Is it common for legal professionals to struggle with substance abuse?
The legal profession is one of the biggest casualties of drug and alcohol abuse. Because lawyers, paralegals, and other legal professionals are under such enormous pressure, they often turn to mind-altering substances as a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism often ends up becoming a source of pressure in its own right — especially once an addict finds that they are unable to stop abusing drugs and alcohol.
Substance use disorders are a significant public health problem in the United States. Not only do drug addictions regularly take lives, but they also have a major economic impact. Despite the common image of addicts as destitute individuals, most people who abuse alcohol and illicit drugs are gainfully employed. Nonetheless, individuals with drug or alcohol addictions tend to struggle on the job. Alcohol abuse alone is attributable to more than 500 million days of work absenteeism each year.
People in certain industries and professions are more vulnerable to addiction than others. Careers that involve high levels of pressure, stress, and competition tend to be associated with higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse.
Legal Professionals and Substance Abuse
It may come as a surprise that legal professionals have such high rates of drug and alcohol abuse. After all, substance abuse is often associated with illegal behavior. Intoxicated individuals are far more likely to engage in violent acts, robberies, and drunk driving. Moreover, illicit drug abuse is inherently illegal. Just as doctors can get sick, however, it is important to recognize that legal professionals are not immune to breaking the law.
Substance abuse often begins early with legal professionals. College students have high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, but the rates of substance abuse in law school are even higher. Law school is a highly competitive environment where students face enormous pressure. As a result, many students begin a pattern of drug abuse and binge drinking. These behaviors do not necessarily end after law school. In fact, the professional world is often just as competitive and high-pressure as law school. Many people find that they have limited time for hobbies, families, or even friends. With so few outlets outside of the job, many legal professionals turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of letting loose.
The substance abuse habits of legal professionals are often unique. Many legal workers are considered “functional addicts,” a controversial term that refers to people with addictions who can meet their responsibilities. Legal professionals who are “functional addicts” may never miss work. They may excel in their careers while drinking and using drugs on weekends or after work. In certain work environments in the legal profession, drinking on the job is common. As such, drinking and using drugs may not be perceived as interfering with work-life — and it may simply be dismissed as a normal part of being a lawyer.
While individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol on weekends only may not fit into the common stereotype people have of addicts, this does not mean that they don’t have a problem. In fact, consuming alcohol and drugs over the weekend only is often more dangerous. Many people who cram their substance abuse into short spans of time engage in binge drinking, which is by far the most dangerous type of alcohol abuse.
Drug and alcohol addiction among legal professionals often goes unrecognized. This is partly because many legal professionals are ambitious individuals who prize self-reliance; as a result, they may struggle to admit that they are not in control even when they have an obvious chemical dependency. For lawyers and other legal professionals, seeking outside help is critical. Substance use disorders are legitimate mental health disorders that require clinical treatment. Left untreated, most drug and alcohol addictions become progressively worse.
Facts and Statistics on Legal Professionals and Substance Abuse
For many legal professionals, drug and alcohol abuse begins during their education. Studies indicate that 43% of law students have engaged in binge drinking during the last two weeks. These same studies indicate that 25% of law students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder. Law students are driven to abuse alcohol due to the stress they face. This stress causes mental health conditions that they may try to alleviate with alcohol and drug abuse. 23% of law students suffer from moderate anxiety, while 14% have the symptoms of severe anxiety disorders. 17% of law students meet the criteria for major depressive disorder. More than half of all law students experience major mental health challenges during their academic careers.
These problems tend to get worse as students enter the workforce. One survey conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that 36.4% of legal professionals meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder. This problem is even more severe for female legal professionals, of whom 39.5% engage in problematic drinking. The rates of alcohol addiction among legal professionals have rapidly increased since 1990 when it was discovered that 18% of legal professionals were problem drinkers.
Unfortunately, many legal professionals are reluctant to seek help. One multisite study of law students found that 63% believed that seeking addiction treatment would negatively impact their chances of being admitted to the bar. A similar quantity of students believed that getting addiction treatment could prevent them from getting jobs or result in academic expulsion. As such, the vast majority of law students and lawyers choose to hide their substance abuse problems instead of getting the treatment they need — and deserve.
What Substances are Legal Professionals Abusing?
Alcohol is by far the most commonly abused substance among legal professionals. However, in recent years prescription drug abuse among lawyers has been on the rise. 9% of lawyers struggle with prescription drug abuse. There are many motivations for doing so. Some lawyers and legal professionals abuse drugs as a form of recreation, while others do so to suppress negative emotions arising from untreated mental health conditions. A more contemporary trend is the use of so-called “study drugs” to enhance cognitive performance. Many legal professionals also seek relief in the form of traditional recreational drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and cannabis.
Law School “Study Drugs”
The use of “study drugs” often begins in law school and continues into a student’s later career. “Study drugs” are prescription stimulants. These drugs are generally prescribed to treat the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, many students and legal professionals misuse them. These drugs provide a temporary boost in energy, focus, and mental acuity. As such, students often use them to cram for exams and pull all-nighters. Lawyers and legal professionals, who often have enormous workloads and face pressure in their careers, may abuse prescription stimulants to gain a competitive edge.
Prescription stimulants are highly addictive. While they may provide a temporary performance boost the first time they are used, ultimately they are likely to have a negative impact on one’s work and life. Not only do the withdrawal effects dramatically worsen work performance, but lawyers who abuse study drugs are prone to overdose, especially when they combine these medications with alcohol. Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and study drugs are CNS stimulants, they have opposing effects on the body. As a result, individuals abusing both substances have a higher chance of overdosing and suffering life-threatening respiratory depression.
Legal Professionals and Alcohol Abuse
The drinking culture in the legal profession is so well-known that it is something of a stereotype that lawyers are heavy drinkers. This is one stereotype that has plenty of truth to it, however. The rates of alcohol abuse among lawyers are very alarming. While many are driven to drink on their own, the drinking culture in the legal field has a significant impact. Studies show that lawyers who work with others in large firms have the highest rates of abuse.
The pressure to fit in with one’s peers in an industry where alcohol abuse is prevalent can influence young lawyers. Among these legal professionals, junior associates who are working their way up the ladder have the most severe drinking problems. 29% of lawyers in their first decade of practice have a drinking problem, though this rate goes down slightly in the second decade.
Legal Professionals and Mental Health
Several factors lead to a high incidence of mental health problems among lawyers. These include:
- Deadlines and time constraints
- High stakes of legal work, which include loss of freedom, property, and life
- High expectations of success
- Extreme competition
- Critical judgment from courts, coworkers, and opposing counsel
- The threat of malpractice
- The conflict-driven nature of legal work
- Assuming a client’s burdens, or dealing with unstable clients
- Energy depletion from intense workloads
Many mental health problems are common in the legal field. The most common of these are anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. Approximately 45% of lawyers report having experienced an episode of depression during their careers. 12% of those individuals report having had suicidal thoughts at the time. These rates are alarming, especially since lawyers are somewhat less likely to seek help than the general population.
The high rates of mental health disorders among lawyers are strongly correlated with the high rates of substance use disorders. In fact, mental illness and substance addiction are often comorbid. 50% of people with drug or alcohol addictions suffer from mental health problems, and similarly half of all people with mental illnesses engage in dangerous levels of substance abuse. For lawyers, who are often expected to succeed at any cost, there is a strong temptation to self-medicate. Instead of getting help for depression or anxiety, legal professionals are instead driven to abuse drugs or alcohol for temporary relief. Once a chemical dependency has developed, however, substance addiction tends to further exacerbate the symptoms of any underlying mental illness.
Preventing Substance Abuse with Legal Professionals
As recognition for substance addiction among legal professionals grows, many law firms and legal organizations have begun implementing programs for lawyers with drinking or drug problems. It is crucial for lawyers with addiction problems to understand that it is okay to seek help — and that far from jeopardizing their careers, getting addiction treatment is possibly the best thing they can do to ensure long-term job security.
In fact, lawyers have more options than most of the general population. Because drinking and drug abuse rates are so high among lawyers and legal professionals, many support groups have developed that are specifically designed for legal professionals. When legal professionals have a problem with drugs or alcohol, the best thing they can do is talk to someone who understands. Having strong peer support can make it far easier to engage in healthy behaviors. However, for individuals who have already developed a substance addiction, getting clinical support is critical.
Treatment Options for Legal Professionals Struggling with Substance Abuse
Substance use disorders are legitimate and very serious medical conditions that tend to get worse over time if they are not treated. The consequences of addiction are numerous: loss of health, losing jobs, severing relationships with loved ones and family members, and even loss of life through overdose. While many sufferers try to control their drug and alcohol use on their own, personal willpower is rarely sufficient to stay sober for long. This is because drug and alcohol addictions, by their very nature, impair a person’s willpower and motivation. When a person has developed a drug or alcohol addiction, it is paramount that they get clinical treatment for this condition.
Outpatient rehab programs are often recommended to legal professionals seeking addiction treatment. Outpatient addiction programs are designed to be flexible so that working professionals can continue to go to work and meet commitments to their families. Outpatient programs generally meet once or several times a week. During these sessions, clients take part in a wide range of therapies and treatment modalities, including group therapy and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Outpatient rehab programs work with clients to help them develop new coping skills, address underlying issues, and face the everyday challenges of early sobriety.
Addiction Recovery at NuView Treatment Center
NuView Treatment Center, located in West Los Angeles, offers a wide range of outpatient treatment programs for legal professionals and others who hope to escape from the vicious cycle of drug or alcohol dependence. Our modern facility, highly trained staff, and evidence-based treatment methods can help anyone, regardless of the severity of their addiction.
Our rehab includes every level of care, including:
- Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)
- Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs)
- Outpatient programs (OPs)
- Aftercare planning
At NuView Treatment Center, we are committed to approaching addiction treatment on a whole-person basis. Compassion is prized above all. We never use a one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment. Instead, we recognize that our clients are all individuals with unique needs, underlying issues, and strengths. Our staff members develop individualized treatment plans for every person who walks into our facility so that they can develop the skills they need to stay sober and live lives that are joyful, prosperous, and drug and alcohol-free.
If you are a legal professional and you need help with a drug or alcohol problem, help is available. Contact us today.