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The Profession Needs to Do More to Help Our Members Suffering From Depression and Substance Abuse

Last year I posted a blog article[1] about alcohol abuse in the legal profession, in response to a study that appeared in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.[2] The lead author was Patrick Krill, who is an attorney and Board Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor and is the Director of the Legal Professionals Program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. That study revealed that between 21% and 36% of U.S. lawyers drink at levels consistent with an alcohol abuse disorder. Those figures are roughly 3 to 5 times higher than the forecast for the general population in the United States.

Depression is equally problematic as it now impacts one out of every four lawyers in the country. Depression begins in law school. The 2014 Survey of Law Student Well Being[3] found that:

  • 17.4% of survey respondents screen positive for depression;
  • 20.4% have thought seriously about suicide in their lifetime; and
  • 6.3% have thought seriously about suicide in the last 12 months.

It doesn’t get better after admission. The Krill survey of 13,000 attorneys[4] concluded that “depression, anxiety, and stress are … significant problems” in the profession, and that their research reveals “a concerning amount of behavioral health problems among attorneys in the United States.” Their findings were:

  • 28% of respondents reported experiencing depression;
  • 19% of respondents reported experiencing anxiety; and
  • 23% of respondents reported experiencing stress.

On August 14, 2017, the ABA released The Path to Lawyer Well Being Report.[5] The Report opened with this criticism of our profession:

For too long, the legal profession has turned a blind eye to widespread health problems. Many in the legal profession have behaved, at best, as if their colleagues’ well-being is none of their business. At worst, some appear to believe that supporting well-being will harm professional success. Many also appear to believe that lawyers’ health problems are solely attributable to their own personal failings for which they are solely responsible.[6]

The report further commented upon the attorney discipline process; emphasizing that alternatives to discipline, such as diversion and probationary status, serve the profession better:

Discipline does not make an ill lawyer well. We recommend that regulators adopt alternatives to formal disciplinary proceedings that rehabilitate lawyers with impairments. In addition, probation programs also promote wellness. Lawyer misconduct that warrants a suspension of a lawyer’s license may, under certain circumstances, qualify for probation. In most jurisdictions, the probation period stays the license suspension, and lawyers may continue practicing under the supervision and specified conditions that include training, testing, monitoring, and treatment. Once again, this places a lawyer facing a mental health or substance use crisis on the path to better client service and a lifetime of greater well-being and sobriety.[7]

New York does not currently have a probationary status option, and the existing diversion process is not used as widely as it could to address this problem. The above comments confirm that disbarring or suspending a lawyer who engages in misconduct because of depression does nothing to address the real problem, which is that the practice of law is very difficult and has an adverse impact upon at least 25% of our professional brethren.  

While I am not qualified to offer suggestions as to how to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress, my almost 30 years practicing exclusively in the attorney disciplinary field have taught me that the current disciplinary scheme in New York is outmoded when it comes to impaired attorneys. I offer that we as a profession must urge the courts to grant more impaired lawyers facing disciplinary proceedings diversion to a supervised Lawyers Assistant Program instead of being suspended on an interim basis while awaiting a hearing. Further, we need to develop disciplinary alternatives to suspension and disbarment where the Appellate Division determines an attorney has engaged in misconduct because of impairment. 

[1] Alcohol Abuse by Lawyers Is a Major Problem in the Legal Profession (2/12/16).

[2] 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: February 2016 – Volume 10 – Issue 1 – p 46–52.

[3] ABA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Toolkit for Law Students; Feb 10, 2015.

[4] The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys; supra.

[5]  The Path to Lawyer Well Being Report.

[6] Id at 12.

[7] Id at 29.