Last  week a friend emailed me this CNN article about this Journal of Addiction Medicine Article regarding substance abuse and mental health problems in the legal profession. From the CNN article by Patrick Krill, lead author of the study:

The law has always been a magnet for hard-working, self-reliant, and competitive people who often prioritize success and accomplishment far above personal health or wellbeing. On top of that, stress, unhappiness and imbalance abound, while unhealthy coping skills such as excessive drinking are the cultural norm — malignant, learned behaviors passed down through the profession with the frequency of a dominant gene.

Here are some statistics for lawyers from the study:

  • 20.6% have a drinking problem
  • 28% suffer from depression
  • 19% suffer from anxiety
  • 23% suffer from stress

The study shows that these rates are higher than professionals in other fields.

My Take:

My comments below don’t apply to sub-thirty attorneys who were wild in college and/or law school and still occasionally party like a kid. The vast majority of us grow out of that behavior in our 20’s.

I would have guessed that the statistics would have been higher for anxiety and stress.

I don’t necessarily agree that excess drinking is caused by the culture of the profession. At neither of the big law firms where I worked did older attorneys encourage younger attorneys to drink. And by and large, I had no idea which of the older attorneys may have been drinking too much when they left the office. Of course, there were firm functions where alcohol was served. But visible intoxication was not very common and generally frowned upon. I also rarely see visible intoxication at professional receptions.

Public intoxication by an attorney at a firm function or in the attorney’s hometown is a really bad move. It can do nothing but hurt the lawyer’s reputation. liquour bottles

Smart lawyers who feel compelled to drink to excess do it out of public or out of town. Of course that’s part of the problem, attorneys hide their drinking problem. Many of their friends and colleagues don’t know the extent of the problem and never try to intervene.

I agree that the profession implicitly discourages attorneys from sharing their struggles. Think about it like this. How often do you hear lawyers bragging about their legal prowess? Trust me, it’s a lot. It’s what dominates most CLE programs organized by both AAJ and DRI. “Here’s a story that shows how clever I am…..”

You don’t hear many–if any–CLE presentations talking about how to deal with the stress of the profession and the grind of adulthood described so well by David Foster Wallace in this speech. Incidentally, one of the things that makes Wallace’s words so moving is knowing that he later committed suicide.

To me, the work is the primary cause of the higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness in the profession. Practicing law is just a hard and stressful job. This is particularly true in private practice due to the unending pressure of having to obtain legal work before that legal works starts stressing you out.

I agree with the author that:

law schools, law firms, and lawyers themselves — the “private sector” of the profession — must take proactive steps and devote meaningful resources to overcoming this challenge.

But I think it’s more about treating the problem and trying to reduce the rates of addiction and suicide. I don’t see the statistical rates of these problems meaningfully declining. For attorneys, this is the life we have chosen.