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Mental Health and Addiction in the Legal Community

By Wesley Gallagher

It’s no secret that lawyers have demanding jobs. From the time they take the LSAT to the moment they get that corner office, lawyers are required to put great amounts of time and energy into their profession. And while law isn’t the only demanding career, there are aspects of being a lawyer that are particularly stressful.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a demanding profession or a career that requires a high level of commitment. We want people charged with upholding the laws of the land, fighting for justice and knowledgeable about their jobs. What we don’t want is for people in these high-pressure positions to be negatively affected by the stress and pressure of their career.

A report published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine(QC) found that 28 percent of lawyers struggle with mild or more serious depression, and 19 percent struggle with anxiety. Up to 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers.1 That means lawyers are three times as likely to abuse alcohol as the general population, and twice as likely as surgeons, who have an equally demanding career.2

Stigma in the Legal Community

Lawyer signing a contractDespite the prevalence of mental health and substance use disorders in the legal community, it’s not something that is openly discussed. Often, such issues are ignored or swept under the rug. Lawyers are usually highly competitive and expected to work long, hard hours for demanding clients. They fear negative consequences from disclosing personal information that might make them look weak or defeated. One study suggested that the primary reason lawyers didn’t seek treatment is because they thought they could handle it on their own.3 Not to mention that lawyers are charged with upholding the law, so admitting to breaking the law with illegal substances can be especially daunting.

The consequences of ongoing mental illness and drug and alcohol use, however, can be much more damaging than admitting the issue to colleagues and clients. Studies show a strong correlation between untreated addiction and professional misconduct complaints and malpractice claims.3 No matter how well someone with an addiction seems to be functioning, the reality is that addiction seeps into every aspect of life.

Fortunately, bar associations across the country are implementing Lawyers’ Assistance Programs (LAPs) that are aimed at confronting mental health and addiction in the legal community. The Wisconsin LAP, for instance, has provided confidential assistance to thousands of lawyers struggling with mental health and addiction, offering referrals, informal interventions and other necessary support.3

What Does Treatment Look Like?

If you’re struggling with mental health or addiction, treatment will look different depending on your diagnosis and specific situation. Treatment centers offer short-term and long-term residential programs, as well as outpatient programs that can be attended during the day or at night. Programs often include medicinal therapy options for certain addictions, psychological therapy or counseling, education and nontraditional healing methods like meditation and acupuncture.4

As a lawyer, the idea of an extended inpatient program may seem completely unrealistic, but the reality is that mental health disorders and substance abuse are just like any other medical issue and should be treated as such. If you have a diagnosis of addiction, you and your workplace should treat it as a medical emergency. Your local LAP should be able to help you navigate the specifics of getting treatment.

The good news is that recent studies indicate that lawyers who enter treatment have an even higher recovery rate than the general population, and they go on to receive fewer misconduct complaints and malpractice claims than the general population of attorneys.3

There are practical steps you can take now, during and after treatment to buffer yourself against the threat of depression, anxiety, addiction and related issues. Steve Wiland, Director of Outpatient Services at Foundations Detroit, asserts that managing stress is key. “Stress management is really not some complex ‘rocket science’ endeavor, but rather qualifies as one of those areas of human behavior that probably fits the description of ‘simple, but not easy,’” says Wiland, who recommends strategies like healthy eating, sleeping and exercise habits, avoiding mood-altering drugs, socializing with supportive people and regular meditation or prayer. “The regular practice of these behaviors takes time and effort, and the prioritization of one’s mental and emotional health.”

How Will It Affect My Career?

How your career is affected by treatment will depend on your specific situation, especially if there have been disciplinary actions taken against you as a consequence of an addiction or mental health issue. Disciplinary agencies have changed their thinking in recent years about misconduct related to mental health and addiction, as the work of LAPs across the country has brought such issues into the light. When there is a legitimate medical issue, steps can be taken to avoid harsh punishments like disbarment.5

If you decide that treatment is your best option, your employer should work with you just as they would for any other medical emergency. Contact your local LAP if you think you’ll need help navigating the process with your workplace.

Getting help may seem incredibly daunting, but if you’re struggling with mental health or addiction, doing nothing is much more likely to be detrimental to your career and your life. Careers can be rebuilt, relationships and reputations can be mended, but only once you’re on the road to health. Call us, and we can help walk you through the first steps toward your new life.


1 Krill, Patrick, et. al. “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys.Journal of Addiction Medicine, January/February 2016.

2 Smith, Lisa F. “The most terrifying part of my drug addiction? That my law firm would find out.Washington Post, March 24, 2016.

3 Edwards, Timothy D and Gregory J. Van Rybroek. “Addiction and Attorneys: Confronting the Denial.Wisconsin Lawyer, August 2007.

4 Sweeney, Michael J and Meloney Crawford Chadwick. “What to Expect in Treatment.” GPSolo Magazine, October/November 2006.

5 Filisko, G.M. “Disbarred lawyers who seek reinstatement have a rough road to redemption.ABA Journal, August 2013.