Addiction in the Legal Profession

The legal profession, as it is currently structured, is rotting at its core. High rates of substance abuse and addiction among lawyers are the symptoms of deeper problems, precipitated by long hours, tight deadlines, and devastating consequences for failure. The statistics on substance abuse by lawyers are grim. However, before tackling the statistics, some definitions are in order:

Drug dependence, also known as addiction, is a chronic disease. It is progressive, and occurs when the body becomes physically dependant upon a drug.  Drug addiction in any form – from cocaine to methamphetamine to prescription pain relievers and stimulants -changes the brain. Individuals who are dependent upon drugs may not be able to control how much they use and continue to use drugs despite serious consequences. 
Drug abuse occurs when a person is not physically dependent upon a drug, but does exhibit problems with a particular drug. Someone who abuses drugs may use too frequently and experience problems due to drug use.

Substance abuse problems within the legal profession likely arise with such high frequency due to an underlying high rate of depression. According to CNN, "Suicide is a hazard so real that it is the third leading cause of death in the profession. By comparison, suicide is only the 10th leading cause of death in the general population." Multiple studies, including one conducted at Johns Hopkins, found that lawyers have the highest rate of depression of any profession. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and where there is severe depression, there is substance abuse.

Consider for a moment how the statistics track. Lawyers suffer depression at roughly three times the rate of the general population and experience substance abuse problems about twice as frequently as the general population. In a study published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry it was found that the rate of alcohol abuse for attorneys was 18% compared to 10% in the general population. Benjamin, G.A. H., Darling, E.J., and Sales, B. (1990), The prevalence of depression, alcohol abuse, and cocaine abuse among United States lawyers, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 13, 233-246. In a 1990 study conducted by the North Carolina Bar Association, 17% of the 2,600 attorneys surveyed admitted to drinking 3-5 alcoholic beverages per day. In the state of Washington, a study once again found that 18% of the 801 lawyers surveyed were problem drinkers.

And lawyers with substance abuse are also more likely to have an additional psychological disorder beyond substance dependence. In a sample of individuals attending a recovery center specializing in impaired professionals, 60% of attorneys had a co-occurring psychological disorder compared to 46% of healthcare professionals and 28% of nonprofessionals. Of attorneys with a co-occurring disorder, 32% had Major Depression, 14.6% had Bipolar Disorder, and 13.4% had an anxiety disorder. Sweeney, T.J., Myers, D.P., Molea, J. (2004), Treatment for attorneys with substance related and co-occurring psychiatric disorders: demographic and outcomes, 23, 55-64.

Not every depressed person becomes a substance abuser, but depressed individuals are more susceptible to the lure of temporary mood altering substances including alcohol and drugs, and the consequences to lawyers and their clients are substantial. Studies in Canada and in the United States estimate that roughly 60% of discipline prosecutions involve alcoholism or other substance abuse problems. Similarly, something over 60% of all malpractice claims involve substance abuse. Yet another study has suggested that 90% of serious disciplinary matters involve substance abuse. Substance abuse in the legal profession is an incredibly costly problem.

The current structure of the the legal profession is like gasoline on a fire for these serious issues:

  • The average lawyer works 60-80 hours per week;
  • People who work more than 50 hours per week are three times more likely to abuse alcohol;
  • One third of lawyers have been diagnosed with mental disorders (including forms of depression and related mental health conditions);
  • The average rate of depression in U.S. adults is about 7%, but lawyers suffer depression at about three times that rate, or 20%, and law students, according to some studies, suffer depression at about twice that rate, or 40%.
  • 70% of addicted lawyers think they can manage their problem on their own (the ultimate "Type A" personality at work);
  • 40% of lawyers fear that seeking treatment for an abuse problem would hurt their reputation in the legal profession.

Addiction is a tremendously difficult problem to tackle, even with the right support system in place. While there are no easy fixes, the California State Bar offers help through the Lawyer Assistance Program. Confidential support is available. If you are struggling with substance abuse issues in another jurisdiction, many states offer similar assistance through their bar programs.