In mid-July, a lengthy feature in the Sunday New York Times shed light on one aspect of the opiate epidemic that hadn’t received much media attention: opiate addicted attorneys. The article, one of the “most read” articles in the Times that week, chronicled the addiction and eventual death of a high-powered, Silicon Valley attorney. How widespread are alcohol and drug abuse among U.S. attorneys? American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation released the results of the first, national Attorney Impairment Study, which was published by the Journal of Addiction Medicine.
The study analyzed the responses of 12,825 licensed, practicing attorneys across 19 states. The results showed that about 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, while 28 percent struggle with mild or more serious depression and 19 percent struggle with anxiety. Only 3,419 lawyers – about 25 percent of the respondents – answered questions about drug use, and that itself is significant, said Patrick Krill, the study’s lead author and also a lawyer, told the Times. “It’s left to speculation what motivated 75 percent of attorneys to skip over the section on drug use as if it wasn’t there.”
Of the lawyers that did answer those questions, 5.6 percent used cocaine, crack and stimulants; 5.6 percent used opioids; 10.2 percent used marijuana and hash; and nearly 16 percent used sedatives. Eighty-five percent of all the lawyers surveyed had used alcohol in the previous year. (For comparison sake, about 65 percent of the general population drinks alcohol.) Nearly 21 percent of the lawyers that said they had used drugs in the previous year reported “intermediate” concern about their drug use. Three percent had “severe” concerns.
In a statement when the study was announced, Krill said it “clearly validates the widely held but empirically under-supported view that our profession faces truly significant challenges related to attorney well-being.” He says, “Any way you look at it, this data is very alarming, and paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people.”
Since 2011, St. Paul, Minn.-based Hazelden-Betty Ford has run what may be the nation’s only addiction treatment program specifically for attorneys, judges and other legal professionals. Program director Kevin Chandler says he has seen “a definite increase” in the number of legal professionals seeking help for opioid addiction. Almost all of the opiate-addicted attorneys he sees have had addictions that started with prescription pain medications prescribed for a medical reason, Chandler told The Influence.
Alcohol is still the most prevalent problem among attorneys with substance abuse problems, “but more and more we’re seeing alcohol combined with opioids and benzodiazepines, like Xanax. And, there is almost always a co-occurring mental health problem, like depression or anxiety,” Chandler, who is an attorney and licensed addiction counselor, and former Minnesota State Senator, says. He has been in recovery since 2006. In 2014, he wrote “The Lawyer’s Light,” a book of meditations published by the American Bar Association.
“No one likes to talk about the issue of addiction, particularly their own. That is doubly so among lawyers, who, from law school on have had beaten into their heads the idea that they must always maintain control, never show vulnerability, never ask for help and above all maintain a stellar reputation. Because of that culture lawyers are loathe to report or seek help. Add to that the fact that their license might be put in jeopardy, and that keeps a lot of lawyers from getting sober and healthy.”
While Chandler has seen far greater awareness of addiction in the legal profession, “we haven’t seen much change in the legal culture, which is where change has to happen.”
Just as family members often “enable” loved ones who are addicted, Chandler says he sees the same kind of behavior within law firms. “Particularly when there is a partner involved, firms would rather look the other way and sweep it under the rug rather than address the problem directly – particularly if they have a partner who is a major rainmaker: ‘Fred has a problem, but he sure brings in the business.’ Unfortunately that does not help anyone, and certainly not the firm, which could be putting its reputation at risk, and subjecting itself to civil liability, in the event of malpractice.
“It’s going to take a long time for the legal culture to make significant changes in this area. The profession makes its living off of precedent, so it is not quick to change. Although there have been some ‘cracks’ in the stigma, as more and more attorneys become more open about disease, giving other attorneys permission to seek help.”
In what Chandler considers “a major development,” the ABA has recommended that states require continuing legal education courses on substance-abuse. He also notes that many states have lawyer assistance programs to help those struggling with addiction or mental health issues.
“But much work still needs to be done. It’s going to require a cultural change at law firms, not only in the way they compensate attorneys, but also by signaling an understanding of this disease, and that it is not career-crushing to admit you have a problem and seek help.”