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Lawyers and Addiction: An Exploration of Drug Abuse in the Industry

lawyers and addiction

Lawyers and Addiction: An Exploration of Drug Abuse in the Industry

The legal profession is characterized by risky business ventures, big paychecks and long hours at the office, and with that lavish lifestyle and competitive work environment comes a greater risk of substance abuse and addiction, which appears to be prevalent among successful lawyers and other high-powered executives. In one tragic story of a successful Silicon Valley lawyer and drug addict who died from a systemic bacterial infection common among intravenous drug users, his ex-wife, who looked back at the months leading up to his death, remarked, “The further I probed, the more apparent it became that drug abuse among America’s lawyers is on the rise and deeply hidden.” Unfortunately, this leaves the issue of substance abuse among lawyers unaddressed, and the functional alcoholics in the legal profession without the help they need. If you think someone you know may be a high-functioning alcoholic or drug addict, contact Behavioral Rehabilitation Services today at (877) 479-7580 for help.

What is a Functional Alcoholic?

The issue of addiction among high-powered executives has been explored to some extent, but research on the prevalence of substance abuse and drug addiction among lawyers, in particular, is limited, and many in the legal profession seem content to leave it that way. One study, published last year in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, involved 12,825 licensed, practicing attorneys, and found that 19% struggled with anxiety, 21% qualified as problem drinkers, and 28% experienced mild or more serious depression. Only 3,419 of the lawyers responded to questions about drug use, a fact that Patrick Krill, the study’s lead author, and a lawyer himself, found telling. “It’s left to speculation what motivated 75% of attorneys to skip over the section on drug use as if it wasn’t there.” Of those that did answer, 5.6% used opioids, 5.6% used cocaine, crack and stimulant drugs, 10.2% used marijuana and hash, and nearly 16% used sedatives.

In the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report on substance abuse by industry, released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), professional services, including the legal profession, ranked ninth out of 19 industries in terms of illicit drug use. In the 2014 Comprehensive Survey of Lawyer Assistance Programs, the American Bar Association named alcohol the number one substance abuse-related problem among lawyers, with prescription drugs being the second. Sadly, in spite of this research highlighting the issue of drinking and drug use among lawyers, the problem persists. “There are a lot of theories about what is going on in the legal profession,” says J. Kim Wright, author of Lawyers as Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law and Lawyers as Changemakers: The Global Integrative Law Movement, and a lawyer herself. “Something is broken. Lawyers often believe they are the broken piece of the system, rather than the culture is dysfunctional, the entire legal system is broken. Other lawyers think – or even say – ‘I’m doing fine, and if you aren’t doing fine, it is your fault.’ We’re left to our own devices to find a way to fix ourselves.”

Causes of Substance Abuse Among Lawyers

Work-related stress is a major contributing factor to the trend of drug abuse among high-powered executives, especially lawyers, who face immense pressure on a daily basis to meet certain professional expectations and stay a step ahead of everyone else in a fiercely competitive industry, where, as Wil Miller, a family law attorney in Washington state, puts it, “you are financially rewarded for being hostile.” Depression, too, plays a role. In a 1990 Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 professions, researchers found that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression, compared with other professions, and a 2014 survey of Yale Law School students reported that 70% of students struggled with mental health issues during their time in law school. In fact, lawyers being particularly vulnerable to alcoholism, depression, and addiction is an effect that appears to be initiated in law school, an environment that, as Dr. Link Christin, adjunct professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, puts it, “is very confidential, secretive, competitive, and adversarial. It tends to be very intellectual rather than feeling, [and] it encourages you to isolate and not share because you don’t want to be seen as weak and vulnerable.”

What is a Functional Alcoholic

A common misconception about alcoholism is that an alcoholic is someone who drinks too much too often and whose life is falling apart because of their drinking, but not all problem drinking fits into that neat little mold. Some alcoholics manage to keep their problem drinking from interfering with their personal, professional and social relationships and may be in denial about their alcoholism. These people are called high-functioning alcoholics or functional alcoholics, and they are able to cover up the external signs of their alcoholism, making their problem drinking more difficult for others to spot. It’s important to remember that a person can still be an alcoholic even though he appears to have a great personal and professional life, with a loving family, a job that pays well and a large circle of friends.

For lawyers struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, their problem drinking or drug use is easier to hide from friends and loved ones because, on the outside, they appear to be successful, happy and well-liked. They also work long hours at the office, during which they can use, and are expected to nab prospective clients, which may involve drinking or drug use, and perform well in a highly-competitive industry, which may prompt the abuse of stimulants like Adderall, cocaine or amphetamine, or painkillers like Vicodin or OxyContin to stay on top of their game. Unfortunately, it’s a short jump from opioid painkillers to heroin, which is typically cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription drugs. Says Dr. Indra Cidambi, medical director at an ambulatory detox facility in New Jersey, “These aren’t the majority of lawyers. But there are quite a number abusing drugs, and once they get to heroin, it’s very hard to break it.”

How to Tell if Someone is a Functioning Alcoholic

For all the ways we expect alcoholics and drug addicts to act, it’s not always easy to tell if someone is a functional alcoholic, especially when they make an effort to hide their problem drinking from friends, family members, and co-workers, and that is the nature of a high-functioning alcoholic. They somehow manage to keep up appearances while relying on alcohol to function on a daily basis. Some functional alcoholic signs to watch out for include a person:

  • Planning their day around drinking
  • Having three drinks to everyone else’s one drink
  • Exhibiting physical signs of overindulgence (shakiness in the morning, insomnia, stomach problems)
  • Binging or getting so drunk they black out
  • Going through periods of abstinence where they make it a point not to drink, and then going back to drinking often and heavily

Treating Drug Addiction in the Legal Profession

Despite the growing trend of drug abuse and addiction in the legal profession, law-firm leadership is still slow to discuss substance abuse with their lawyers, often because they don’t know what signs to look for, and are simply too busy themselves to notice when these signs arise. So deeply rooted is the culture of privacy in the legal profession, and so devoted to clocking billable hours are law firms, that many lawyers who are functioning alcoholics don’t feel as though they can ask for help, or simply don’t have the time to. It’s this so-called “dysfunctional culture” that makes lawyers so susceptible to the effects of drug abuse and addiction. If someone you know is struggling with an addiction and doesn’t have the ability to ask for help, call (877) 479-7580 today to speak to the addiction recovery experts at Behavioral Rehabilitation Services.

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