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A landmark study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundationand the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs has shown that there are substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems in the U.S. legal profession. The results of the national survey are reported in an article published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.
The study reports that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. The study found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems. According to the study:
Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise generally consistent with alcohol use disorders at a rate much higher than other populations. These levels of problematic drinking have a strong association with both personal and professional characteristics, most notably sex, age, years in practice, position within firm, and work environment. Depression, anxiety, and stress are also significant problems for this population and most notably associated with the same personal and professional characteristics. (The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, Krill, Patrick R. JD, LLM; Johnson, Ryan MA; Albert, Linda MSSW. Journal of Addiction Medicine: January/February 2016. Vol. 10, Issue 1 at pp. 46-52.)
The lead author of the study, attorney and clinician Patrick R. Krill, was quoted describing the study as a validation of “the widely held but empirically under supported view that our profession faces truly significant challenges related to attorney well-being.” (Hazelden Betty Ford. (2016, February 3). ABA, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Release First National Study on Attorney Substance Use, Mental Health Concerns. Retrieved from here.)
According to Linda Albert, a co-author of the study, “[w]hile the numbers themselves are disheartening, the instructive value of the information is enormous and tells us that the problem is best approached from a systems perspective. All sectors of the profession will benefit from reading, understanding and utilizing this important study, and now we can better develop strategies for preventing and addressing substance use problems and mental health concerns in this population.” (Hazelden Betty Ford, 2016.)
"Any way you look at it,” Krill said, “this data is very alarming, and paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people. Attorney impairment poses risks to the struggling individuals themselves and to our communities, government, economy and society. The stakes are too high for inaction.” (Hazelden Betty Ford, 2016.)
Ultimately, a lawyer’s lack of well-being can impair his or her ability to fulfill the ethical obligation of competence. An attorney who suffers from untreated depression, for example, may lack the mental and physical initiative needed to provide prompt, diligent representation of a client.
Attorneys who suffer mental health problems, according to an ABA Task Force Report, “can struggle with even minimum competence.” (Path to Lawyer Well-Being at p. 8.) Citing professor Marjorie Sliver of the Touro Law Center in New York, the Task Force Report writes that “40 to 70 percent of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims against lawyers involve substance use or depression, and often both.” (Path to Lawyer Well-Being at p. 8 citing to M. A. Silver, Substance Abuse, Stress, Mental Health and The Legal Profession, New York State Law. Assistant Trust (2004).)
With these issues so prevalent in the legal profession, it appears incumbent upon its members to take action. Indeed, it may arise to an ethical obligation on the part of the profession's members to address the problem. ABA Model Rule 8.3 requires a "lawyer who knows that another lawyer has committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct" to "inform the appropriate professional authority." (ABA Model Rule 8.3(a).) When studies repeatedly highlight how the legal profession's members suffer from mental health and substance abuse problems, it appears that the industry can no longer ignore the problem.
“[W]e should consider the circumstances carefully and approach each situation with the utmost thoughtfulness and respect—not only for the clients, but also for the lawyers involved. When possible, help fellow lawyers exhibiting early signs of substance abuse before their ability to competently represent clients is adversely affected, either by discussing your observations with them or taking advantage of the many available resources and lawyer-assistance programs.” (A Young Lawyer’s Guide to Ethically Confronting Substance Abuse, By Rachel G. Packer.)