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Alcohol Abuse by Lawyers Is a Major Problem in the Legal Profession

Alcohol Abuse by Lawyers Is a Major Problem in the Legal Profession

Recently, CNN published an article focusing on alcohol usage in the legal profession, authored by Patrick Krill Esq., the lead author of an important study that appeared in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. Mr. Krill is an attorney, board-certified alcohol, and drug counselor who is the director of the Legal Professionals Program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.   

This study revealed that between 21% and 36% of attorneys “drink at levels consistent with an alcohol abuse disorder,” which is roughly “3-5 times higher than the government estimates for … the general population.”

As a grievance defense attorney and a frequent author and lecturer on attorney misconduct, I have long taken the position that substance abuse is one of the great threats to lawyers and the profession. Depression and stress-based disorders are the others. Only recently are these problems getting the recognition they deserve.  

In my practice, which is limited to representing and advising lawyers, I estimate that approximately 40% to 50% of my clients charged with serious professional misconduct require treatment for depression, anxiety, and/or stress. All too often, I see lawyers suffering from emotional issues, who are self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. This is the most harmful scenario and, unfortunately, by the time they get to our offices and seek help, the professional damage has already occurred.   

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Krill that the profession must act with commitment and resolve to address this widespread problem. I also see this as a systemic problem that must be addressed by all aspects of the profession. While I applaud the work being done by the local and NYSBA lawyer’s assistance programs, they usually do not get the opportunity to help until after the lawyer has gotten into ethical or criminal trouble. I am also pleased that the New York Appellate Divisions are finally expanding the Diversion Rule to encompass substance abuse as well as any other physical or emotional health issue. The Rule now reflects the true scope of impairments affecting lawyers.  

However, I would go one step further and amplify Mr. Krill’s sentiments that law schools need to be part of the solution. I believe that law schools must take the lead in addressing these problems. Law schools must acknowledge that lawyers are under incredible strain, regardless of the level at which they practice. Law schools must begin preparing students for being lawyers, and all that being a lawyer today entails. I believe this requires, at a minimum, a practical ethics course to supplement the limited single course most schools offer. It also requires the development of programs to educate students on the risks to their emotional and physical health if they fail to maintain some balance in their lives while meeting the demands of their careers. So, too, must they be made aware of the early warning signs of depression, overwhelming anxiety, and addictive behavior so they can seek assistance before they make critically bad decisions that can derail their health, life, and their career. This will also allow them to see the early warning signs in colleagues and help others.  

Having taught as an adjunct professor, and having discussed the need for practical programs aimed at avoiding professional misconduct and dealing with the realities of practicing law today with many law school administrators, it is my belief that law schools fail to understand the realities of practicing law and are not properly preparing students for the real world of law and dealing with the ever-present stressors and pitfalls of practice today.