Why Lawyers Face a High Risk of Addiction

By Michael Rass

Stress affects many people in many professions. Stress in the legal profession, however, is typically severe. “Lawyers work in an adversarial system with demanding schedules and heavy workloads, which may contribute to increased stress levels,” confirms the American Bar Association.

Intense, chronic stress is a key risk factor in the development of substance use disorders and lawyers operate in an environment dominated by the maxim “work hard/play hard,” as lawyer and author Lisa F. Smith explained in the Washington Post.

“When I was 25 years old with the ink still drying on my law degree, the work hard/play hard environment of a top law firm was intoxicating, literally. Everyone drank. Being able to hold your liquor was a badge of honor, especially for women. Long days in the office turned into long nights in the bars and clubs. Unfortunately, another long and stressful day in the office was always just a few hours away.”

Alcoholism thrives in such an environment. “Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations,” reads the conclusion of a 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.

The study revealed alarming statistics. Up to 21 percent of licensed, employed lawyers qualify as problem drinkers; for lawyers under age 30, it’s almost 32 percent. By comparison, about 7 percent of all Americans have a drinking problem.

Dallas-based attorney, author, and recovery advocate Brian Cuban self-medicated his stress and emotional pain with alcohol and cocaine. “Cocaine had the power to make all my anxieties seem trivial, and made the formerly impossible, possible. It was like the drug made my problems go away, if only for the brief period of the high. It made me a ‘super lawyer.’ But of course, my self-medication was only papering over deeper issues, not resolving them,” Cuban writes on abovethelaw.com.

Many lawyers with addictions believe for a long time that they are in control of their substance use. Cuban, too, thought he was “high functioning” for a while. Opening up about having an addiction and going into treatment are usually difficult propositions.

“When doctors strongly suggested a 28-day stay at a rehabilitation facility, I refused to go,” remembers Lisa Smith in the Washington Post article. “It would have meant telling my law firm the real reason I had been out ‘sick.’ Instead, I went to outpatient rehab two nights a week. One week and one day after checking into the hospital, I was back at work. It was not a smart approach after being diagnosed with a chronic disease.”

Both Lisa Smith and Brian Cuban eventually arrived at the point where continuing to abuse drugs and alcohol became more painful than stopping. “You can’t change where you have been,” writes Cuban. “Only where you are going. Evaluate your options moving forward. Addiction is not a choice. Recovery is.”

Professionals Program at Farley

Substance use disorders are complex conditions often driven by underlying conditions such as anxiety disorders, extreme stress, trauma, and depression that need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive treatment approach. Professional occupations demand superior levels of responsibility, accountability, and performance that separate them from other occupations. The specific stressors and triggers of such professions should be considered in individualized treatment plans geared toward the specific needs of such patients.

The Farley Center at Williamsburg Place has a proud history of treating professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and airline pilots. Farley is recognized as one of the pioneering treatment facilities in the country helping licensed individuals with sophisticated defense mechanisms learn how to cope with life stressors without the use of drugs and alcohol.

Treating these individuals confidentially in a program addressing the specific needs of professionals can help ease the fear of disclosure and facilitate repairing damage incurred by substance-related behaviors. In order to build skills to deal with circumstances that surround demanding careers, the Farley team treats the substance use disorders and co-occurring conditions of professional patients comprehensively while acknowledging concerns regarding their professional status.