This is part one of a three-piece series on substance abuse in the legal profession. Stay tuned to Legal Current in the coming weeks for posts two and three.

The legal community has been harboring an open secret for decades: substance abuse among practicing lawyers is rampant.

In 2016 the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association conducted a study, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” and the results were alarming:

  • 36 percent of responding attorneys were deemed hazardous drinkers (in comparison, only 15 percent of doctors could be characterized this way).
  • 85 percent reported alcohol use in the past year, while the rate among the population is 65 percent.
  • 6 percent used cocaine, crack, stimulants and opioids.
  • 2 percent used marijuana and hash.
  • 16 percent used sedatives.

While law firms and other professional legal associations have a reputation for hosting alcohol-fueled events in a “work-hard, play-hard” culture, the harsh reality is that lawyers are suffering from substance-abuse disorders and mental health issues that often have a devastating impact on themselves, their families and their workplaces.

A 2016 survey commissioned by the American Bar Association found attorneys experience problematic drinking at a far higher rate than any other profession and also suffer from significant forms of mental distress.

The tragic death of a high-powered, seemingly successful lawyer from an overdose – a victim of an addiction that no one even suspected – attracted major national attention and sparked action.

Nine professional law organizations and experts formed the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and authored a report titled The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.

The report acknowledged the issues and proposed steps law firms can take to address the heightened rates of depression, anxiety and addiction among lawyers. The release of the report was a defining moment for the entire profession, but there is still a long path ahead in fostering a healthy environment for lawyers. The work lies not only with national organizations but also with law firms and individual lawyers.

Understanding the enabling workplace

Some attorneys are working 60-hour weeks or more, and they are expected to be on call much of the time – especially early in their careers. Many can be classified as workaholics. When substance-abuse disorders come into play, the result is often a “high-functioning” addict, or someone who is masterful at hiding the addiction.

Natural talents for problem-solving and superior critical thinking skills – the same characteristics that help lawyers shine in the courtroom and boardroom –  allow them to hide their addictions from others and convince themselves that their condition is manageable.

These “high-functioning” lawyers will put all their sober hours and energy into their work, even as the rest of their lives crumbles around them. This can go on for decades. In a typical law firm culture, colleagues and partners may not notice or acknowledge these problems as long as the work is getting done.

Like enabling families, law firms can unwittingly enable attorneys to sink further into addiction. When workplace successes are celebrated – regardless of the cost to the successful lawyer’s mental health or whether colleagues and assistants covered missed appointments or minor mistakes – a struggling lawyer can perpetuate the illusion there is no problem.

While high-functioning lawyers may be able to keep up with their work responsibilities for extended periods of time, the effort it takes to maintain high performance at work while supporting an addiction at home eventually takes its toll. When they finally unravel, these attorneys can be a risk to themselves as well as their firms.


This series was authored by Link Cristin, executive director of the legal professionals program at Caron Treatment Centers. The article was originally posted to Westlaw Practitioners Insights M&A ($) site.

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