September 2017Volume 105Number 9Page 12

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Lawyers and addiction

A recent ABA/Betty Ford Foundation study shows shockingly high levels of addiction and other mental health problems in the legal profession -- and that few lawyers seek help.

It is well known that law is a stressful career path. What isn't as well known is that a significant number of attorneys suffer from addiction and other mental health issues.

There has been surprisingly little research done on this topic. In 2016, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs conducted a study of addiction and mental health issues in the legal community ( The study, available at, indicates a large-scale problem. Recently, a lively thread on the ISBA's litigation discussion group was kicked off with a link to a widely read New York Times article about an addicted lawyer's death and what the author describes as a "web of drug abuse" in the legal profession (

So how big of a problem does the profession have? The ABA/Betty Ford study surveyed 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys. Those attorneys completed surveys where they self-assessed their alcohol use, drug use, and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. A whopping 20.6 percent of lawyers screened positive for potentially alcohol-dependent drinking. The study also showed high levels of depression (28 percent), anxiety (19 percent), and stress (23 percent). It notes that the last widely cited research on the subject was conducted in 1990 and only surveyed 1,200 attorneys from Washington State. "A scarcity of data on the current rates of substance use and mental health concerns among lawyers, therefore, has substantial implications and must be addressed," the report notes.

'Pervasive stigma'

One discouraging statistic - only 6.8 percent of the people participating in the study reported seeking treatment for alcohol or drug use specifically tailored to legal professionals. This is due, in part, to two common barriers to seeking help: not wanting others to find out and concerns regarding privacy and confidentiality.

The study also uncovered unexpected trends. For example, while previous data had suggested that time spent in the profession correlated to the increased presence of problematic drinking, the ABA/Betty Ford study indicates the opposite. It found that the highest rates of problematic use were found among attorneys in the first 10 years of their practice (28.9 percent). Attorneys who had been practicing for 11 to 20 years showed a decrease (20.6 percent); older populations saw a further decline. These numbers are bolstered by statistics for attorneys by age: those under 30 had a rate of 32.3 percent - those aged 31 to 40 had a rate of 26.1 percent.

The big problem is getting attorneys to admit they need help and then to seek it. One of the study's conclusions is that public awareness campaigns within the profession are necessary to help overcome the "pervasive stigma surrounding substance use disorders and mental health concerns." Robin Belleau, the Executive Director of the Illinois Lawyer's Assistance Program (LAP), agrees that many lawyers do not seek help for substance abuse and mental health issues because they are afraid that their professional reputations will suffer.

She stresses that lawyers and law students are not people simply more apt to be alcoholics or develop mental health issues. In her experience, the profession itself attracts type-A perfectionists.

That personality type can encounter difficulties because life isn't perfect. Some people are more resilient than others, but the predominant expectation is that lawyers are problem solvers and helpers. When they can't solve every problem that can have a negative effect on the attorney. The risk for all attorneys is that socially acceptable stress relief is to have a drink or see a doctor and obtain prescription medications - some of which can be habit-forming.

New MCLE rule, task force report

No discussion of lawyer addition in Illinois would be complete without noting recently amended Supreme Court Rule 794(d). Among other things, it requires Illinois lawyers to complete one hour of mental health and substance abuse training as part of the professional responsibility CLE requirement. The rule took effect July 1 and begins with the two-year attorney reporting period ending June 30, 2019.

And just before this article went to press, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being issued a strongly worded report consisting of "44 recommendations, some addressed to all of us in the profession and some specific legal stakeholders: judges, regulators, legal employers, law schools, bar associations, professional liability carriers, and lawyers' assistance programs," according to task force member Jayne Reardon. She is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism and executive director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism.

"The recommendations are geared to supporting lawyer well-being, defined as 'a continuous process in which lawyers strive for thriving in each dimension of their lives: emotional, occupational, social, intellectual, physical, and spiritual,'" Reardon wrote on the Commission on Professionalism's blog at The full report is at

Matthew Hector
Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Woerthwein & Miller.

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