Substance abuse often results in legal trouble. According to the Bureau of Justice, 21% of prisoners are incarcerated for crimes related to drugs or alcohol, and over half meet the criteria for addiction or dependency. Because of this, you might assume that an attorney’s exposure to substance abuse comes from their clientele, but this isn’t always the case. The high demands of practicing law can cause increased levels of stress and anxiety, leading some to develop drug or alcohol problems of their own.
In fact, it’s become so prevalent that even the American Bar Association has taken steps to address concerns about substance abuse among judges, attorneys and law students. If you’re in the legal profession, here’s what you need to know about the increased risk of addiction and how you can get help without jeopardizing your career.
Challenges of the Field
In the professional world, few occupations involve as much stress or responsibility as an attorney. They constantly face long hours, strict deadlines and complex issues. They may also work with people who have experienced significant trauma or hardship in their lives. And with little room for error, they know that a single mistake can damage a client’s case. All of this can take a toll on one’s mental and emotional health.
Some attorneys cope by setting boundaries, staying mindful, and making time for hobbies outside of work. Others rely on drugs or alcohol and spiral downward into substance abuse. It might be surprising that such a highly educated group of people can fall prey to addiction, but it makes sense when you consider that stress and anxiety are significant risk factors.
The challenges of being an attorney often emerge in law school, where students quickly experience chronic stress and higher rates of depression and drug use. Research shows that many law students begin their education just as happy and healthy as the general population, but are fundamentally changed as they focus less on their internal motivations for studying law and more on external values, like money, success, and prestige. This, combined with the constant demands and increased competition, causes many to seek relief by getting drunk or high. Once they land their first job, the pressures continue to mount.
What the Statistics Say
A joint study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association found that 21 percent of lawyers are considered problem drinkers. One of the most comprehensive reviews of substance abuse among legal professionals, the report analyzed the responses of 12,825 licensed attorneys across 19 states. The study also found that 28 percent of respondents struggle with moderate to severe depression, and nearly 20 percent with anxiety. Among the sample size, only a quarter answered questions about drug use. This is interesting, considering that 40 to 70 percent of malpractice issues can be attributed to substance abuse.
Experts believe the low response rate might be due to the fear and stigma surrounding addiction, but the answers still shed some light on substance abuse within the field. The most commonly abused drug was alcohol, with 85 percent of all lawyers surveyed drinking in the past year. This was followed by: sedatives at 16 percent, marijuana at 10.6 percent, stimulants at 5.6 percent, and opioids at 5.6 percent. In comparison, about 65 percent of the general population drinks alcohol, and only 6 percent do so heavily.
These numbers have prompted concern in the legal profession about the mental health of licensed attorneys, lawyers and law students. More firms are encouraged to invest in lawyer assistance programs that help address these complex issues, while others are calling for greater awareness and education aimed at prevention. The American Bar Association also recommends that lawyers be required to focus on mental health or substance abuse disorders for their continuing professional development credits.
Ignoring the Signs
Although we’re seeing a trend of increased substance abuse among attorneys, experts say that law firms aren’t equipped to recognize the problem. They don’t know what signs to look for and are so busy themselves that they might not even notice if they did. There are other factors at play, too, that make it difficult for law professionals to get help, including a deeply embedded culture of privacy and a commitment to racking up billable hours.
Attorneys and lawyers also tend to be high-functioning addicts, so there’s little motivation to address their problems with substance abuse as long as they’re still performing. And when their time or advice is worth hundreds of dollars an hour, it’s easy for many in this profession to believe that they don’t need help, that it’s possible to quit on their own. Unfortunately, this leads to “business as usual” despite worsening social, mental or physical problems.
As one’s addiction grows deeper, it can become increasingly difficult to get sober. However, with the right help, it is possible. Some treatment programs are tailored to the needs of working professionals who can’t spend weeks or months at an inpatient facility. Instead, they allow clients to manage their daily responsibilities while in recovery.
Treatment Options for Attorneys
When most people think of rehab, they imagine living on-site at a treatment facility. They might also envision medical oversight, strict schedules and daily therapy sessions. This is what’s known as residential care, and while effective for some people, it isn’t the only option available. Those with busy lifestyles often prefer outpatient treatment, which lets them live at home and continue working throughout the recovery process.
High-functioning addicts have different needs than others struggling with substance abuse or mental health, so choosing a suitable program is important. In Boulder, Colorado, Choice House’s intensive outpatient program (IOP) for professionals is specifically designed to address relevant issues like drug use, anxiety and career-related stress. Treatment services are offered in the evenings and require 10 clinical hours a week, providing more flexibility than other recovery solutions. While enrolled, individuals will develop the necessary skills to stay sober and avoid relapse.
Afterward, clients often find a new sense of purpose that was missing before. Addiction has a way of overshadowing everything else in life, but recovery can help people focus on what’s important to them. For attorneys, this could mean reigniting a passion for law or deciding to spend more time with friends and family. Regardless of what it looks like, our goal is to help each client rebuild a happy, successful and healthy life worth living.
Being an attorney is hard, grueling work. It involves constant stress, pressure and competition that can take a toll on the mind, leading many down the path of substance abuse. Drugs or alcohol might provide temporary relief, but cause worsening mental, social or professional problems. If you’re struggling with substance abuse or mental health problems and want to get back on track, help is available. Choice House in Boulder, Colorado, offers treatment programs tailored to the needs of high functioning professionals. We combine proven modalities, a flexible schedule and community support in the Rocky Mountains to help individuals build an unshakeable foundation for recovery. To learn more about our solutions for lasting sobriety, give us a call today at 303-578-4975 to speak to one of our representatives.