It’s no secret that work-life balance is difficult to strike in many professions. Especially as lawyers, we have consistently demanding schedules that never seem to stop—between managing our support staff, complying with court-ordered deadlines, scheduling, briefing and travel—many of us may relate to feelings of overwhelming pressure and stress. If you find yourself answering emails in the middle of the night or combing over today’s TDO list in the shower, your job is probably all-consuming. Not to say there is anything wrong with this. Many personalities attracted to the legal profession not only enjoy, but thrive from this lifestyle. Nonetheless, every so often it is valuable to step back and ensure you haven’t begun to sacrifice your own physical, emotional and mental well-being at the furtherance of your career.
In July 2017, the New York Times published the tragic story of a high-powered, successful attorney who eventually succumbed to years of hidden addiction, ultimately dying from an overdose during a work-related conference call. The article, titled “The Lawyer, the Addict,” begins by describing the shocking discovery of his body—having died from a systemic bacterial infection common to intravenous drug users. An esteemed Silicon Valley lawyer had died a drug addict, after dedicating the past 20 years of his life to the beloved practice of law. This came as a shock to many people in his life who knew nothing of a secretive life of dependency. After his death, family and friends became readily determined to track his spiral downwards into the depths of addiction. They started to examine various aspects of his life, trying desperately to connect the dots and revisit signs of addiction that had gone previously unnoticed. His ex-wife recounted erratic behavior and the unrealistic hours he worked, accompanied by stress and sleep deprivation. She began to research the phenomena of drug abuse specifically among lawyers, looking at various studies and statistics. This story in the New York Times reveals the haunting realization that drug and alcohol abuse among America’s lawyers is on the rise and deeply hidden. In fact, plenty of studies show that lawyers tend to abuse drugs and alcohol to handle the daunting expectations known to the career.
A 2016 study conducted by the American Bar Association with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, titled “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” reported that one in three practicing lawyers are classified as “problem drinkers,” while 28 percent suffer from depression, 19 percent show symptoms of anxiety and 23 percent are over-stressed. Most notably, younger attorneys and those in the legal field for a shorter duration of time were found to have higher alcohol use disorder identification test scores. Out of the total study participants, over 22 percent reported feelings that use of alcohol or drugs had been problematic at some point in their lives. Of that group, at least 43 percent felt their problematic drinking or drug use had begun within 15 years of graduating law school. While previous studies on the issue of dependency among American attorneys had established an association of problematic drinking with more years spent in the profession, the 2016 study found a pattern reversal—with attorneys in their first 10 years now experiencing the highest rates of problematic use.
We find ourselves currently amidst the emergence of a growing opioid epidemic, in which plaintiffs attorneys around the country are vying for the opportunity to represent municipalities and individuals grievously addicted to pain management drugs. As complaints are growing against pharmaceutical companies for the misleading, callous marketing of addictive pain medications, issues of dependency are being brought to light now more than ever. Legislators are finally becoming more involved with the regulation of opioids and support groups are surfacing around the country to deal with the aftermath. In light of the national conversation on addiction in America and how to best handle it, I started to think about these very issues of work-life balance that tend to predominantly plague the legal profession.
As a fellow young lawyer (just concluding my second year in practice), I of course fall victim to the pressures and stress of an all-consuming job. I take work home almost every night and, even when I don’t, I’m thinking about deadlines and what needs to be done tomorrow. My phone is constantly in my hand to answer emails immediately and pick up any work-related calls right away. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s exactly what is expected of us, especially as young lawyers with something to prove. But it’s vital that we, as a profession, acknowledge that issues of dependency continue to plague the legal industry.
Having a couple cocktails or glasses of wine to relax and more comfortably pitch yourself to strangers is all too familiar to professionals and attending an occasional networking happy hour won’t lead us down an irreversible path of dependency. At the end of a long day, many would agree that it’s much easier and perhaps more rewarding to unwind with a glass of wine or beer rather than most other forms of relaxation.
What can we, especially as young lawyers, do to ensure we are taking care of ourselves and properly channeling those feelings of stress and a pressure to competitively perform? How do we properly maintain work-life balance? I think we need to feel comfortable with “unplugging” ourselves every so often. Whether it be finally taking that vacation, reserving an hour to exercise, making sure to take a lunch break or just setting aside 10 minutes for an invigorating walk during the day, it’s OK to sometimes step away from your desk and breathe. Developing these practices early on in the career will help young lawyers develop professionally, personally and prevent us from falling victim to a life of stress-induced dependency. Remember that unwinding with a drink doesn’t have to be the only way we take a break.
If you think a loved one, friend or colleague may have a dependency issue, call the Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Pennsylvania confidential hotline at 1-888-999-1941 or visit their website http://www.lclpa.org/.
Catelyn McDonough joined Anapol Weiss as an associate in 2016. She focuses her practice on asbestos and medical mass tort litigation, including but not limited to pharmaceuticals and faulty medical devices. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.