Working in a large law firm, it wasn’t unusual for a partner to go missing for days or weeks on end. The official explanation was usually exhaustion, a medical problem or an “extended vacation,” though the young associates would take guesses whether the truth was closer to a nervous breakdown or admission into drug rehab.
The law is a demanding field, and attorneys typically demand even more of themselves. It may come as no surprise then that lawyers also are disproportionately affected by addiction and mental health disorders:
- The American Bar Association (ABA) estimates that 18 to 20 percent of lawyers abuse drugs or alcohol (compared to 8 to 10 percent of the general population).
- Lawyers use cocaine at twice the rate of the general population, according to a 1990 study published in the Journal of Law and Psychiatry.
- Thirty-three percent of lawyers suffer from mental health disorders.
- Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than individuals in 28 other professions, researchers concluded in a 1990 Johns Hopkins Medical School study.
- The National Institute for Safety and Health reports that male lawyers ages 20 to 64 are more than twice as likely to die from suicide as men in other careers.
Why Are Lawyers at High Risk for Addiction?
The ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs explains these shocking statistics this way: “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.”
While many factors contribute to addiction, lawyers may be at increased risk for the following reasons:
There is little room for error in legal practice. Taking a sick day or going on a family vacation aren’t excuses for missing a court appearance or failing to file a pleading. The pressure to meet deadlines and report back not only to senior attorneys but also a full book of clients can become overwhelming.
Then there’s the bane of every big-firm lawyer’s existence: billable hours. Depending whether the attorney works as a solo practitioner, for a small boutique firm or a national giant, he may be expected to work up to 60 to 80 hours per week. After a long workday, many lawyers attend networking functions in the evenings and return to the office on weekends.
Research shows that keeping these kinds of hours takes a toll. People who work at least 50 hours per week are at three times the risk of alcohol problems as those who do not work or who work between 30 and 49 hours per week, according to a study conducted by the University of Otago in New Zealand.
Competitive Pressures in a Tough Economy
Lawyers put in long hours to serve their clients and keep their firm afloat, but they also do so because of the growing threat that other lawyers will take their business. In a stale economy, there are more ambitious lawyers graduating from law school hungry for work and fewer clients to go around. Loss of business and reduced financial security can impact an attorney’s self-esteem and drive them further into the grip of addiction.
Mental Health Disorders
Not all lawyers struggle with mental health disorders, but statistics show that many suffer from depression, anxiety and suicidal thinking. When left undiagnosed and untreated, these mental health disorders can contribute to and exacerbate addictions to drugs and alcohol as well as process addictions such as gambling and sex addiction.
Lawyers who have maintained successful practices often blame the stress of work for their mood swings and feelings of hopelessness. In some cases, it is not until an underlying mental health disorder is identified and treated that these individuals can experience long-term addiction recovery.
While there are many exceptions, lawyers as a group tend to be controlling, perfectionistic and hypercritical. While supportive of career success, these personality traits may put some lawyers at a deficit in terms of coping and interpersonal skills. They also create obstacles along the path to addiction recovery.
But eventually everyone, even lawyers, ends up with time alone with themselves. It is during these times that some lawyers seek to escape or self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
Addicted Lawyers Pay a Heavy Price
Even the most high-functioning addict can only conceal a drug problem or mental illness for so long. Over time, addicted lawyers can expect to face heavy consequences for their drinking or drug use, including job loss, suspension and disbarment, bankruptcy, divorce, health complications, arrests, and other problems.
Addiction interventions help impaired lawyers recognize the consequences of their drug use and enter drug rehab. Some drug rehabilitation centers offer specialized treatment for addicted professionals, such as an executive drug rehab; therapists in these specialized treatment programs understand the unique demands of the legal profession and confidentiality is assured.