Drug Addiction in the Legal Profession

Workplace substance abuse is an increasingly large problem in every industry, with statistics suggesting that 77% of drug users are employed. Substance abuse contributes to poor performance, lapses of judgment at work, and missed work days. This is well documented in high-stress professions, where doctors and lawyers face tight deadlines, heightened levels of responsibility, and no margin for error. As a result, legal professionals are as much as twice as likely to struggle with substance abuse than the general population.

In one study, 20% of lawyers self-reported a substance as having been problematic in their life at some point. For many, problematic usage starts in school, where high-pressure and stress environments push the use of substances to stay awake, to improve performance, and to relax in between study sessions. Once graduated, lawyers face even more pressure, with clients frequently leaning heavily on them and blaming them for failure.

High Levels of Stress Contribute to Mental Health Issues

The American Bar Association shows that lawyers show high signs of depression, anxiety, and paranoia when entering law school, with rates of depression as high as 40%. In one study, 60% reported frequent feelings of anxiety, half reported at least occasional depression, and nearly all report high levels of stress. While some seek out treatment, many turn to self-medicating, using either prescription medication, alcohol, or more illicit drugs to de-stress, unwind, and relax. In some cases, defense lawyers suffer from PTSD, resulting from either exposure to traumatic cases, anger and violence from defendants, or traumatic levels of stress.

Many high-functioning addicts use alcohol and drugs as a reward. Taking pills or injecting drugs after completing a case, after getting through a day, or after handling something stressful. This kind of behavior builds up into substance dependence as tolerance increases and frequent substance use causes more reckless decision making, so that substance use spills over into everyday life.

High-Performance Requirements Drive Stimulant Use

While many lawyers are pushed into substance use to relax, others use it to perform. Stimulants like methamphetamine, cocaine, and even Ritalin keep users awake and alert through long-shifts reviewing cases and planning – which are frequently required as part of the profession. This trait often carries through from law-school, where the use of Ritalin and other study aids is prevalent among students. Stimulant use is especially prevalent in firms requiring junior lawyers to work long hours, with 60-80 hours of work not only common, but expected. When caffeine no longer cuts it, many turn to illegal or illicitly obtained stimulants to keep their edge.

Frequent Use Leads to Addiction

While no one plans to become addicted, frequent drug use almost always leads to addiction of some kind. Drugs affect the brain and the limbic system, driving the body to crave those substances. Eventually, users develop tolerance, pushing them to take more and more of the drug to achieve the same results. The effect on the brain and the limbic system also creates other effects pushing users to keep using. Large levels of dopamine, serotonin, or opioids in the brain reduce the brain’s production of those substances. Over time, users are at a deficit when not high, because their body is no longer producing what they need to stay happy, to experience pleasure off the drug, or even to feel alert without it.

How Prevalent is Drug Use Really?

While specific substance abuse isn’t always monitored, as many as 21% of lawyers many be actively addicted or abusing substances. Most studies suggest between 18 and 21% of lawyers struggle with substance abuse (compared to an 8-10% national average), with stimulant abuse at nearly twice that of the general population.

In addition, with up to 33% of lawyers suffering from mental health disorders including depression and anxiety and a suicide rate twice that of the general population, lawyers constantly face many factors that make them vulnerable to addiction. Therefore, someone who simply drinks a large amount after work may still be vulnerable to addiction through frequent exposure and through environmental triggers.

High Functioning Addiction

Many people think of addicts as homeless, jobless, and often young, between the ages of 18 and 25. But, addicts are frequently working professionals. In fact, studies estimate that 77% of addicts hold down jobs, often fulfilling their duties and even passing as a healthy person. Colleagues or coworkers may guess that something is wrong, but with shifts in behavior and performance often happening over time, most are able to account for drug-induced behavioral change as stress, anxiety, or another disorder.

At the same time, frequent substance abuse still shows, even if the user is careful. Lapses in attendance and performance, such as showing up later or taking longer breaks may become frequent. Declining work performance, missed deadlines, client complaints, and more lost cases are also frequently the result of substance abuse. Others suffer lapses in social graces, becoming more difficult to get along with, staying in touch with fewer friends, or even being hostile outside of work. This is especially relevant when combined with lapses in appearance and hygiene.

Social events, where alcohol or drugs are available, may also be an important tell. While high-functioning addicts often perform well with no drugs or alcohol around, they may lose control and overindulge with alcohol available.

Affects to Job and Reputation

Anyone found using stimulants on the job will likely lose their job. Unlike blue-collar work areas, lawyers are not frequently drug tested, and may go for years before being found out. Most frequently, lawyers are exposed in drug and alcohol abuse when given DUIs or when arrested, when the facts of their substance abuse land them in direct legal trouble.

Unfortunately, this can result in severe repercussions, including being disbarred, banned from the bar, or temporarily removed. However, results can vary by state. For example, South Dakota regularly disbars lawyers caught using substances, even when the recommended punishment is a 90-day suspension. This is important because it means that lawyers who are using are putting themselves and their career at risk each time they use.

Getting Help

If you or a loved one is using, it’s not too late. You can actively seek out help and receive treatment for drug addiction without putting your job or reputation at risk. Legal professionals can seek out treatment with inpatient or outpatient care and are protected under HIPPA. With up to 60 days of paid family medical leave available in most professions, and no legal obligation to stipulate what the medical problem is, you can simply take a leave of absence, attend treatment, and come back clean and sober. Look for a center that has a specialized addiction treatment program for professionals.

Most treatment programs are offered through inpatient and outpatient care. Inpatient care includes medically assisted detox, seclusion or living in a treatment facility, and around the clock care from medical professionals. Outpatient care allows you to continue attending work and living in your home. Both are valid options, but those in high-stress environments are often benefited by inpatient care, where they are able to learn new behaviors and stress management techniques without managing a high-responsibility job at the same time.

Legal professions are high stress, often unrewarding, and typically dominated by fast-paced, anxiety-inducing workloads. As a result, many legal professionals turn to substances to self-medicate, to stimulate themselves, and to relax and unwind after a demanding day on the job. Over time, substance use affects their health, may impact performance and their career, and can result in disbarment and legal complications.

Seeking help, either for yourself or for a loved one, is important to protect your loved one, their clients, and everything they have worked for.  For more information, please contact Beginnings Treatment Centers today and speak with one of our experienced and professional intake advisors, we’re here to help you.