Silent Suffering in the Courtroom: Lawyers Substance Abuse

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Nearly 21 percent of lawyers in the U.S. are physically dependent on alcohol. Roughly 75 percent of lawyers who receive addiction treatment are diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, while nine percent are diagnosed with prescription drug use disorder. Lawyers may seem like responsible, successful people who can manage an addiction all on their own without problems, but in reality, these individuals are still just human beings, and need help like any other person who suffers from addiction.

Lawyers commonly use drugs and alcohol as a way to socialize and celebrate professional victories, in addition to using substances to help unwind, cope with stress, and deal with job responsibilities. But when drinking and drug use becomes problematic and turn into a regular habit, many lawyers will avoid seeking help in a vain effort to maintain their careers and reputation — putting their personal health and livelihoods at stake. In the long run, the cons associated with substance abuse far outweigh the pros — especially for lawyers who wish to maintain and lead long, successful careers.

Here’s an in-depth look at lawyers substance abuse in the U.S., along with tips that can help you determine whether you or a loved one in the legal field needs help overcoming drug or alcohol addiction.

Lawyers Substance Abuse: How Common is it?

Alcohol is the number one substance abused by lawyers, followed by prescription drugs. Marijuana, cocaine, and heroin are also commonly abused by lawyers and other legal professionals.

A high number of lawyers who struggle with substance use disorders also suffer from mental health disorders like depression and anxiety — known as co-occurring disorders. A study conducted on the prevalence of substance use disorders among lawyers found that 28 percent struggled with depression, and 19 percent struggled with anxiety. Another report found that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than those in other job fields.

Alcohol Addiction

Roughly one in every three U.S. lawyers abuses alcohol, and one in every five lawyers struggles with alcohol use disorder. Environment and stress are two major risk factors for lawyers alcoholism, since lawyers frequently attend functions and events at which alcohol is present, and may use alcohol to cope with stressors surrounding long work hours and heavy workloads. Alcohol produces effects including relaxation and euphoria, and is also sometimes used by lawyers to enhance sociability and mood when spending time among friends, clients, and coworkers.

Lawyers who abuse alcohol regularly over a period of time can become tolerant to the substance, and start drinking higher amounts to achieve its effects. This behavior can lead to physical dependence, followed by psychological addiction. Lawyers who suffer from alcohol use disorder may change their behaviors and lifestyles in ways that revolve around consuming and recovering from alcohol use.

Prescription Drug Addiction

In addition to alcohol, lawyers tend to abuse prescription drugs because they’re legal and widely available. But using prescription drugs without a valid prescription or in ways other than directed is illegal, and can quickly lead to problems surrounding dependence and addiction.

The most commonly abused prescription drugs are opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants. Opioids, also known as painkillers, produce feelings of sedation, relaxation, and euphoria, while central nervous system depressants like benzodiazepines and barbiturates produce similar effects by slowing down respiration and heart rate. Lawyers may tend to abuse stimulants like amphetamines to stay awake late into the night, and to improve focus and concentration when working on challenging cases.

Just like with alcohol, prescription drug abuse can quickly lead to dependence and addiction. Opioids are the most addictive drug class, and can lead to addiction in as little as two weeks. Lawyers who mix alcohol with prescription drugs are at even higher risk for addiction, overdose, and death due to the way this deadly combination affects the brain and body.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Evidence shows that roughly 50 percent of people who suffer from substance use disorders also suffer from co-occurring disorders. Many lawyers who suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders like PTSD may use drugs and alcohol to mask and numb their symptoms. At the same time, lawyers who suffer from substance use disorders may eventually develop mental health disorders, since drugs and alcohol cause lasting changes to the brain that can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

A 2011 study found that 11 percent of criminal litigation lawyers suffer from PTSD, and that 34 percent suffer from secondary traumatic stress — a condition similar to PTSD in which lawyers are traumatized by their clients’ own traumatic history and stories. Lawyers who suffer from co-occurring disorders often require a combination of detox and behavioral therapy to overcome both their addiction and mental health disorder.

Why Lawyers are Susceptible to Substance Abuse

lawyers substance abuse

Many lawyers use drugs or alcohol to cope with stress.

The rate of alcohol use disorder among lawyers is five times higher than that of the general U.S. population. In a study examining drug use by profession, the legal industry ranked 9th out of 19 industries for illicit drug use. Why are lawyers more susceptible to substance abuse than those in other industries?

Lawyers often have a wide range of important responsibilities from day to day that not only affect their own bottom lines and well-being, but that of their clients’ as well. Some clients literally depend on their lawyers to save their lives and keep them out of prison, while other clients may depend on their lawyers to defend their children, spouses, and other loved ones. Working under this type of pressure can easily influence lawyers to use drugs and alcohol to cope with the everyday demands of their profession.

In addition to environment and stress, other risk factors that drive rates of lawyers alcoholism and lawyers substance abuse are culture, mental health disorders, and competition.

Interestingly, data shows that law students are generally physically and mentally healthier than the rest of the population, and tend to use drugs and alcohol less frequently than their counterparts. But as law students progress through law school, they start focusing more on status, affluence, and competition, and experience higher levels of stress, lower self-esteem, and loss of personal values and beliefs, in some cases. Research shows that alcohol abuse among lawyers is most prevalent during the first 10 years of their career, and becomes progressively worse as time goes on.

What Can Be Done to Combat Lawyers Substance Abuse?

Lawyers who struggle with substance abuse often tend to avoid seeking addiction treatment for fear of losing their jobs, or of losing valuable time that can be devoted to their careers. Many times, lawyers are unaware that they have a problem with addiction and continue abusing drugs and alcohol as a normal way of life.

Continuing legal education, or CLE programs, recommend that lawyers receive education surrounding substance abuse and mental health disorders every three years. These programs teach lawyers about professional risks associated with substance abuse, along with skills lawyers can use to maintain good mental health and overall well-being. Unfortunately, the fear of stigma deters many lawyers from the addiction treatment they need to become healthier and drug-free.

Lawyers who do suffer from substance abuse can reach out to the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, also known as CoLAP. CoLAP aims to help all judges, lawyers, law students, and others in the legal industry gain access to substance abuse treatment so they can continue to protect themselves, their families, and their clients from the negative effects of addiction.

Know the Signs of Addiction in the Legal Field

Sometimes it can be tough to determine whether you, a loved one, or fellow lawyer needs help fighting addiction. Many lawyers who suffer from addiction do so quietly and in secret to avoid possible negative ramifications on their lives and careers. But when left untreated, addiction can cause a higher number of more serious problems such as incarceration, loss of relationships, long-term health problems, and death.

Here are common signs of addiction among lawyers and others who work in the legal field:

  • Poor attendance. Lawyers who suffer from addiction may arrive to work or appointments late, or take longer lunch breaks to use drugs and alcohol. Some may even miss appointments, or fail to show up for court hearings.
  • Decline in work performance. Addiction can lead to missed deadlines, complaints from clients, and gradual decline in work performance and productivity over a period of time.
  • Inability to get along with co-workers. Lawyers with substance use disorders may overreact to criticism from peers and bosses, and may withdraw from or fail to get along with other lawyers and co-workers.
  • Decline in personal hygiene and appearance. Those who struggle with addiction often fail to maintain their hygiene and appearance, and tend to have body odor, bad breath, and may even smell like drugs or alcohol.
  • Loss of control at social events. Lawyers who struggle with addiction may behave inappropriately at social events where they’re expected to remain professional.
  • Lying and secretive behavior. Addiction can lead to lying, dishonesty, and secretive behavior — especially in those who want to keep their alcohol and drug use habits private.
  • Loss of personal relationships. Drug and alcohol abuse can lead to risky, impulsive behavior, mood swings, and other behavioral changes that cause strain among friends and loved ones. For instance, a person intoxicated by alcohol may put their marriage at stake after becoming intoxicated and impulsively cheating on their spouse.
  • Making excuses to use drugs and alcohol. Lawyers with substance use disorders commonly make excuses for drinking and drug use, such as requiring several drinks of alcohol to bond with new clients over dinner.
  • Viewing drugs and alcohol as rewards. Lawyers may reward themselves with drugs and alcohol at the end of long, hard work days, or after winning cases in court. This sign is common among lawyers who are also high-functioning addicts, and who rely on drugs and alcohol to unwind at the end of every day.

Get Help in the Form of Treatment Today

Despite the fact that addiction and substance use disorders are common in the U.S., addiction continues to carry a stigma that can potentially put a person’s confidence and overall livelihood at stake. A high number of lawyers tend to avoid seeking addiction treatment for fear of losing their professional status and relationships with others. But drug and alcohol rehab centers respect the concerns and privacy of every individual patient regardless of socioeconomic status, and can help lawyers safely and successfully overcome addiction.

Addiction to drugs and alcohol is commonly treated using detoxification and therapy. Detox helps patients overcome chemical dependency, while therapy teaches patients how to combat underlying causes of addiction, such as stress and depression. Today, those who struggle with substance use disorders can choose from a number of different treatments and therapies proven effective at combating addiction.

Treatment in a residential inpatient setting is highly recommended for lawyers who need help overcoming addiction. An inpatient rehab center gives patients 24/7 access to medical staff and counselors who can offer care and support at any time of day when needed. Lawyers who want to experience a more comfortable recovery with access to numerous amenities can explore their options for luxury rehab centers where they can benefit from daily housekeeping, gourmet meals, fitness centers, and more.

Use our rehab center directory to explore treatment centers by city and state, and to learn more about available addiction treatments. We’ll provide you with all the resources you need to achieve a healthier, more fulfilling addiction-free lifestyle.