The Ethical Esquire: Substance Abuse in the Legal Community

The Ethical Esquire

By: Maryam Hatcher, Esq.

Dearest Readers:  I am best known for my unparalleled wit and profound ethical reasoning (at least that is what I think I should be known for), but I will forgo offering solutions to the ethical quandaries of fictitious advice seekers this month, and instead discuss an issue that is no laughing matter: substance abuse in the legal community.

While substance abuse is a widespread concern in the United States, it is particularly prevalent in the legal community.  The stress and hyper-competitiveness that law students face as they earn their JDs, often leads them to turn to illicit substances to assuage tension or abuse prescription drugs to increase academic performance.  A 2016 study found that 20 percent of lawyers felt that their substance use was problematic, with most of them reporting that their problematic use of those substances did not start until law school.

Unfortunately, substance abuse in the legal profession increases once students leave the hallowed halls of their law schools.  One study from the 1990s reports that 18 percent of attorneys abuse alcohol, as compared to 10 percent of the general population.  The same study found that after 20 years in practice, the number increases from 18 percent to 25 percent.

These statistics are very grim.

And attorney culture helps feed these figures.  For example, the significant stress and heavy workloads attorneys face throughout their careers can, without other intervention, cause them to turn to substances for comfort.  Also, the weight of the issues that many attorneys deal with – including heinous crimes and civil injustices – can cause them to burn out quickly and seek illicit substances to mitigate the stress.

But attorneys do not just use alcohol to drown their sorrows; they also turn to it in times of celebration.  In fact, social drinking in the work place is often encouraged by way of networking events and victory dinners with cocktails and wine on the menu.

Further, and quite understandably, there is a direct correlation between an attorney’s substance abuse and her likelihood to be brought to the Bar for attorney misconduct.  The American Bar Association has reported that 27 percent of attorney discipline cases involve alcohol misuse by attorneys.  After all, Rule 1.16(2) of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct expressly prohibits a lawyer from representing a client if “the lawyer’s physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client.”  Individuals suffering from substance abuse are likely sufficiently impaired to trigger this rule, any may find themselves in trouble for violating it.

Fortunately, the Bar is on notice of the alarming level of substance abuse in the legal profession, as evidenced by the ABA’s adoption of Resolution no. 105 that “supports the goal of reducing mental health and substance abuse disorders and improving the well-being of lawyers, judges and law students.”  The resolution’s report details research on this topic, and offers recommendations to help the legal community tackle the problem.

The ABA also offers a list of various resources to help lawyers dealing with substance abuse.  You can access those resources here.  If your local lawyer assistance program is not listed, be sure to call your bar association directly for information on how to get help for yourself or others.

Now – go forth and be ethical!

–  EE

*Disclaimer: This blog is satirical in nature and, though it aims to provide helpful guidance regarding professional responsibility dilemmas, it is not intended to offer legal advice.

Next month, Ethical Esquire will offer tips on avoiding ethical concerns when transitioning from one job to another.


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