No more room for the actively impaired attorney
Lawyer addiction rates are twice the national average
Estimates suggest that attorneys, judges, and law students struggle with addiction at roughly twice the national average; as many as one in five lawyers has an active addiction problem; and it gets worse the longer they practice. Rates are also much higher for both depression and suicide.
These are powerful and eye-opening numbers to be sure, clearly demonstrating the need for proactive efforts and resources to reduce the prevalence of active behavioral health issues in the profession. Profound consequences — both subtle and explicit — impact firms every day.
As an attorney/addiction clinician in recovery, I have worked to help solve this crisis. Addiction is a chronic disease, and law firms must confront it accordingly.
The tangible risk to the firm is documented
Despite the fact that they may be under-serving clients, losing energy and focus, becoming more erratic and less reliable, lawyers typically plow forward until the consequences become too severe to be tolerated. Often the line is crossed into malpractice and disciplinary problems:
60 percent of all disciplinary actions and 85 percent of trust fund violations are connected to addictive behavior.
Even with these risks staring them in the face, firm administrators and managing partners fail to confront problematic behavior indicative of an underlying behavioral health disease or condition. It is easy for the rest of the firm to follow suit, believing that it is not their business and quietly looking the other way. This approach has a long and entrenched history in a culture already imbued with a play-hard, work-hard ethos.
The damage to the firm of ignoring these problems is incalculable
I will write about this subject in more detail in the future, but suffice it to say that these problems predictably become worse without treatment, until the attorney and the firm suffer untold damage. Reputations are destroyed, productivity is decreased (every single day), lawyers — particularly lateral hires who often have their own existing issues — leave, retire early, or implode; clients leave; and the firm’s chemistry and investment in talent evaporates.
If it’s good enough for doctors, it’s good enough for attorneys
Most lawyers are unaware that doctors and pilots have very high success rates for recovery from addiction. Their programs are different than those for the general public, including attorneys.
- Physicians: 74 percent continuous sobriety at five years
- Pilots: 92 percent continuous sobriety at two years
Addiction is the only field of medicine where doctors receive different treatment than the general population. If the same success rates applied to cancer treatment with differential outcomes, there would be massive lawsuits — but not for addiction treatment.
These groundbreaking rates of success can inspire firms to commit to learning about these programs and how to apply the same protocols to their lawyers, staff, clients, and families.
Achieving high recovery rates for addicted attorneys
As the founder of the Hazelden Legal Professionals Program (and director until this past January), I am committed to educating firms and lawyers in order to destroy the stigma standing in the way of seeking treatment. And more importantly, implementing the physician/pilot model as the template for establishing stable recovery and return to the firm.
We can and must do a much better job of protecting our profession and those of us who serve it.