If you’ve ever known a lawyer who struggled with addiction or mental health problems, chances are they were quite reluctant to admit anything was wrong. Even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, like missed deadlines, sleeping in the office, excessive sick days or difficulty with tasks, they likely denied the existence of any struggle. Maybe the evidence is harder to ignore. Arrests, hospitalizations, unexplained illnesses, missing money. The list goes on and on. Yet, those who struggle with addiction or mental health issues are often unaware of the impact of their illness, in denial about the seriousness of their condition, or are petrified of being “found out.” And few people have the ability to convince others of something more forcefully and convincingly than a well-trained lawyer!
Numerous studies have confirmed that, as a group, lawyers have dramatically high rates of alcohol and drug use, suicide and mental health problems. The landmark study examining the extent of the mental health and addiction problems in the legal profession was spearheaded by Patricia Krill and was published in 2016. The study, which was conducted under the auspices of the American Bar Association (ABA) and in cooperation with the Betty Ford Hazelton Foundation, surveyed about 15,000 practitioners from a variety of practice settings across the country.
Here are a few of the key findings.
- Based on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test from the World Health Organization, 20.6 percent of respondents could be classified as problem drinkers. The percentage was higher among males (25 percent) and among those who had been in practice for 0-10 years (approximately 30 percent).
- When simply asked whether their use of alcohol or other substances had been a problem at any point in their lives, 22.6 percent said yes. Among those, 27.6 percent said that this problem existed before they started law school; 14.2 percent said the problem developed while they were in law school; 47.7 percent said it developed within their first 15 years of practice; and 14.6 percent said this occurred 15 or more years after completing law school. Krill notes that “Being in the early stages of one’s legal career is strongly correlated with a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder,”
- The data regarding substance use was far less abundant and reliable, Krill said, because two-thirds of respondents chose to skip those questions even if they answered the questions regarding alcohol and mental health problems. Krill said this could indicate that this topic makes lawyers very uncomfortable—even as part of an anonymous survey.
- As for mental health problems, 28 percent of respondents indicated that they suffered from depression, 19 percent said they suffered from anxiety, 11.5 percent had experienced suicidal thoughts, and 0.7 percent had made a suicide attempt. The authors noted that this represents the highest suicide rate in any profession.
- Among those who said they had a mental health issue, 63 percent said they had never sought help for it. Among those who indicated that they had a problem with alcohol or another substance, 93 percent said they had never pursued treatment.
After all, aren’t we lawyers supposed to be the trusted solvers of others’ problems, not the ones with the problems? But the statistics and recent studies on lawyer impairment tell a very different story. A recent American Lawyer survey of 2019 summer associates at large firms revealed that 42% percent of the associates were concerned about their mental health, their emotional well-being, and the pervasive substance abuse reported at large law firms. (Staci Zaretsky, “The Best Biglaw Firms Ranked by Summer Associates,” Above the Law, (Sept. 23, 2019).
In addition to these published reports, grievance committees across the country acknowledge that a high percentage of client complaints against attorneys stem from mental health and addiction issues. The members of these committees see first-hand the havoc created by impaired attorneys. Expeditiously addressing these issues and providing support, can save individual practitioners, their firms, their clients, the legal profession and society as a whole.
Even with such convincing statistics, effective solutions and meaningful support within the legal community, at large, still seems illusive. This is not due solely to a lack of care and attention on the part of the profession, but in some instances is the result of ignorance of the conditions at issue, insufficient funding of programs to address concerns and a lack of understanding of the true, long-term deleterious effects that mental health and addiction issues can have on on our profession, as a whole.
The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Program’s mission is
“To assure that every judge, lawyer and law student has access to support and assistance when confronting alcoholism, substance use disorders or mental health issues so that lawyers are able to recover, families are preserved and clients and other members of the public are protected. This mission is carried out by supporting the work of state and local Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAPs) as they provide hands-on services and support to those in need of their assistance.” (Listen to a podcast about Lawyers Assistance here and Voices of Recovery Podcast Series here.)
Several larger firms have established wellness programs and other educational programs, and have taken additional substantive actions to support their employees who may be suffering from these problems. (A few large firms have actually hired an on-site wellness director.) Through efforts of the ABA and other industry leaders, firms have been invited to report and publicize their particular efforts in this regard. Yet, while lawyer mental health and addiction problems are no longer being totally overlooked by the legal world, there is little evidence to suggest that a significantly increased number of attorneys are currently seeking and finding help to deal with their individual problems.
The stigma associated with attorneys’ addiction and mental health issues has proven to be a formidable obstacle that continues to impede the effectiveness of many new (and old) approaches and programming. There is also the persistent, though erroneous, belief that LAP programs, that are under a bar association’s auspices, aren’t completely confidential.
What it really boils down to is the still pervasive view that substance abuse and mental illness are signs of moral or personal weakness rather than disease. In response, the ABA has created an anti-stigma campaign that highlights the personal recovery stories of lawyers who have overcome these issues. These efforts, along with the similar long-standing efforts of Lawyers Assistance Programs (LAPs) and Lawyers Helping Lawyers groups send the message that recovery from addiction and mental health problems is entirely possible for legal professionals who need not be alone on their recovery journey.
While we may rightfully applaud and support these many efforts to improve the well-being of attorneys generally, the currently impaired attorney cannot afford to wait for others to provide a profession-wide “fix.” The most immediate and effective action an attorney, or the co-worker or family member of an attorney, can take is to contact a local LAP. LAP services are free and strictly confidential in accordance with Section 499 of the Judiciary Law and the Rules of Professional Conduct. In addition to the professional services offered by a LAP, including free consultation, evaluation and assessment, and supportive counseling, a seeker will meet many other attorneys who are recovering from similar problems.
If you, or someone you know, is involved in the legal profession and needs help, make the call to your local bar association. They will put you in touch with your area’s Lawyers Assistance Program where you can get help and begin the road to recovery.
- To see a short video about Lawyers Assistance Programs, click here.
- For the Lawyers and Legal Employers Toolkit, download here.
- New York State Bar Association Lawyer and Judges Assistance Program at https://www.nysba.org/lap/
- New Jersey State Bar Association Lawyers Assistance Program at www.njlap.org.
- Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Pennsylvania at https://www.lclpa.org/
About the Author: Maureen Kessler
Our guest blogger on Attorney Wellness this Month is Maureen Kessler. A graduate of St. John’s Law School and Queens College Ms. Kessler spent 30 years as a practicing securities attorney at a large New York City Firm. While continuing her legal career, Kessler graduated from the Union Theological Seminary, becoming an ordained UCC Minister. Today, Maureen is a passionate member of the Nassau County Bar Association Lawyers Assistance Committee, bringing compassion, awareness and support to attorneys struggling with mental health and addiction issues. Maureen Kessler is the author of The Reflective Counselor, Daily Meditations for Lawyers.