Addiction and Lawyers: Substance Abuse in the Legal Profession

The official web site of the Michigan Bar Association discusses the origins of the problem. Larry Dubin, a professor of law at the University Detroit Mercy School of Law, explains that the substance abuse of lawyers actually begins when they are in college.

According to Dubin when students attend law school they are going in order to obtain the skills they must acquire to be successful lawyers. But they
also are exposed to the lifestyles of lawyers. Once aspect that they are exposed to is substance abuse.

Dubin, who has taught Professional Responsibility for the past 30 years, explains that student’s will learn that they must ignore their emotional and personal reactions, and represent positions that may be in disagreement with their own opinions and belief systems. The best interests of their client, which they have to represent, may be in opposition to the best interests of society. Dubin says that these professional pressures can adversely affect lawyer’s personal lives and cause substance abuse problems.

It is pointed out by Dubin that research shows attorneys are more likely to have substance abuse problems than the average person. 1 These problems are also of greater concern to the general public than the average person’s because the lawyer’s addiction to drug and alcohol doesn’t just affect that attorney. The addiction also negatively affects the client’s of that attorney.

Research doesn’t just show the substance abuse troubles of attorneys. There is also research that shows that law students increase their usage of drugs and alcohol while in law school. 2 Dubin explains that the Bar and legal educators have not shown interest in this issue and that could be part of the reason a large number of attorneys abuse alcohol and drugs. 3 Dubin adds that some lawyers are courageous enough to tell others about their problems, 4 but they sometimes do so anonymously to protect their reputations. 5 In Dubin’s state of Michigan lawyers are being offered encouragement and assitance by the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program of the State Bar of Michigan. The only other positive news in Dubin’s article is that there are statistics which show more attorneys are seeking help. 6

The results are for the state of Florida. But if Florida is similar to the rest of the nation, then the legal profession throughout the country has a huge problem. Not only are the lawyers dealing with several issues that negatively impact their performance, these issues erode the public’s confidence in both the legal profession and the legal system.

It is in fact quite apparent that the issue is a national one.

Florida Lawyer’s Assistance, Inc. posted an article “Impairment in the Legal Profession” that is an invaluable resource for understanding these issues. Although the article was written for judges, it is useful for anyone who wants to gain a greater understanding of this complex problem.

According to the article, 10% of lawyers have some sort of problem with addiction, whether it be drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, work, or food. This shocking number increases to an estimated 20% during their careers. Short-term or chronic symptoms of depression or stress affect 33% of legal professionals. These issues lead to a myriad of problems for the clients of the afflicted professionals. Some of the adverse effects for clients includes: missed court dates, violations of trust, poor decisions, and inadequate preparation.

The article explains that addiction can take years before it begins to negatively impact the daily life of the addict. Although there is a great deal of evidence that addictions stem from biochemical body processes, the evidence that legal professionals have higher rates of addiction is indisputable.

There are many common myths about addictions in the legal profession. The article proves all of these myths to be false. Some lawyers believe that they are just “recreational” users of drugs and/or alcohol, and that this will not harm them. This could not be further from the truth. Lung cancer and strokes and heart attacks can be caused by marijuana and cocaine respectively. Heroin can lead to mental disorders, death from respiratory collapse, infection, and AIDS if the heroin was taken by sharing needles. Barbiturate usage can also lead to death from respiratory collapse. Use of amphetamines can cause mental disorders and strokes. Alcohol abuse can lead to cancer as well as brain damage, heart disease, impaired muscular coordination and memory loss. Clearly “recreational” usage of drugs and alcohol can have negative affects.

The myth that drug use is none of the Bar’s business and is strictly a personal and private matter of the attorney is incorrect. Due to the fact that drugs can still affect the user 24 hours after the drugs were taken, the attorney would still be under the influence even if they did not take the drugs while working.

A popular myth among alcoholics is that they can not be alcoholics because they show up to work every day. What they fail to realize is that the even though they are technically at work, they are not fully there mentally or physically, and because of this their performance is frequently inadequate. As the lawyer’s alcoholism progresses their professional and personal life will both spiral downward.

Another erroneous myth is that alcoholics drink every day. How often someone drinks is not the determining factor of alcoholism. The determining factor is the person’s ability to control their drinking once they have started. The comical belief that coffee and/or a cold shower will sober up a drunk is obviously false.

While the beliefs that overcoming depression is just a matter of time and that stress is a necessary part of the legal profession do have some merit, these are oversimplifications. Not all depression can be overcome with time. Clinical depression can only be defeated with treatment and proper medication because it is a biochemical illness. Stress is a part of the legal profession, but not every one responds to it in a healthy manner.

According to the piece there are many types of treatment ranging from inpatient detoxification, inpatient hospitalization, and outpatient and aftercare counseling. In order to be successful the treatment must deal with all aspects of the person’s life, their mental, physical and emotional state, personal and family relationships, legal problems, financial status, how leisure time is spent, and of course their professional life.

While most addicts seem to believe they can stop whenever they want, and that if they ever felt they were addicted they would then seek help, both of these theories are unfortunately often incorrect. The article explains that addicts usually seek help due to an external factor. This occurs when their substance abuse causes them a legal, professional, or family problem.

Legal problems often involve driving under the influence charges, possession of controlled substances, and disturbing the peace. Since receiving treatment is deemed a better alternative than receiving punishment, addicts can be set on the right path after legal problems force them into treatment.

Professional pressure can arise when a lawyer is referred for help by their firm, a grievance committee a local judge, or their state’s Bar. The possibility of losing their job or even their profession is strong motivation for attorneys to seek help with their substance abuse problems.

Family problems can begin when the lawyer’s substance abuse causes friction with family members. If this friction reaches the point that the attorney is concerned about doing serious or permanent damage to their family relationships it can cause the addict to seek help.

There are numerous clear warning signs that a lawyer has developed a substance abuse problem. The first is absenteeism – repeated and/or unexplained absences or lateness. Also falling under this category would be unusual or unlikely excuses for absences or lateness. The second warning sign would be confusion or having difficulty concentrating. Examples of this would be inability or difficulty remembering details, instructions, etc. Progressively more difficult time with completing complicated tasks. Greater effort required for work than should be necessary.

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