Lawyers and Substance Use Disorder

While drug and alcohol addiction is a significant issue in the United States, one surprising population that is especially affected is that of lawyers. The American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs recently conducted a study on substance use disorder among lawyers. The Commission found that 20.6% of lawyers reported problematic drinking levels, which is nearly double the rate among other highly educated professionals.

Why Is Substance Use Disorder Common Among Lawyers?

While the rate of illicit substance use disorder is relatively low in the legal field, the large number of lawyers reporting problematic drinking behaviors is a cause of concern, especially considering the number of lawyers with alcohol-related disorders is so much higher than the number of professionals in other high-stakes and high-stress fields, such as doctors, teachers, or police officers. There are several important reasons for this high risk of substance use disorder in the legal field.

Early Career Stressors

The ABA’s study found that younger and newer lawyers were far more likely to experience problematic drinking compared to older or more experienced lawyers. The highest levels of alcohol abuse were found in lawyers under the age of 30 and/or those with less than 10 years of practice. Junior associates had the highest level of alcohol abuse, followed by senior associates, and junior partners, with senior partners having the lowest levels of substance use disorder.

In addition, more than 40% of those lawyers that reported experiencing substance use disorder stated that their heavy alcohol use began during law school. This indicates that the stress of law school might lead to developing substance addiction, and the pattern continues throughout the young lawyer’s early career.

Career Ramifications

Lawyers often face significant consequences once their drug or alcohol addiction is discovered. Other professionals, such as doctors or police officers, often have established procedures for coming back to their careers following treatment. However, in the legal field, there is not currently an accepted path back to returning to work. If a lawyer experiences legal trouble or makes his or her substance use disorder disorder known, many firms break ties with the lawyer to protect their reputation.

Unfortunately, the fact that substance use disorder can be a career-ender for lawyers means that many with addiction disorders keep their substance abuse private and do not seek treatment.

Mental Illness

Lawyers face significantly high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. In fact, according to the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Program’s study, nearly half reported symptoms of depression at some point in their careers, with 28% reporting significant levels of depression at the time of the study. In addition, 19% reported currently experiencing anxiety, with 61% stating that they had troubling levels of anxiety at some point in their career. Finally, 11.5% of lawyers in the study stated that they have had suicidal thoughts, with 2.9% reporting self-injurious behaviors and 0.7% reporting at least one suicide attempt.

The ABA’s study also found that those lawyers that reported higher levels of anxiety, depression, and stress also had a higher likelihood of problematic drinking.

Firm Culture

There is no doubt that lawyers have a high concern for their reputations. A lawyer’s reputation is often the reason he or she is hired for a case – the better the reputation, the better the case they are assigned. This also tends to make law firms competitive, with lawyers always having to appear strong, poised, and on top of their game. Any perception of weakness can have a significant impact on the lawyer’s reputation.

Additionally, drinking is often deeply engrained into law firm culture. Dinners with clients may involve a beer or glass of wine, conferences and retreats often involve social drinking, and there may even be firm-wide celebrations with alcohol after a big case is won. The fact that alcohol plays such a central role in firm culture, besides being a legal substance rather than illicit, can make it all the more likely that problematic drinking behavior is normalized and overlooked.


For a lawyer, every case is high-stakes. Often, lawyers work on contingency, meaning they get paid a percentage of the money that their client is awarded. If a case takes months, or even years, of work but doesn’t result in a payout for the client, the lawyer may not get paid.

Lawyers typically have heavy workloads too, requiring long and often unpredictable work hours. For criminal justice lawyers and lawyers that focus on wrongful death or injury suits also tend to be immersed in violent, gruesome, or disturbing case details that can cause trauma or emotional distress to the lawyer.

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Risks of Substance Use in Lawyers

Unlike the tragic consequences of an impaired doctor or police officer where life and death decisions are made on the spot, the consequences of a lawyer practicing while under the influence may not seem as urgent. However, the effects can be significant.

In most cases, when a client hires a lawyer, their own situation is urgent. They may be in legal trouble or they need a lawyer’s advice on their business, child custody arrangements, finances, family situation, civil rights, estate, or employment. They rely on a lawyer’s clear and unimpaired judgment. When a lawyer under the influence makes a careless mistake, operates in bad judgment, or acts unprofessionally in court, the client could lose his or her case. This can have significant financial, emotional, or physical consequences, including the loss of large amounts of money, a change in their child’s custody arrangement, or incarceration for a crime they didn’t commit.

When a lawyer practices while under the influence or when they are arrested on alcohol or drug-related charges, their firm also suffers the repercussions. Lawyers are often hired based on reputation and if a firm has a reputation for having a lawyer who is in legal trouble, potential clients may not trust the law firm.

Changing Firm Culture and Preventing Substance Use Disorder

One of the best ways to reduce the risk of substance use disorder among lawyers is to make an effort to change firm culture. First, it is currently accepted practice in the legal field for meetings, conferences, and office celebrations to center around alcohol. Firms can take steps to reduce problematic drinking by creating formal alcohol-free workplace policies that prohibit drinking in the workplace and when representing the firm on official business.

Second, firms can take steps to reduce the high level of stress that lawyers are under. This might mean reducing work hours and increasing vacation day allotments for lawyers. It could also mean linking lawyers, and especially new or younger lawyers or those working in the criminal justice field, with peer support, mentoring opportunities, and mental health counseling to help them cope with work stressors.

Next, participating in lawyer assistance programs and making those resources known to each associate and partner in the firm can help ensure free and confidential support for any lawyer who needs mental health or substance use disorder assistance. Each state has a lawyer assistance program, although many workers in the legal field may not know how to access resources.

Finally, firms should be proactive in helping their partners and associates make mental health a priority. A firm’s culture should encourage seeking help when needed, focusing on self-care, and delegating duties when workloads get overwhelming. In addition, having a formal policy in place for obtaining confidential and timely substance use disorder addiction treatment, as well as how to transition back to the workplace following rehab, can go a long way in making sure that lawyers can get the treatment they need early in their addiction when the rate of recovery is the highest.

If you or one of your partners or associates has an alcohol or substance use problem, it is important to seek help. It is important to remember that alcoholism and addiction are diseases and not personal flaws. You are not weak for getting treatment. In fact, taking the first step to living a clean and sober life takes courage and strength. If you are ready to take that step, we are here to support you 24 hours a day with confidential and personal treatment geared to helping you beat your addiction.

Our insurance verification team works quickly to verify your insurance benefits to place you into one of our centers as soon as possible. Because of our industry expertise we will be able to verify this information in a timely manner and can advocate for more coverage or more time in treatment. We strive to do this as quick as possible while also maximizing your coverage. Our insurance verification process is of no cost to you and there are absolutely no obligations.

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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