Shining a Light on Lawyers’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health

substance abusePerhaps the issue of lawyers drinking too much and abusing drugs is finally getting serious attention from those in the profession who build and sustain the culture.  It’s been swept under the rug, whispered about, laughed off and/or ignored for as long as I’ve been a lawyer. As a self-regulated profession, we need to do a better job of confronting lawyers’ substance abuse and mental health problems head on. We need to develop a stronger safety net for our colleagues and better protection for the public we serve.

Two Studies of the Profession’s Alcohol and Substance Abuse Problem

The current movement can trace its origin back to two studies that came out in 2016.  Professors Organ, Jaffee and Bender published “Suffering in Silence” a report based on a survey of law students’ use of alcohol, drugs and their inclination to seek help. The study involved 3,300 students at 15 different law schools and compared law students with other graduate students as well as with a prior study that took place in the 1990s.  The results were shocking: between one-quarter to one-third of respondents reported frequent binge drinking or misuse of drugs and/or mental health challenges.  The findings were that one-quarter were at risk for alcoholism, 17% suffered from depression, 14% had severe anxiety, 23% had mild or moderate anxiety, and 6% had suicidal thoughts within the prior year.  The longer the students attended law school, the more they drank and the more anxious they got.

Meanwhile, the American Bar Association teamed up with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation to survey and publish a report on substance abuse and other mental health issues of attorneys. According to the report, 21% of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28% struggle with some level of depression and 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. The study found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems.

The problem drinking among law students and attorneys within the first ten years of practice contradicts previous research that showed that rates of problem drinking increased as individuals spent more time in the legal profession. When focusing solely on the volume and frequency of alcohol consumed, more than 1 in 3 practicing attorneys are problem drinkers, the study found.

Moreover, the studies showed that both law students and lawyers who recognized that they had problems were not likely to seek help. The factors that discouraged both law students and lawyers from seeking help were similar: a threat to academic or job status, potential threat to/removal from bar admission, social stigma; a feeling that “I can handle it myself.”

National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being

In the wake of these two reports, a group of individuals came together, galvanized to take action.  Initially, a few individuals from “across the aisles” of the profession, including Lawyers Assistance Programs, organizations that prosecute lawyers (National Organization of Bar Counsel) and lawyers who represent lawyers in the disciplinary process (Association of Professional Liability Lawyers) got together to brainstorm action in response to the studies.  The core group quickly expanded to other lawyers from interested organizations including law schools and various ABA entities such as the Standing Committee on Professionalism, which I chair. The group began brainstorming how to be a clarion call for action.

Related Efforts to Highlight the Problem and Solutions

Meanwhile, in July of this year, a high profile article in the New York Times chronicled the personal story of a partner in a Silicon Valley law firm who died of a drug overdose.  The article was forwarded to my inbox by no fewer than two dozen people. And the LAP community across the country saw a surge in interest in their programs.

CLE programming in the area of alcohol and drug abuse has been largely avoided by lawyers. Recognizing that fear of stigma may keep some away who need the education, there is a movement afoot to require it.  As we have written about before, the Illinois Supreme Court this year became one of a handful of states to modify its CLE rules to require that lawyers take at least one hour of substance abuse and mental health CLE each reporting period.

Task Force Issues its Report

In about a year, lightning speed by lawyers’ standards, we had put together a report that was released this past Saturday at a National Organization of Bar Counsel program in New York City.  About 200 people were in attendance as Bree Buchanan, the Task Force co-chair, explained that the group’s “mission statement” was “to create a movement towards improving the health and well-being of the legal profession.” A press release from the ABA followed yesterday.

The Report consists of 44 recommendations, some addressed to all of us in the profession and some specific legal stakeholders: judges, regulators, legal employers, law schools, bar associations, professional liability carriers, and lawyers’ assistance programs. The recommendations are geared to supporting lawyer well-being, defined as “a continuous process in which lawyers strive for thriving in each dimension of their lives: emotional, occupational, social, intellectual, physical, and spiritual.”

Yes, many may read this and say this is too “touchy-feely.” But for too long, we lawyers have emphasized the intellectual to the detriment of the other dimensions of our lives.

The main reasons to take action on this issue are laid out in the beginning of the report:  1) it’s good for business—organizational success depends on healthy lawyers; 2) it’s good for clients—ethics and professionalism are undermined if lawyers are impaired and cannot meet their competency requirements; and 3) it’s the right thing to do—untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders ruin lives and careers.

The recommendations are many, but the themes are few.  There are five core steps for a sustainable culture shift in the legal profession:

  1. Identifying stakeholders and the role that each of us can play in reducing the toxicity in our profession;
  2. Ending the stigma surrounding help-seeking behaviors. The report contains numerous recommendations to combat the stigma that seeking help will lead to negative professional consequences.
  3. Emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence. Among the report’s recommendations are steps stakeholders can take to highlight the tie between competence and well-being, including modifying the Rules of Professional Conduct or their comments to reference well-being.
  4. Expanding educational outreach and programming on well-being issues for lawyers, judges, and law students.
  5. Changing the tone of the profession one small step at a time. The report contains a number of smallscale recommendations, such as allowing lawyers to earn continuing legal education (CLE) credit for well-being workshops or de-emphasizing alcohol at bar association social events. Collectively, small steps can lead to transformative cultural change in a profession that has always been, and will remain, demanding.

The Report already has some legs under it.  The Conference of Chief Justices passed a resolution in support. Incoming ABA President Hilary Bass has agreed to make this issue a priority in the year ahead.

The hope is that the Report not only is read, but is used as a springboard for initiatives that make a difference.  As Co-chair Jim Coyle said at the end of the program on Saturday, we need to begin implementation across the country, across practice areas, and across organizations.  We all should “be proponents of change.”



Illinois lawyers: don’t forget that the Lawyer’s Assistance Program is available to provide a variety of resources and services.

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