Substance Abuse and Mental Health
In 2018, the American Bar Association launched a campaign to address the troubling rates of alcohol use, substance use and mental health issues among lawyers. Recent studies show that lawyers struggle with these problems at levels substantially higher than the general population and other highly educated professionals.
As part of that campaign, the ABA asked many legal employers to sign a pledge of support and to adopt the project’s framework for improved well-being among lawyers. As of June 1, 2021, 212 legal employers – including law firms, corporations and universities – have signed the pledge.
In 2016, the ABA partnered with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation on a comprehensive study of the issue. Among nearly 13,000 lawyers surveyed, it found:
• 21% qualify as problem drinkers. That’s more than triple the rate for the general population (6%) and nearly double the rate for other highly educated professionals (12%).
• 28% struggle with depression.
• 19% have symptoms of anxiety.
These issues can have major consequences. Studies show that 25% to 30% of lawyers facing disciplinary charges suffer from some type of addiction or mental illness.
Women and Men
Female lawyers were more likely to experience stress, anxiety and depression in 2020 than male lawyers and were more likely to engage in hazardous drinking, according to a survey of nearly 3,000 attorneys sponsored by the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar.
The survey also found that more women than men (24% versus 17%) considered leaving the legal profession due to mental health problems, burnout or stress.
According to the survey:
• Two-thirds of women (67%) reported moderate or severe stress compared with less than half of men (49%).
• Nearly one-quarter of women (23%) reported moderate or severe anxiety compared with 15% of men.
• One in five women (20%) reported moderate or severe depression compared with 15% of men.
• One-third of women (34%) reported hazardous drinking compared with 25% of men. Hazardous drinking is measured on a scale that depends on how often one drinks, how many drinks one has when one drinks and how often one has six or more drinks on one occasion.
The survey concluded that women who experienced more conflicts between work and family were four times more likely to leave the legal profession, or consider leaving, due to mental health issues, burnout and stress. Work-family conflict was also a significant factor for men, but less so, the study found.
For many lawyers, substance use and mental health issues start early. In 2014, academics surveyed 3,300 students at 15 American law schools to determine the extent of these issues. The results were reported in 2016. The survey found 53% of law students got drunk in the prior 30 days, 43% binge drank at least once in the prior two weeks and 22% binge drank at least twice in the prior two weeks.
In each case, male students were more likely to binge drink than female students (47% versus 40%) and such drinking was worse among third-year students than first-year students (45% versus 40%).
One-quarter of law students (25%) reported using marijuana in the previous year, 6% used cocaine and 4% used ecstasy. Also, 14% reported using prescription drugs without a prescription. Stimulants were the prescription drug most commonly used without a prescription (9%).
The survey also found some mental health concerns: 17% of students reported suffering from depression, 14% from severe anxiety, 23% from mild or moderate anxiety, and 6% reported suicidal thoughts in the previous year.
Law students told surveyors they were reluctant to seek help because they thought it would be a threat to their job or academic status, a potential threat to bar admission or because of the social stigma of seeking assistance.
Life and Practice
Most lawyers said their law firms support their mental health and family needs, with some caveats, according to the 2019 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report.
More than half (56%) of the 647 lawyers surveyed agreed with the statement “My workplace is supportive of my mental health needs.” Only 8% disagreed. On the other hand, only 1 in 4 lawyers (26%) said their law firm provides information on 12-step programs or other mental health resources.
Nearly three-fourths of all lawyers (72%) said their firm’s support for working parents is good or very good. Only 4% said it is poor or very poor. Likewise, two-thirds of lawyers (66%) said they agree with the statement “My job allows me to spend adequate time with my family.” One out of six lawyers (17%) disagreed.
Attitudes are more ambiguous when it comes to time spent at work, breaks during the day and vacations. Asked to “generally describe your work week,” one-third of the lawyers surveyed (38%) said they often work long hours and another 9% said they “never stop working.” A majority (54%) said they “take adequate breaks during the workday,” while a quarter (25%) said they do not. And nearly one-third of lawyers surveyed (32%) said they feel pressure to not take vacation time.
Despite that, the great majority of lawyers (68%) said they agree with the statement “I make time for myself.”
Nearly one-quarter of all judges (23%) meet the criteria for experiencing stress at a level that could be debilitating, according to the National Judicial Stress and Resiliency Survey, a groundbreaking study released in December 2020 by the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility. Female judges are more likely than male judges to report one or more symptoms of stress (73% versus 54%), according to the survey.
The survey of 1,034 judges — mostly in state courts — found that 1 in 5 meet at least one criterion for depressive disorder, such as depressed mood, not having initiative, preoccupation with negative thoughts, feelings that work is no longer meaningful and feelings that they can’t wait for the day’s work to end.
Nearly 1 in 10 judges (9.5%) reported problematic alcohol use in the past year. That’s half the rate of lawyers overall who reported problematic drinking in a previous study (20.6%) and one-third the rate of young lawyers age 30 or less (32%).
Twenty-two judges who participated in the survey (2%) said they had experienced thoughts of suicide or self-injury in the previous year. The study concluded that this “is very troubling” and that “judges would benefit from increased suicide awareness.” Among lawyers overall in a previous study, 11.5% reported suicidal thoughts over their entire careers.