The Issue Of Substance Abuse In The Legal Profession, And What Can Be Done

Lawyers struggle with substance abuse almost twice as much as those in other professions. It has been found that law students and those in other legal professions are more likely to deal with substance abuse, as well.


There were a lot of assumptions about why this may be. It’s no doubt that the stress of both the job and the path it takes to get there is not something that everyone can handle, and those in the legal field also have a higher likelihood of dealing with depression. Being exposed to the dark side of drug addiction and the effect it has on families and communities in one’s profession does not diminish their chances of suffering the same fate, as many would think.


Drinking is a common social activity among lawyers, which makes it all that much easier for it to turn into a coping mechanism. When one’s career allows for a lot of expendable income, the temptation to abuse more expensive (and more controlled) substances can also be greater.


It was also reported that those in the legal arena are less likely to seek out help for their issues. This is, in part, because of the fear of stigmatization or worse. Clerks, lawyers, judges, and the likes have careers that are contingent upon reputation, and soiling that reputation could mean the end, even if one isn’t disbarred.


The fact of the matter is: substance abuse is an issue that those in the field of law struggle with more and seek help for less than others. You may not have to deal with it personally, but it’s likely you’ll run across the issue more than once with friends and colleagues. Either way, here are some things you should look out for, and some suggestions of what to do if the situation arises.


If you notice more than a few of these things in yourself or a colleague, it may be time to do something: changes in appetite or weight, changes in physical appearance or hygiene, shaking or stuttering, slurred speech or impaired coordination, acting irritable, angry, or paranoid, losing focus or motivation, and being overly active or lethargic.


You can also take preventative measures for yourself by keeping an eye out for signs that you’re not handling stress well, which include changes in sleeping or eating habits, feelings of hopelessness, feeling foggy, and being overly angry or argumentative. High stress paired with poor coping mechanisms can be a recipe for substance use to spiral out of control. If you notice it early enough, you can seek out counseling or start practicing relaxation techniques to keep your stress from turning into something worse.


If you suspect that you or someone you work with is dealing with a substance abuse issue, there are a few things you can do. The first step is to verbalize the problem. For yourself, confide in someone you trust that you feel you may have a problem. If you suspect someone else is struggling, mention that you are worried. Expressing feelings of compassion and concern in lieu of judgment and accusation will decrease the chance that you’ll be met with denial and defensiveness. However, you should be prepared for this response, and be prepared to stand firm in your solicitude while also backing down on the issue (for now.)


The next step is acknowledgement. If it’s you, you need to acknowledge that you have a problem, even if you’re not yet dealing with a full blown addiction. If you’re attempting to help a colleague, remember that you might not be able to get to this step. It’s important to try, but you also need to make sure that you don’t take the burden onto yourself entirely, and that you don’t blame yourself if you’re not able to help them as much as you’d like. Here’s a pretty concise list of don’ts for this situation, as well.


The last, and most important step, is to seek out help. There are so many ways to do this, but I cannot speak enough on the resourcefulness and absolute idealness of the Commision on Lawyer Assistance Program (CoLAP.) There are Lawyer Assistance Programs in every state, as well as throughout Canada. They strive to help those in the legal profession recover from stress, mental and emotional health, and alcohol and chemical substance abuse. They also help those going through law school.


The most important thing about  CoLAP is that they operate under complete confidentiality. Often a lawyer’s biggest concern when seeking out help is the fear of being found out, and this program was designed to keep that from happening. They will help guide you every step of the way, and will seek out and identify what tactics or programs work for you.


The Lawyer Assistance Program also offers ongoing fellowship. It’s been found that fellowshipping is a crucial part of recovery because it allows those maintaining sobriety to surround themselves with peers and supporters in the same boat. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are two well-known fellowship programs, but they’re not always ideal for those in the public eye. Many fear running into a client or courthouse worker in a program like this, even though they’re completely anonymous. Lawyer Assistance programs can provide a safe place to continue and support recovery throughout your life and career, without any of these concerns.


You can reach CoLAP at 1-866-LAW-LAPS or access their directory of state programs here.

The last thing to keep in mind is that this can be a gray area. Dealing with a tragic verdict or a rough client by having some drinks after work is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s not your only coping device. If you or a colleague have a relationship with drugs or alcohol that appears to be be getting out of hand, though, start with conversation, even if your conversation is calling the anonymous helpline. Try as hard as you can not to wait until rock bottom is reached, and remember that another person’s struggles are not your responsibility. Offer concern and assistance, and do take professional action if there is a risk of reputation, career, morality, or legality being violated. This is an issue of growing concern, but together, things can get better, one step at a time.

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