Substance Abuse Among Lawyers: Signs & Treatment

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Lawyers have one of the highest rates of substance abuse across all professions. Alcohol abuse is especially high among attorneys, with one-fifth regularly engaging in heavy drinking. Industry-specific resources are available to support lawyers with addictions.

Substance Abuse Among Lawyers: Signs & Treatment

Lawyers counsel and represent clients in civil or criminal proceedings. Although many legal professionals earn a comfortable living, the job isn’t as sexy as it appears on TV.

After completing seven years of higher education, law school graduates enter a highly competitive field where long work hours are the norm.

To meet expectations, legal professionals may make sacrifices in their personal lives. High stress levels at work and at home could contribute to the high rates of addiction among this group.

One-fifth of lawyers will develop alcohol addiction at some point during their career, and nearly one in 10 will abuse drugs.

However, addiction rates may actually be higher than this, because addiction is known to be underreported in this field.

Learn more about addiction in careers and industries.

Attorneys And Addiction Rates

A study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that 20.6% of lawyers, slightly more than one in five, have problematic drinking patterns that may indicate alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Outside of alcohol abuse, 9% of attorneys also abuse prescription drugs. Drug addiction involving stimulants like Adderall and Vyvanse is of particular concern.

Some lawyers also use illicit drugs, like cocaine. However, illicit drug use among attorneys is far less studied than alcohol and prescription drug abuse.

Type Of Drug Use Rate Of Addiction Trend
Alcohol Use 20.6% Increasing
Illicit Drug Use N/A N/A
Prescription Drug Abuse 9% Stimulants are favored

Alcohol Abuse Among Legal Professionals

The majority of research about attorneys and substance abuse focuses on alcohol abuse, which lawyers experience at a much higher rate than the general population (6% of Americans).

Law students face a challenging curriculum and must pass difficult state bar exams in order to practice law. Once practicing law, on-the-job stress levels usually remain high.

Self-medicating chronic stress with alcohol can quickly develop into problem drinking and alcohol addiction.

The legal profession also supports drinking culture. For example, it’s commonplace for lawyers to connect socially and at networking events over alcoholic beverages.

Signs Of Substance Abuse Among Attorneys

If you suspect that a colleague, friend, or loved one is abusing drugs or alcohol, there are several telltale signs to look for.

General signs of substance use disorder (SUD) include: 

  • bloodshot or glossy eyes
  • pupils that are oversized or pinhole-sized
  • slurred speech
  • shakiness or tremors
  • diminished concern for personal hygiene
  • sudden weight loss or gain
  • changes in behavior, i.e., sudden mood swings, irritability, and angry outbursts
  • increase in anxiety, fear, and/or paranoia
  • periods of uncharacteristic hyperactivity or lethargy
  • sudden need for money or complaints of financial problems

Signs of impairment or substance abuse among lawyers in the workplace include: 

  • decrease in work performance
  • atypical problems with colleagues
  • asking colleagues to borrow money
  • disorganized appointment schedules
  • increased absenteeism
  • inappropriate courtroom pleadings
  • missed appointments or hearings
  • malpractice claims

Possible Contributors To Lawyers’ High Rate Of Addiction

Being a lawyer involves difficult work. Criminal law, technology law, and corporate law in particular are some of the most difficult practices.

Lawyers devote years of their life to learning, studying, and preparing just to work in the field, where day-to-day demands can be overwhelming.

Heavy Workload

Many lawyers work well beyond the standard 40-hour work week and do so outside of billable hours.

Poor work-life balance is a known issue in the legal profession. Many lawyers devote so much time to their practice that they have little time left to spend with loved ones.

High Levels Of Stress, Depression, And Anxiety

The pressures of being a lawyer can have serious effects on these professionals’ mental health and well-being.

According to the Journal of Addiction Medicine study, 28% of lawyers had depression and 19% had anxiety. An additional 23% reported high stress.

Chronic stress is a known contributor to substance abuse, and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety disorders are known to frequently co-occur with addiction.

Ethical Dilemmas

Lawyers are often hired to serve clients they don’t necessarily agree with or whose behavior goes against their ethical beliefs.

This lack of congruency can create inner turmoil and stress, especially when experienced on a regular basis.

Supporting Lawyers With Substance Abuse

The American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) was established to help support lawyers with substance abuse and other mental health issues.

This includes providing professionals in the legal industry and law students with access to addiction treatment programs and treatment centers, including detox services and outpatient care.

The CoLAP website provides a list of phone numbers for lawyers in their respective states.

Get Help For Addiction Today

If you or a loved one is experiencing substance abuse, call today and get connected to an addiction specialist who can help.


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