Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Depression, Alcoholism,, and the Profession of Law

I wrote this last night, but did not have time to post... so posting on my break.  So food for thought:

How much have you thought about depression and alcoholism, maybe even addition?  Start thinking about it now.  If you are reading my blog and attending law school, or about to—become educated.  The statistics are startling and something I had not thought about until about my 3rd year of law school, when I began to see the effects of both on my peers, professors, and practicing attorney’s I knew.  So let’s take a look at them.
By the end of the first year of law school, 32% of students are suffering from depression.  By the end of the 3rd year, 45%.  A year out of law school, 17% are still under a deep depressive influence.  Lawyers are 4 times more likely to suffer from depression.  There are 1 million practicing attorneys in the US, and 25% of those suffer from depression!  Only 60% of these actually are seeking help (this information was studied in a John Hopkins study in the 90’s).  Also, lawyers are 2 times more likely to commit suicide than the average population.

Alcoholism is common in this profession….  In a survey taken by the ABA 13% of those who responded said they drink 6 or more drinks a day.  Out of bar disciplines in the state of California, 25% deal with substance abuse issues.  According to several studies, alcoholism accounts for 95% of addiction problems in lawyers and judges.  And no wonder.  As a student, you learn very quickly at school sponsored events and networking opportunities that wine, beer, and hard liquor is easily available.  At my school’s events involving alumni, there was always a wine and beer bar – free to all attendees.  

In the average population, 10% of adults suffer from alcoholism.  In the legal profession 1 in 5 attorneys’, that’s 20%, have a problem with alcohol.  What is it that drives attorneys to drink?  I refuse to believe that it is because our jobs are more stressful.  I think that is a cop out.  I worked in a high stress job before…. Stress is subjective to the individual.  Someone who is a greeter at Wal-Mart could experience, to them, the same amount of stress as a defense attorney who is responsible for keeping their client off death row.
What is interesting is the same ABA survey showed that 90% of those professionals who suffered, they are high functioning alcoholics.  Meaning that they may not drink every day, but they binge.  Or if they do drink every day, they are able to function without few people realizing what a huge problem alcohol is in their lives.  They hide it and hide it well.  They may show up to hearings after a few drinks, but no one notices.  They may come to work after a drink to get them going in the morning, and then advise their clients.  They fly under the radar for many reasons.  While both those examples are possible bar discipline, many lawyers do not report each other – why?  Because how do you really know whether another person is impaired or not?  And reporting someone could have dire consequences for that person.

So how do you guard against this?  What I think it comes down to is how do you fill the void in your life?  How do you deal with the life changes that your profession forces on you?  Think about this.  You know, or soon will know, how law school changes a person.  You view the world in such a different way after law school.  Then comes the practice of law.  I would love to see if there is disparity in the percentages based on what type of law that a person practices.  I will tell you, when I worked in the DOJ, it was difficult to turn my brain off at night.  I had images of pictures of children severely abused, of autopsy reports, of psych reports, of crime scene photos, of interviews with children abused – I saw the filth of society DAILY.  Now, I hear the pain of a person whose life is being disassembled right before their eyes.  They are injured, can’t get care, and are not being paid – several of my clients rack up debt that leaves them destitute before we are able to get financial relief and time loss pay for them.  I hear their desperation.  One man, not long ago, talked about committing suicide as a way out.  This takes a toll on a person.

Why?  I have alluded to the Sacred Trust a few times, and have promised a piece on it.  I am getting there, but having problems placing into words, what it truly is.  But this is a small part of the issue.  Good lawyers empathize, care, and truly want to work towards a solution for their clients.  They see the pain, and realize that it is their duty, their responsibility, a part of the trust handed down to them, to protect those more vulnerable in society.

How to do you avoid going down the depression and addiction path?  I have to say it’s not easy.  Depression is serious.  Addiction can be deadly.  Both could cost you a career.  But you have to make some decisions now on how you will handle it.  First, learn to turn off work as soon as you leave the office.  This is critical!  I learned to do this at the DOJ after a few months.  Leave work at work.  Don’t take it home with you.  How to develop a thick skin, I don’t know.  It’s different for each person.  But do it.  Second, be willing to get help.  That’s right.  Don’t let your ego get in the way, and let’s face it, lawyers and law students have healthy egos.  Most law schools have counseling centers – use it.  It’s confidential.  If you are an attorney, be willing to go to a professional. You would not want someone to go pro se for a murder charge would you?  No that would be insane.  They need a professional.  Recognize that someday you might need one to.  And don’t be too proud to seek one out.  Third, know your limitations -- and stick to them.  Does depression and alcoholism run in your family?  Then know you are more likely to suffer from both.  Be proactive.  Seek help for depression and maybe do not drink.  As someone whose family has alcoholics on both sides, I rarely drink.  Rarely.  And when I do, I tend to stop after one.  Set limits for yourself.

Finally, find your center – that place that fills that void that we all have in life.  I think this is probably where alcoholics fall.  As humans, we each have this need, sometimes a void in our lives.  We fill it with many things.  It is where we look in times of stress; it is the well from which we pull when life gets hard.  For me, I look to my faith, to God to get through it.  I believe that those that struggle with addiction are really just searching for a way to fill the void with something, to help make them forget, to numb what they feel.  I pray.  Do I fail sometimes and lose sight?  Yeah, I do and I have.  That’s when it is important to have a strong support system who can remind you of the truth of things.  To hold you accountable.  To tell you when you are becoming jaded, cynical, hard and ugly.

My point is to raise awareness of what a problem depression and addiction is.  Be aware and make a plan on how to deal with both if it begins to hit you.


  1. Great advice. I think about this a lot. I'm pursuing this career for self-fulfillment, yet I realize how possible it is to be a miserable lawyer. I want to help people, but working with people who are up against the wall every day can be disheartening. A lot to consider..

  2. RB: I believe that law is a calling. If you feel that this is your purpose in life, that to do anything else would be cheating yourself, that a lot of the struggle will not be so hard. For me, I know that I have been called to this profession. I have no doubt. This is what I focus on.