Attorney impairment is on the rise; here's how to fight back

March 17, 2016

Attorneys work long hours under intense pressure. Because stress levels are high, attorneys often look for ways to blow off steam, leading to a "work hard, play hard" motto for those in the practice of law. When months of hard work and long hours ends with a big closing or trial win, celebrating with a round of drinks (or even several) is par for the course.

There is a dark side to this issue, however, including circumstances where "letting off steam" and "celebrating a win" leads to substance abuse. Attorneys appear to be uniquely susceptible to incidence of drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm and mental illness. Experts have long pointed to evidence that attorneys are more likely to have a dependency issue or mental health issue than many other professionals.

A new study released in February by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs has revealed some troubling and serious trends. According to this study, 21 percent of working attorneys qualify as "problem drinkers," 28 percent deal with depression, and 19 percent struggle with anxiety issues.

This study, which is being called the most comprehensive of its kind, also shows that attorneys with less than 10 years' experience are the most likely to suffer these problems. Nearly 1 in 3 younger lawyers are "problem drinkers." Thus, this problem is getting worse.

This study sheds light on a dark secret in the legal industry and brings awareness to a serious issue affecting our community. The stigma surrounding these issues can sometimes make it difficult for those afflicted to ask for help or for those who observe these issues in others to take action. It is critical that other attorneys provide support and help to their colleagues dealing with these issues to create an environment that makes it easier for afflicted attorneys to obtain help and support.

Here are some tips for how to help those attorneys who need it.

Be aware of programs

Take advantage of bar-sponsored programs to seek guidance or help. Many state bar organizations, including Georgia's, provide resources to those who need help. These can include counseling or referrals.

These resources are helpful both for people struggling with matters of addiction or for those who need assistance in figuring out how to help a struggling colleague. They can also be helpful for family members who are suffering themselves and looking for ways to provide support.

People can also look beyond the state bars. Many carriers of malpractice policies have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that are designed to provide help or even coverage for treatment or other steps. Some law firms also employ internal programs or resources, or can help provide attorneys with mentors to support them on their roads to recovery.

The programs are there. Many are quite comprehensive. Being aware of what programs are available can help save someone's life.

Employ mentoring

One of the biggest bombshells from the new study is that younger attorneys are suffering higher rates of abuse and dependency. It had long been assumed that rates of alcohol or drug abuse grew the longer a person was practicing law; the hypothesis was that as attorneys grew in their career and faced additional sources of stress, they turned to alcohol or drugs to cope.

In light of this information, mentoring programs for younger attorneys—whether official or unofficial—at law firms are critical. Younger attorneys need to have channels made open to them to communicate their issues, if necessary; the same channels will help senior attorneys identify a junior attorney who may need help. Strong mentoring of junior attorneys can help provide a support system or resources.

The purpose is not to enforce a policy of teetotalism or abstinence, nor is it to try to sniff out people with dependency issues in some sort of witch hunt. Rather, the studies show that it is very difficult for people to deal with substance or other abuse issues alone, without support from those in their lives. By using mentors to provide guidance and support to young attorneys, the tide can be turned.

Meet ethical obligations to clients

Observing a person with a dependency issue, but saying nothing, does not help the afflicted person. It also could constitute a breach of obligations to clients.

This is a risk management issue. If a person's judgment is affected by inebriation or addiction, that person cannot provide a full and complete representation to a client. In cases like this, the firm or its management committee may have to step in to facilitate timely resolution of the client's matters while still providing support to the attorney.

This is not to say that confidential information regarding an attorney's struggles should be disclosed to clients. However, a firm cannot sit by and watch while a person who is struggling continues to provide legal services to a client, particularly where the substance or strength of those services are in question. The firm should try to strike a balance between respecting a person's autonomy and recognizing when the firm is not sufficiently servicing its clients.

From a very practical perspective, it could also expose the firm to claims of malpractice. That the firm had knowledge of a person's problem but did nothing to protect the attorney or the client is a damaging fact, but one that can be foreseen and averted.

Develop a healthy firm culture

Firm culture can contribute either to facilitate rampant abuse by attorneys or to a supportive environment. Indeed, firm culture—which is dictated by the attorneys at that firm—can contribute to whether attorneys feel comfortable asking for help (or whether their cries for help are recognized or demonized). Thus, firms can try to create an environment that recognizes issues of alcohol and substance abuse and encourages attorneys to seek help from and for colleagues.

Substance or alcohol abuse are issues that are plaguing the legal community, but their victims often suffer in silence. Sometimes, unfortunately, a person struggling with addiction worries about losing their job or reputation by disclosing an addiction issue to the law firm. Then, the person continues to suffer in silence, to their own detriment and to the detriment of the firm. Or, if the firm is full of "hard partiers," the attorney may be reluctant to admit a problem and seem weak.

There is no right or single path for law firms. Being aware of this issue should help firms create supportive environs for their employees who need guidance, assistance or intervention. By banding together on this issue and for our colleagues, the legal profession can beat the statistics.

Doing nothing does nothing. Doing something can save lives.