Helping Lawyers with Alcoholism and Addiction

Help for Addicted Lawyers

Long hours, a frantic pace, a competitive environment and pressure to succeed can contribute to making the job of a lawyer extremely stressful. Research shows that lawyers struggle with depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders such as drug and alcohol addiction at higher rates than other professions.

Despite the well-known toll that working in a high-intensity, demanding field can take, lawyers are typically unwilling to admit when they were struggling, said Buddy Stockwell, who is also a lawyer and the executive director of the Louisiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP).

According to Stockwell, the stigma and fear associated with seeking help for mental health and substance use issues are especially problematic for lawyers.

“We are trained in law school very early on to never surrender. That’s a huge barrier to seeking help. Lawyers do not want to give up and do not want to appear incapable of handling problems themselves,” Stockwell said. “And of course, there is the tremendous fear that if anyone finds out that you have a substance abuse problem, even if it’s successfully treated, it will somehow get you fired, get you into trouble with the disciplinary board, and have your peers whispering about you around the water cooler. The fear is that somehow it may be used against you.”

To encourage lawyers struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health disorders to proactively seek help, the Louisiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program facilitates totally confidential assessments, referrals and ongoing support to help attorneys remain substance free. As part of the effort, Louisiana JLAP partners with select addiction treatment centers, including Positive Sobriety Institute in Chicago, that have outstanding reputations for treating professionals in safety-sensitive, high-consequence fields.

“To have a partner like Buddy Stockwell at the Louisiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program is really a gift,” said Positive Sobriety Institute Medical Director Dr. Dan Angres. “Because of that partnership, we’re going to see better outcomes. When you combine treatment and monitoring with the ability to collaborate over the long-term, everybody benefits, especially the patient.”

Studies Reveal Lawyers’ Struggles

A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that 28% of lawyers show symptoms of depression and 19% suffer from anxiety. Worse, the stress and mental health struggles may be driving many attorneys to drink and use drugs.

The same study, which surveyed nearly 13,000 licensed, working attorneys, found that 21% demonstrated problem drinking, as defined by a well-accepted tool used to measure alcohol use disorders. Alcohol abuse is even more common among lawyers under age 30 – nearly 32% show signs of being problem drinkers or having an alcohol use disorder.

Smaller but substantial numbers of attorneys also admitted to using a variety of illegal and prescription drugs during the past year. Drugs included stimulants (5%), sedatives (16%), tobacco (17%), marijuana (10%), opioids (6%) and cocaine (1%). Many of those who used these drugs used them on a weekly basis.

Traditionally, lawyers struggling with their mental health or substance abuse disorders did their best to keep the conditions hidden and suffered in silence. Only when alcohol and drug use got out of control and attorneys got caught using on the job, displayed erratic behavior, incurred substance use-related arrests, or could no longer perform their legal duties, did they come to the attention of their employer or disciplinary boards. Then, the matter either became grounds for the attorney being fired or subject to disciplinary action, up to and including loss of a license to practice law.

Those attitudes are starting to change. Almost every state has a lawyers’ assistance program with the mission of promoting wellness and helping attorneys struggling with substance abuse, mental health or behavioral disorders to get into treatment, achieve sobriety and recover.

“We’ve come a long, long way. The Louisiana Supreme Court, the Louisiana Disciplinary Board, the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel, and the Louisiana State Bar Association acknowledge that mental health disorders and substance abuse disorders are health issues that can be successfully treated and overcome in many cases. People in solid recovery often make excellent lawyers.”

Combatting the Stigma of Addiction Rehab

Even so, up until a few years ago, most lawyers and judges who sought help from JLAP were referred by discipline as the result of client complaints, erratic behavior or other allegations of unethical or improper conduct, Stockwell said.

He and his team have worked hard in recent years to encourage lawyers and judges to seek help confidentially before addiction gets out of hand and their job or license is in jeopardy, and it has paid off. Today, the majority of JLAP’s clients come in voluntarily. “There is a positive movement going on quietly and confidentially behind the scenes. What’s happening is that people who have received totally confidential help from JLAP share that information with people close to them, and the word spreads at the grassroots level. They’ll say to a friend in need: ‘Call the JLAP folks. They discretely helped my family. It saved our lives.’”

But it is still a challenge. Lawyers struggling with addiction also often think they can handle the problem on their own. “It’s the whole addictive profile. They think, ‘I’ll get this under control next week.’ But it doesn’t happen. It gets worse and worse. We want this person to reach out to us before the consequences get so bad that it causes irreparable harm to them physically, to their family, and to their career.”

“We’ll tell them, ‘If you come in today and take the JLAP off-ramp from the addiction interstate, it’s going to be the best thing you ever did. But if you pass JLAP by today, God only knows what may happen tomorrow. You might kill yourself or someone else in a DUI. You might get arrested with illegal substances. You might get fired from your job or lose your law license.’ The list is long as to what can happen if you postpone seeking help.”

Modeled After Physicians’ Health Programs

To ensure the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program provides attorneys, law students, judges and family members the best chances of long-term recovery, Stockwell and his team modeled their program after physicians’ health programs.

Physicians’ health programs provide assessment, treatment and monitoring for physicians addicted to alcohol and drugs. Published studies put the rate of five-year abstinence at 80% and higher. This is much higher than abstinence rates for the general population. By focusing on treatment and not punishment, physicians health programs have allowed many doctors and healthcare workers from all types of specialties to regain control over addiction and retain their license to practice medicine.

JLAP is showing success rates that are as high or even higher than physicians’ health programs. In the last two years, JLAP’s monitoring population of 120 participants on average enjoyed 94% and 97% no-relapse abstinence rates respectively.

The similarities between JLAP and physicians’ health programs mean that there are no short cuts or quick fixes. When attorneys with serious substance use histories enter JLAP, on a case-by-case basis they are referred to a multidisciplinary assessment to determine the severity of any substance use issues and also detect any co-occurring disorders impacting their behavior and mental health. If treatment is indicated, JLAP refers the person to highly skilled JLAP-approved facilities such as Positive Sobriety Institute where top-level medical experts provide the type of specialized treatment that is required by professionals in safety-sensitive, high-consequence fields.

Positive Sobriety Institute is led by Dr. Angres, an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, Dr. Angres is nationally known for his work in substance abuse treatment and physicians’ health programs. Positive Sobriety Institute’s multidisciplinary team also includes addiction psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and therapists who are experienced with diagnosing and treating a wide range of substance abuse and mental health disorders.

“At JLAP, we match our clients with highly skilled medical teams and remain in partnership with the medical team through the entire diagnostic and treatment process,” Stockwell said.

After treatment, JLAP monitors the person for five years minimum. Monitoring includes drug screenings, as well as recovery meetings, meetings with a JLAP-trained peer-support monitor, and regular contact with JLAP’s professional clinical staff.  “We make sure they’re genuinely in recovery, which is more than just abstinence,” Stockwell said. “We want them to become ensconced in the fabric of the recovery community and make the transition into a stable lifestyle that supports lifelong, quality recovery without relapse.” 

Despite making strides in combating the stigma of addiction, Stockwell says there is still much work to be done.

“As lawyers, we need to change our culture and make it cool to seek help when it’s needed. If you need to go to rehab, it doesn’t mean you’re not a fierce trial lawyer; it means you’re a fierce trial lawyer who is also courageous and smart enough to call JLAP and engage in appropriate self-care.”

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