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ANALYSIS: Lawyers Report Surprisingly Low Substance Abuse Rate

Feb. 24, 2022, 10:00 AM

Lawyers experience substance use disorders at a higher rate than other professional groups and the general population in the United States. So I was puzzled to read in Bloomberg Law’s most recent workplace and hours survey that only 7.6% of lawyers said they abused alcohol or drugs in the past quarter as a result of work-related issues.

The responses definitely buck the trend: Studies on lawyer mental health have consistently found the rate of problem drinking among attorneys to be more than double that found in the Bloomberg Law survey. And in 2020, 14% of adults reported having a substance use disorder in the past year.

The quarterly survey asked 619 law firm and in-house attorneys about their work-related issues in fourth-quarter 2021. The number of lawyers responding affirmatively to having abused drugs or alcohol has remained relatively stable—between about 7.6% and 9%—since the survey began last year.

A combination of factors—including professional demands, attorneys’ personalities, and the profession turning a blind eye to problematic alcohol and drug use within its ranks—makes lawyers a risk for substance use-related disorders, according to Patrick Krill, an expert on attorney addiction and mental health.

Add to that the fact that we’re almost two years into a global pandemic—a major stressor that’s wreaked havoc on mental health worldwide—and it’s safe to assume that if the general population is seeing an increase in mental health struggles and substance use disorders, attorneys are even more susceptible to them.

So why are so few lawyers reporting that they have abused drugs or alcohol? I can think of a few reasons.

Words matter. The survey asked whether the attorneys experienced “drug or alcohol abuse” as a result of work-related issues. Without a definition for the term, respondents might have shied away from classifying their riskier behavior as “abuse,” which carries a stigma. Or perhaps they haven’t considered their behavior—although problematic—to be qualified as abuse. Other surveys typically use gentler language like “risky” use or “use disorder.”

Covid-related reporting dip. State lawyer assistance programs reported a dip in referrals and client calls during the first year of the pandemic. An explanation is that lawyers may have deprioritized seeking help or acknowledging a problem as the virus disrupted so many aspects of life.

Lack of human connection. Because many attorneys are working remotely and are thus isolated from colleagues who can confront them with hard truths about their problems, fewer lawyers may be freely admitting to having a substance use disorder.

Regardless of why fewer lawyers reported abusing alcohol and drugs, attorneys struggle with substance use—and it’s a problem the profession has yet to confront head-on.

If you are a lawyer in need of help, here are some resources:

Related content is available for free on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page. Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our Surveys, Reports & Data Analysis, In Focus: Lawyer Development, and In Focus: Legal Operations pages.

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