Do You Have a Problem with Substances?

  • Lawyers are more likely than the general population to abuse alcohol or drugs, and law firms are notoriously behind the times when it comes to acknowledging and dealing with these issues
  • An attempt to cope with heavy workloads, long hours, and intense competition by using substances often begins in law school and can be the starting point for a substance abuse problem
  • If you think you may have a problem, don’t let fear, shame, or your busy schedule prevent you from getting help

The tendency for lawyers to abuse alcohol and drugs more than people in most other professions has become the legal world’s worst-kept secret.

Lawyers are almost twice as likely to grapple with alcohol abuse and have twice the addiction rate to opioids than the general population. But why is substance abuse such an issue in this profession? And how can a lawyer know if they’ve stepped over the line from the common “work hard, play hard” mentality to an actual problem?

It Starts with Law School

For many lawyers who abuse substances, the tendency to use alcohol and drugs to cope with heavy workloads, long hours, and intense competition begins when law school does. Everyone handles stress differently, but law school students often wear their lack of sleep and piles of reading as a badge of honor. A recent study found that almost half of law students meet criteria to describe their psychological distress as clinically significant, and other studies on the mental health of law students put the percentage even higher. However, only half of students involved in any study about mental health actually pursued treatment.

Alongside these mental health challenges, almost half of these students engage in binge drinking. It is not uncommon for those under pressure to turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to relax and escape, as well as to boost their stamina and ability to stay awake and focus. These habits become a vicious cycle, continuing and worsening once new lawyers start working and the pressure increases.

Signs You May Have a Problem

People occasionally drink too much or use drugs recreationally—this doesn’t automatically amount to addiction. You may have a problem if:

  • You keep taking a prescription drug after it’s no longer needed for a health problem.
  • Your tolerance for the substance increases and you need more of it to get the same effect.
  • You feel off or sick when the drug wears off. You may experience shakes, depression, nausea and vomiting, sweatiness, headaches, fatigue, and/or a fever.
  • You can’t stop yourself from using alcohol or drugs, even if you want to. You continue to use it even though you’re experiencing negative consequences at work or at home.
  • You spend a lot of your time thinking about how and when you’ll next take the substance, how you’ll feel, and how coming down will feel.
  • You have trouble limiting yourself: You might vow to only use a certain amount of drugs or drink on certain days, but you end up using more than you swore you would.
  • You use drugs or drink secretly and cover up the effects with eye drops and breath mints, and lie about “coming down with something” to explain away your sickly appearance.

This is not at all an exhaustive list—lawyers, in particular, tend to be able to pull off “functional” addiction much longer and much more convincingly than most people.

Lawyers are often able to hide their addictions for decades while excelling at work and causing very little suspicion until something catastrophic happens. Are you aware of any colleagues who fit this description?

Lawyers are also less likely to seek help for substance abuse than non-lawyers are. They are especially worried about confidentiality and appearing weak in such a competitive environment, and law firms have generally been in denial about and unhelpful with these issues until fairly recently. The fear of losing respect, clients, and possibly a job trumps the fear of harming oneself from abusing substances.

You Can and Should Get Help

If you think you may have a problem, first realize that addiction is a disease, not a weakness. There is no shame in having any kind of medical issue, whether mental or physical. Second, your health matters more than your clients or your job ever will, even if your job is what consumes the majority of your life right now. You can get help from organizations that specialize in working with people in legal professions, like those listed below. Any contact you have with them, and similar organizations, is strictly confidential.

  • The Recovery Village: The Recovery Village is a network of rehabilitation centers that treat drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, etc.).
  • Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAPs): Lawyer Assistance Programs provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers, and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues.
  • Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation: The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation specializes in helping legal professionals address addiction and co-occurring mental health issues so they can return to their practice.

Most employers, including law firms, offer Employee Assistance Programs. EAPs can refer employees to mental health professionals, including addiction specialists, and it’s all confidential.

The American Bar Association has recently rolled out an initiative to bring greater awareness of mental health and addiction issues to law firms and reduce the prevalence of substance abuse. So far, over a dozen firms have signed on, and more are sure to follow. The initiative aims not only to educate, but to help firms learn how to provide non-alcoholic alternatives to law firm events that usually involve drinking, develop partnerships with experts to reduce substance abuse, and adopt back-to-work policies for employees returning from mental health and/or substance abuse treatment.

What's Next

Sit down with yourself and honestly assess your relationship with substances. If you believe you may have a problem—however “minor,”—call one of the organizations listed above, or speak to another professional who specializes in substance abuse issues and can help you formulate a plan. Please do this in the next 48 hours.