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Alcohol Abuse Programs for a Legal Professional

Industrial societies most often control the behavior of their citizens through the use of law. Laws are designed to create rules of acceptable conduct, define acceptable behaviors, determine sanctions for violating these, and specify how the sanctions will be enforced. Every industrialized nation has a set of laws designed to regulate the members in the society and keep the society functioning efficiently. Attorneys and other legal professionals including judges, magistrates, etc., are the backbone of this process.

In the United States, licensed attorneys are required to obtain as much education as a medical doctor or someone with a PhD. Attorneys graduate with a Juris Doctor degree or, in some case, a doctor of law degree. In order to be licensed to practice, these individuals must pass very stringent licensing examinations.

There are many opportunities for attorneys in the workplace, but in general, the main areas of focus for attorneys are:

  • Litigation law, where issues of civil and criminal law involve arguing for or against a dispute in a court of law
  • Transaction law, which typically refers to the practice of law that does not involve arguments in a court, such as the development of patents, legal contracts, legal documents, organizational policies, etc.
  • Teaching, consulting, etc.

Most attorneys are very focused on achieving goals and approaching issues in a logical and organized fashion. Thus, attorneys tend to do well if they are detail-oriented, driven to succeed, competitive, independent but able to work with a group, and able to think outside the box. Individuals involved in all aspects of the law must have very good organizational skills and be able to meet deadlines in order to succeed.

Because of their independence, these individuals also tend to approach other issues in their lives from their own perspective. They are self-starters, and rely on their own skills and determination to achieve the results they desire. Sometimes, these positive aspects of their character can result in negative behaviors, and this can translate into issues with substance abuse, such as alcohol abuse.

Information on Other Professions

Substance Abuse in the Legal Profession

There is a stereotype that attorneys tend to be prone to the abuse of substances, particularly alcohol. This stereotype is most likely propagated by the media, but may have some truth to it. Attorneys often meet socially in establishments where alcohol is freely served, such as restaurants or bars. Reports of the rates of substance abuse in the legal profession vary from source to source. Research studies have suggested that the use and abuse of alcohol may be relatively common in the legal profession.

For instance, a study that was published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine estimated overall substance abuse rates in attorneys at a prevalence of nearly 20%. The most common substance of abuse was alcohol. Nearly three-fifths of the attorneys with substance abuse problems also reported co-occurring issues with some other mental illness; the most often co-occurring issue was major depressive disorder. The article went on to suggest that alcohol abuse is a major concern in the legal field.

In addition, an interesting study published in 2016 utilized a very large sample of participants in an attempt to estimate the prevalence of substance abuse in the legal profession. The sample in the study included over 11,000 participants; gender was evenly split between female and male participants; and the participants were mostly Caucasian, married, and varied significantly enough in age to account for all adult age groups.

The participants completed several different measures, the most important one here is a measure known as the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, which is abbreviated as AUDIT. The findings indicated that:

  • Nearly 85% of the individuals admitted using alcohol within the year prior to the study.
  • Nearly 21% of the sample admitted to having problematic issues with alcohol use and abuse; the average estimate across all other professions is about 10%.
  • In addition to potential alcohol abuse, almost 20% of the sample reported moderate to severe issues with depression; almost 15% reported moderate to severe issues with high levels of perceived stress; and nearly 10% reported moderate to severe issues with anxiety.

Factors That May Increase the Risk for Alcohol Abuse in the Legal Field

Numerous sources have addressed the use of alcohol in the legal profession. The book

The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis suggests certain factors may increase the risk for alcohol use and abuse in the legal profession.

  • People who work more than 50 hours per week on a regular basis are three times more likely to abuse alcohol than individuals who work fewer than 50 hours. Many people in the legal profession work extremely long hours, particularly attorneys. Some attorneys may work more than 80 hours per week.
  • The legal profession is extremely competitive, and individuals often feel extreme pressure. These factors can increase the risk for substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse.
  • Fear of being sanctioned by the state bar association if they seek treatment for substance abuse often results in lawyers not addressing their issues with alcohol abuse.
  • Individuals in the legal profession are independent, solution-focused, and enjoy solving problems. As a result of these characteristics, they often attempt to address issues on their own that should be addressed with outside assistance, such as alcohol use disorder or another mental health disorder.
  • When a person who is independent is unable to address a perceived problem alone, this often results in embarrassment for that person, increases their stress, and even further fuels their substance abuse.
  • Legal professionals often socialize in bars and attend parties where alcohol is freely available. Alcohol use is considered to be part of their culture. This increases the risk for the development of an alcohol use disorder.
  • Alcohol remains one of the few legal and socially acceptable drugs of abuse. Individuals in the legal profession are often more likely to abuse drugs that are legal.

Addressing an Alcohol Use Disorder

The legal profession attempts to solve its own issues and regulate its own members. Every state has a Lawyer Assistance Program designed to provide assistance for attorneys with mental health issues, including substance use disorders. Similar programs are in effect for other members of the legal profession.

Attorneys who become involved in the legal system as a result of their alcohol use (e.g., getting a DUI), or who have performance issues due to issues with alcohol abuse, are often subject to strict sanctions through their own state bar association. Attorneys can have their licenses suspended or even revoked, and may be required to attend treatment. In addition, attorneys who have legal issues associated with alcohol abuse, such as driving under the influence of alcohol, are subject to the same legal sanctions in the courts as any other individuals with these issues.

The treatment approach for alcohol use disorder in someone in the legal profession would not differ substantially from standard treatment protocol. One of the principles of effective treatment is to ensure that the specific needs of individuals are addressed, so a general approach would be personalized to fit a person’s specific needs. Generally, a treatment program would feature certain core components.

  • Withdrawal management or medical detox services are often needed for individuals with moderate to severe alcohol use disorders.
  • Medical management of withdrawal symptoms and for any co-occurring mental health disorders or physical issues should be included in the treatment package.
  • Participation in substance use disorder therapy remains the foundation of a successful recovery program.
  • The use of psychoeducation can be extremely helpful for attorneys. Many attorneys do not understand the issues associated with their alcohol abuse and are not familiar with available research on alcohol use disorders.
  • Peer support group participation is strongly suggested for attorneys. In some cases, there may be specialized peer support groups that are specifically designed for attorneys. Attorneys may also attend traditional Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or other peer support groups.
  • Strict monitoring of the individual’s abstinence from alcohol is often required if there is legal involvement or a license sanctioning issue. Individuals are most often subject to random alcohol and drug screenings.
  • Other adjunctive treatments are added as needed.

State bar associations that monitor the recovery of individuals in the legal profession who have substance use disorders will typically ensure that individuals meet the very stringent requirements of the program outlined for them or they will lose their license to practice law.

Often, attorneys attempt to negotiate solutions or conditions that they believe are favorable to them. This may result in attorneys trying to negotiate with therapists, physicians, and other treatment providers in an attempt to get differential treatment. Physicians, therapists, and other treatment providers who deal with attorneys and other individuals in the legal profession, such as judges, legal aids, etc., should make the rules and regulations associated with the treatment, and any sanctions associated with violating these treatment rules, very clear. In some cases, therapists may draw up a treatment contract with the client that specifies what is expected of the client in treatment and what is expected of the therapist. Attorneys can be very agreeable to formalized treatment contracts that outline their expectations in treatment and the ramifications of violating the rules of recovery.

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