Practicing law means that legal professionals must successfully function in a highly competitive, demanding environment while working long hours, striving to meet extraordinarily high expectations and constantly faced with win-lose circumstances. Lawyers share characteristics that allow them to be good at their job. They usually exhibit self-reliance, ambition, perfectionism and competitiveness, and skillfully handle adversarial situations. These characteristics and the nature of their job also make lawyers more susceptible to addiction and associated mental illnesses, according to a groundbreaking study. It can be difficult to maintain their fitness to practice law when facing such challenges.

The study, which included approximately 15,000 attorneys from 19 states across the country, was the first of its kind in decades. It revealed significantly high levels of depression (28 percent), anxiety (19 percent) and stress (23 percent) among attorneys, which often leads them to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as relying on alcohol and other substances. The study found that lawyers experience higher rates of alcohol use disorders and mental distress compared to other professional populations in the U.S. Prior to the study there was limited available information about the behavioral health climate in the legal profession.

Getting help

Several common barriers that keep attorneys from getting the help they need surfaced during the study. Those barriers included the fear that others in the profession would find out about their condition; concerns over privacy and confidentiality; and the stigma that continues to accompany mental health conditions. The findings prompted serious conversations within the legal community and a renewed focus on providing support systems and resources for attorneys struggling to manage addiction and mental health issues.

The American Bar Association’s (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) works to make support and assistance available to every judge, lawyer and law student confronting alcoholism, substance use disorders or mental health issues. In response to the study’s findings, CoLAP, the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL) established the National Task Force on Lawyer Well Being, which published The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change to reverse course and help improve well being within the profession.

CoLAP also supports local programs across the U.S. and U.S. territories, as well as international programs. The programs provide confidential assistance to ensure that “lawyers recover, families are preserved and clients and other members of the public are protected.”

For example, the Alabama Lawyers Assistance Program (ALAP) is part of the Alabama State Bar and provides confidential, immediate and continuing help to lawyers struggling to manage addictions and other types of mental health disorders. ALAP will help colleagues, family and friends reach out and offer assistance to someone who is struggling. Staff will meet with, evaluate and provide a plan of action to those it assists and will provide ongoing monitoring, which is proven to increase a participant’s likelihood of success and long-term improvement.

Because of the unique circumstances judges face, The National Judges’ Helpline provides similar resources and assistance to judges. The toll-free number is 800-219-6474.

Alabama State Bar
Journal of Addiction Medicine
The Bar Association of San Francisco
American Bar Association

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