way of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)that allow workers to confidentially and freely seek mental health counseling and addiction treatment. According to the Office of Personnel Management, EAPs provide temporary counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who are experiencing mental or behavioral disorders as a result of their workload. Employee Assistance Program counselors act as onsite consultants, helping supervisors identify when an employee is struggling and coaching the supervisors on how to best intervene for the wellbeing of the employee.
addiction treatment for Legal ProfessionalsKrill writes in CNN that law firms should create safe spaces for employees and their managers to talk about the reality of substance abuse and mental health problems in the legal profession, especially for the benefit of new lawyers who may feel pressured to drink to keep up with their peers or to impress junior and senior partners, and who are carrying over unhealthy habits from their law school days. There will always be stress and anxiety in law firms, and every employee will have to work weekends or long nights on occasion. It is similarly true that alcohol will always be part of the bigger picture, whether in winding down after a tough day or in toasting a client. However, that acceptance should go hand in hand with workers on every level being given a number to privately call when they feel they are stretched too thin or when they need to ask how to help a coworker who they think is drinking too much.

The most important part of this process, Krill says, is that younger employees have to accept that it is okay to want help, and older employees have to encourage this.

Newsletters, Awards, and Presidential Missions

Similarly, both the American Bar Association and the Canadian Bar Association have urged bar authorities in their respective countries to offer information, education, and referral programs to members and partners who struggle with the overwhelming workload and the constant presence of alcohol in and around the office. As far back as 2006, ABA’s newsletter published an article on “What to Expect in Treatment,” breaking down the illusion of lawyers being “high-maintenance professionals” who can’t afford to be away from their clients for the 30 days of a residential treatment program. However, in the same way that an attorney with a medical emergency has to step away from the office, an attorney with a mental health problem, such as a substance use disorder, should take a similar leave of absence, both for the attorney’s own good as well as the good of the firm and the client.

More legislative and regulatory bodies are getting on board with the idea of making treatment a more attractive option. Both the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners sponsor an award presented by the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program, which assists members of the legal profession “who need help with issues ranging from work-life balance to depression.”
prevalence of substance use among american attorneysMichele Hollins, a lawyer and recovering addict who was president of the Canadian Bar Association from 2014 to 2015, made it her official mission as president to open up the conversation about mental health problems in the legal profession, and to bring programs, channels, and resources to suffering lawyers. One such example is an online service, so partners and associates could reach out for help on a 24/7 basis and feel safe doing so. CBC News quotes Hollins as saying that not a week goes by without being contacted by lawyers looking for help for themselves or for colleagues.

Addiction in the legal profession is a serious problem that threatens the livelihoods and the lives of thousands of ambitious men and women. For generations, the culture of hard drinking was accepted as an occupational hazard, but with more understanding given to the topic, even the biggest law firms and organizations are realizing how much damage could be done. Employee Assistance Programs and confidential communication channels allow everyone, from paralegals to senior partners, to get the help they need and not fall into the trap that being a successful lawyer has to mean being a functional addict.


  • American Bar Association: ABA offers resources for lawyers who are struggling with substance abuse issues, including a directory of lawyer assistance programs.
  • State Bar Associations: Various state bar associations offer assistance programs for attorneys who are struggling with addiction or other mental health issues. For example, the New Jersey Lawyer Assistance Program offers help for lawyers in the state.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse: NIDA offers various informational resources for people struggling with substance abuse and addiction.
  • Peer Support Groups: Alcoholics AnonymousNarcotics Anonymous, and SMART Recovery are three of the most popular peer support group options for those struggling with addiction. Some chapters will have meetings dedicated to a particular demographic, such as professionals or executives.

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