The Truth about Addiction in the Legal Profession

Q&A on the importance of reaching out for help

How prevalent is addiction in the legal profession?

A very conservative estimate from groundbreaking new research reveals that approximately 21 percent of licensed attorneys are problem drinkers, and that the number is significantly higher among certain sub-populations within the field. Co-occurring disorders are also common, as 28 percent of attorneys struggle with depression and 19 percent with anxiety. Finally, while less common than addiction to alcohol, addiction to other drugs is also a large and growing concern.

How would you describe the impact of addiction on the practice of law?

It can be devastating, both for the individual and for the profession. Attorneys who struggle with addiction are more likely to experience career dissatisfaction, underserve their clients, commit malpractice, face disciplinary action and disbarment, suffer with mental health problems, and sadly even take their own lives. Substance abuse plays at least some role in 40–70 percent of all disciplinary proceedings and malpractice actions.

And yet, attorneys are characteristically averse to seeking treatment? Why?

Asking for help is difficult for anyone, but especially attorneys. We’re trained to solve other people’s problems and oftentimes do so at the expense of addressing our own. To that point, we’re very concerned with our reputations and don’t want to appear incompetent, unreliable, or untrustworthy. In fact, our research reveals that the two primary reasons attorneys don’t get help when they need it are: a fear of others finding out; and other general concerns about confidentiality. We take these concerns quite seriously, and protecting patient confidentiality has always been at the heart of what we do.

But isn’t there greater stigma attached to addiction than, say, heart disease or diabetes?

Absolutely—unequivocally. But there shouldn’t be. Addiction has been recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association since 1956. Like other chronic diseases, it can be treated and managed successfully. And that treatment isn’t just about stopping alcohol and drug use—it’s also about improving your occupational, social, and psychological functioning. For physicians, pilots, and other licensed professionals, recovery rates are particularly impressive, and our Legal Professionals Program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation builds on those proven effective practices.

What advice do you have for attorneys, judges, and law students who think they might have a problem?

Don’t talk yourself out of picking up the phone. Reach out for help. Get ahead of the problem before it gets ahead of you and your career. Getting a professional assessment is completely confidential. If addiction treatment is advised, know that there are millions of people around the world who are living proof that it works—and that life gets so much better.

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