High rates of alcohol abuse. High rates of drug abuse. And the highest rates of depression and suicide of any profession.

Those trends that have seemingly plagued the law profession for many years may initially seem like old news and something that has little bearing on your day-to-day experience as a practicing attorney. The fact that these alarming statistics have continued to remain true over the years does not make it excusable for one to dismiss the situation; instead, the consistency portrayed through these statistics should be considered as evidence of a continuing problem that is not being adequately addressed. Alcohol and drug abuse remain a serious problem within the legal profession, and the numerous statistics outlining high rates of substance abuse shed light on a destructive trend that presents practicing attorneys with a very difficult dilemma.

The Stats Tell a Story

In the event that you have glossed over previous publications on substance abuse within the profession, allow us to take a moment and summarize some of the most revealing findings on the subject matter. A study published in 1990 in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry reported that while the rate of chemical dependency in the general population is 10 percent, that same estimate for attorneys is 18 percent. It has been shown that the substance abuse problem worsens the longer an individual is working within the legal profession. For example, the same study found that 18 percent of attorneys who practiced for 2 to 20 years reported drinking problems, and this increased to 25 percent for attorneys who practiced for over 20 years. Although little research has been conducted specifically looking at the use of illegal drugs within the profession, initial estimates indicate that drug abuse may also be prevalent. The results of a research study that focused on attorneys in Washington led to a startling revelation: “One-third of lawyers in Washington suffer from depression, problem drinking, or cocaine abuse,” according to the same article.

It is crucial to note that substance abuse cannot be treated as something that only affects one’s personal life. More often than not, alcohol abuse and drug abuse are absolutely detrimental to a lawyer’s professional career. Attorneys who struggle with alcohol dependence are “. . . substantially more likely to under-serve their clients, commit malpractice, face disciplinary action and disbarment, fall victim to mental health problems, and even to take their own lives,” according to Patrick Krill, who wrote, “Legally Intoxicated: The Impacts and Implications of Substance Abuse in the Practice of Law,” in the Hennepin Lawyer‘s March 1, 2013 edition.

The same article states that as many as 75 percent of attorney discipline cases are related to alcohol or drug abuse, and approximately 60 percent of all malpractice claims involve substance abuse. Substance abuse does not always have to bring about these results, but in order for the results to change attorneys must commit to embracing a more proactive approach towards both identifying and addressing the problem.

Changing the Story

The first step in working to address the problem is learning how to identify it. People abusing drugs or alcohol typically go to great lengths to mask their addiction; as a result, it is important to be on the lookout for more than just a staggering, slurring and obviously drunk coworker. Below are a few helpful warning signs, suggested by Majorie Silver who wrote about substance abuse and the legal profession for the New York State Assistance Trust in 2004, which may indicate that an individual is struggling with a substance abuse problem:

• Long weekends and/or frequent late arrivals or early departures from work;

• Failure to file court papers;

• Forgetting to show up for scheduled court appearances and appointments;

• Neglecting correspondence and phone messages;

• “Borrowing” from client trust funds;

• Missing deadlines;

• Sharply reduced revenue production; and,

• Increasingly requiring the help of others to cover up his or her decreasingly effective performance of life’s daily responsibilities.

If you recognize these warning signs and suspect that someone around you may be struggling with substance abuse, the most important thing you can do is to make a commitment that you will not ignore the problem. The legal profession has a long history of turning a blind eye and fully embracing the stance of “well, it’s not my problem.” Lady Justice’s blindfold does not apply to these situations, and this mentality is unacceptable and only serves to further perpetuate the sad story as laid out in the statistics. The authors encourage all members of the profession to commit to creating change, and to accept the call before them to be more proactive when it comes to both identifying and addressing the problem.