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Addicted attorneys: How to identify your addiction and get the help you need

In 2016, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association analyzed the responses of 12,825 licensed, practicing attorneys across 19 of the United States.

It discovered that 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, while 28 percent struggle with mild or more serious depression and 19 percent struggle with anxiety.

What’s worse, only 3,419 lawyers responded to the question about drug abuse. As explained by the study’s lead author, Patrick Krill, in the New York 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.”

Drug abuse among lawyers isn’t just prevalent in the United States. In fact, much of the Western world’s legal profession is built on drink and drugs. But the true problem does not lie in the drug abuse itself, it lies within the culture surrounding it.

In this blog post, we shed light on some of the common factors of addiction for those in the legal profession, why lawyers need to be vigilant in recognizing them, and how you can seek the help you or a colleague might need to get sober and stay sober.

Death by drugs: The story of Peter

In July 2017, the New York Times published an article about the life of Peter, a high-level Silicon Valley attorney who overdosed on drugs.

According to the article, it was a problem that his ex-wife, children, colleagues and close friends didn’t see coming. Further, it was a problem Peter felt he could fight on his own, but he failed to make the necessary priority adjustments to make time for doing so. His work always came first.

The article is eye-opening for any lawyer experiencing similar issues, and we urge you to read it (you can do so here). In the article, the writer depicts a scene prior to Peter’s death. The line reads:

“Of all the heartbreaking details of [Peter’s] story, the one that continues to haunt me is this: The history on his cell phone shows the last call he ever made was for work. Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call.”

In any scenario, it’s difficult to understand why humans put their work before their own lives.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to let others down. Perhaps it’s because self-punishment is an all too common illness we’ve yet to talk about. Whatever it is, work is work and will remain so for the rest of time. Your health is precious; and it requires intentional effort to keep it stable.

A few addiction factors to watch out for

There are many reasons people turn to drugs to deal with the realities of life. Failed careers, a lack of income, the death of a family member, stress … each person becomes addicted for their own reasons.

In the legal profession, however, there are some specific warning signs to watch out for. For example:

1. Overworking

Overworking Attorneys

We can only work so hard.

We need sleep, food, water and rest to ensure we can sustain a peak level of performance in anything we do. But due to the nature of the legal profession, lawyers tend to work more than most other people.

Sure, they might bill 40 or 50 hours of work in a week, but in truth, they’re likely working 60 or 70 hours just to keep up.

To balance this level of work with a social life, then, it means staying awake and always staying “on” to get the job done, and that means turning to artificial substitutes. According to the study mentioned above, 5.6 percent of respondents used cocaine, crack and other stimulants, 5.6 percent used opioids, and nearly 16 percent used sedatives to turn themselves off after a long day.

Be sure to recognize the signs of overworking and proactively deal with these problems by speaking up. There’s no shame in admitting you need help.

2. A lack of time with family

In Peter’s story, it was expressed that he didn’t have enough time to spend with his family and that he’d often go out in the evening and not return.

Isolation is an all too common addiction factor, and it makes it difficult for people to identify personality changes. If you begin to notice that you’d rather be alone and taking drugs instead of around the people you love, it’s time to speak up and seek expert help.

3. Stress

Often people use smoking, alcohol and drugs as ways of trying to evade the reality of a situation and “calm down” when life gets overwhelming. In 2015, Bloomberg estimated that workplace stress contributes $190 billion in healthcare expenses and more than 120,000 deaths each year.

Given the nature of hard work in the legal profession, stress can be classified as an epidemic. Last year, legal website Above The Law wrote an article titled Stressed-Out Lawyers in First 10 Years of Practice More Likely to Have Mental-Health and Wellness Issues and they’re accurate in their statement.

As explained in the article:

“If you know 10 lawyers, three of them are likely depressed, and two of them are suffering from a drinking problem or anxiety.”

Get the help you need with rehab

The stigma behind going to rehab is slowly diminishing, and the acceptance of seeking the right help is becoming more prevalent in today’s society.

In fact, in the medical profession (which is also a high pressure, high-stress career path), doctors are able to enter rehab, get the treatment they need and still continue practicing medicine once they’re sober.

The legal profession is similar. No longer should you or your colleagues fear losing your legal license and getting fired; you’re a human with flaws who occasionally needs the help of other humans.

Chances are, if you continue down a path of drug addiction and overworking, you’ll destroy your career anyway.

The difficulty, then, as we’ve previously explained, is breaking down the culture of competition that invites tortuous amounts of labor within the legal profession. We finish this article by addressing you personally:

If you notice that you’re becoming reliant on drugs, if you notice that you’re failing to balance your work and life, or that you’re failing to treat yourself with the respect you deserve, please seek help.

There are many lawyer assistance programmes available in the United States, and we urge you to pick up the phone and call them.

If you feel that rehabilitation is your ticket to sobriety, we urge you to find a rehab center that will work for you and will provide you with the treatment you need.

Remember: You are not alone.