Lawyers with Substance Use Disorders–Finding Effective Solutions

Lawyers are almost twice as likely as people in other professions to have an alcohol problem. However, they are vulnerable to Substance Use of all types, and also at risk for co-occurring substance and mental health problems. For example, attorneys also have high rates of depression and anxiety. Research has found that approximately one-third of practicing attorneys in the U.S. are ‘problem drinkers’, or drink in ‘hazardous’ or ‘harmful’ ways. Also, research shows that approximately 28% have depression and 19% have anxiety problems. This is significant when compared to research in the general public done in 2014 which found that just under 7% of Americans had an Alcohol Use Disorder. Within the legal profession, however, 1 in 3 are thought to have problematic alcohol use.

The ABA Recognizes the Need for Lawyers with Substance Use Disorders

The American Bar Association has taken note of these issues. It helped fund research into the extent of the problem and has issued encouragement that attorneys seek help. They have stated: It is clear that drug use disorders can have a devastating effect on a lawyer’s career and personal life. Lawyers impacted by drug use disorder may also create problems for their family, employer and profession.

Lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) are here to support lawyers, judges, students and other legal professionals who suffer from drug use disorders. Contact your state or local LAP.

Career Development and Substance Problems

Drinking patterns among attorneys seem strongly correlated to stages of career development. The highest rate of problematic drinking appears to be among young attorneys in their first 10 years of practice. As the length of time practicing law increases, the rates of problematic drinking decrease. Similarly, there is a correlation between problematic drinking and an attorney’s position in a law firm. Entry level associates and early career junior associates tend to have more problematic drinking than do more established senior associates and partners.

It is important to note that the cause of differing rates of alcohol problems across career stages are not identified. It may be, for example, that students and young attorneys face different pressures than older lawyers because the school and early career path are different now than it was for older colleagues. Whatever the reasons, it is tempting to conclude that problematic drinking will be ‘cured’ by more years in practice. Keep in mind that the research does not follow individual attorneys throughout the spans of their careers, but compares younger attorneys to older ones.

A Culture of Alcohol Use

Many law schools have a culture of frequent drinking and episodic heavy drinking. Students are typically highly stressed with academics and face the burden of heavy school debt. They also must cope with fierce academic competition and competition for entry-level jobs. Frequent and heavy episodic drinking appears to be a stress management coping strategy for many. And for those who begin problematic drinking in school, the work world puts them at greater risk to progress in their problems. There is also a culture of frequent drinking in many law firms for both social and business-related events.

Barriers to Treatment for Lawyers with Substance Use Disorders

People from all walks of life typically face some barriers and obstacles to addiction treatment. A very basic one is a cardinal symptom of addiction itself. Denial clouds and distorts our perceptions, and makes it difficult to see the reality of our substance use problems. How long denial will commandeer our senses can’t be predicted. However, we do know some of the things that can help dispel it.

Probably the most painful way to break through your denial and to see the reality of what substance use is doing in your life is an avalanche of negative consequences. Nothing can grab our attention faster than bad things happening. Even still, many with an addiction have a prolonged series of bad things happen because they are using.

It’s often said that an addicted person won’t get help until they ‘hit bottom’, or until the worst of the worst has happened. This isn’t true for everyone, but unfortunately, it is true for many. However, consider this: what is the worst of the worst that could happen to you? Would your professional reputation be ruined? Would you lose clients? Would you lose your abilities to perform well in your profession? Would you lose your marriage or family? Would you suffer financial ruin, or even lose your license to practice law?

Certainly, any of those things are possible for an attorney with an addiction. And, if left unchecked, you run the risk of at least one of these things happening in your life. The longer your addiction is left unchecked and allowed to gain momentum, the greater the odds of such things happening.

Why wait for the bottom to fall out of your life before acting? There are many reasons, but of course, none are good enough to justify postponing treatment. Some of the things that hold people back from treatment are the fear of not being able to cope without using substances, the stigma of having an addiction, shame, and guilt, feeling humiliated… It’s a lengthy list. And, it isn’t even close to complete.

A Lawyer’s Unique Needs in Addiction Treatment

One of the greatest obstacles attorneys face when needing treatment is their concern about privacy and confidentiality in treatment. They wonder how they can go to rehab and remain discreet enough to preserve their professional reputation. And, frankly, not just any rehab will meet their needs. A treatment program in the area where they practice may not be the solution. Many find they are far more comfortable when traveling outside their home communities to treatment. This adds another layer of privacy and confidentiality that many feel is necessary.

Also, some attorneys will need to stay in touch with their professional worlds while in treatment. They simply can’t leave their practices or their clients without some input and contact. There are treatment programs that make such accommodations, understanding that work can’t also be pushed aside during the course of treatment.

Additionally, there are rehab programs that offer a retreat like or spa-like setting that many find a welcome respite from their usual high-stress lives. Such settings add another healing dimension to the treatment experience, allowing deep rejuvenation, relaxation, and opportunities for much-needed leisure.

Also, people in particular professions like law need help from people who understand their lives, their stressors, and their unique needs. Not every rehab is equal and not every rehab is for everyone. To get the most effective help, you need a good match and a good fit. We can help you identify the specifics of your needs so that your time and money invested in rehab are best spent. We will identify programs appropriate for you, finding those with the right expertise and specialty for your clinical needs in the right setting, and with the right amenities to make your treatment stay as effective and comfortable as possible.

Do You Need Help?

Addiction, or a Substance Use Disorder, is a medical condition that is diagnosed using medical criteria. There is a range of severity of all substance disorders, and if untreated, the condition can progress from mild to moderate and then severe. The severity of a Substance Use Disorder is determined by the number of symptoms you have in the same 12-month period. The symptoms of a Substance Use Disorder are:

  1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.
  2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to.
  3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance.
  4. Cravings and urges to use the substance.
  5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use.
  6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships.
  7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.
  8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger.
  9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance.
  10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance).
  11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.

The severity of a disorder is mild if 2-3 of the above symptoms occur; moderate if 4-5 do, and severe if 6 or more are present within the same 12-month period.

If You Are Ready for Treatment

If you are ready for treatment, we can help you clarify your insurance coverage and arrange admission. We will be happy to make recommendations for all the arrangements you need and provide this consultation free of charge.

You don’t have to struggle anymore. There are solutions. Effective help is available, and all your needs can be met while you get the help you need. You can prevent a professional disaster, but you will receive far more benefit than that.

Addiction is a pervasive disease and it takes its toll across the board in your life. Best practice treatment will address your comprehensive situation, and help you regain physical and mental health; rebuild your relationships; reclaim your hope and self-respect, and make a solid plan for maintaining your gains.

Recovery is more than possible. If you are ready to turn things around, you may be surprised how well your efforts work. Addiction depletes us of a lot of things, and our hope is one. Although you may not see much hope for changing your situation right now, remember that is an illness talking.