New Study Reveals Insights into Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse Among Attorneys in Private Practice

by Mary Kate Sheridan | September 17, 2018

  • My Vault
Sad businessman

Lurking in the shadows of the offices of many successful law firms is a weight dragging down many of their attorneys: behavioral health issues and substance abuse disorders. And one of the biggest problems is that these issues should not be in the shadows.

The American Bar Association recently launched a campaign through the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession to dedicate more awareness and resources to these concerns. Specifically, the campaign aims to “raise awareness, facilitate a reduction in the incidence of problematic substance-use and mental health distress and improve lawyer well-being” through a seven-point pledge for law firms.

Soberingly, a 2016 study by the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that of 13,000 practicing attorneys surveyed, “between 21 and 36 percent qualify as problem drinkers, and that approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.”

The same study found that the highest rates of problem drinking and depression occurred among more junior attorneys and those in private practice. With 75 percent of attorneys in private practice according to the ABA’s research on lawyer demographics in 2016, this data is particularly relevant.

An important new study provides a glimpse into behavioral health and substance abuse among attorneys in private practice. ALM Intelligence and Patrick Krill—an attorney and licensed and board certified alcohol and drug counselor—joined forces to uncover the perception of these issues among the Am Law 200.

Among the findings of the survey:

  • 90 percent of respondent firms agree or strongly agree that alcohol abuse occurs in the firm,
  • 48 percent agree or strongly agree that drug abuse occurs in the firm,
  • 86 percent agree or strongly agree that depression occurs in the firm, and
  • 93 percent agree or strongly agree that anxiety occurs in the firm.

A positive note from the survey is that firms are enacting measures to provide support and assistance for those dealing with behavioral health and substance abuse issues, including drug and alcohol policies, support for self referrals, employee training, and educational programs.

On the flipside, Krill notes that “these responses suggest that even firms with some of the key ingredients in place have room for improvement in their efforts to address and prevent behavioral health problems, and that more can be done to achieve better results.”

Also interesting is that only 15 percent of AmLaw 200 firms responded to the survey. Krill suggests that this low response rate may be a window into the legal industry’s culture of treating these issues as “taboo.”

Perhaps firms are so tight lipped because of what the survey found to be the biggest perceived impact of substance abuse and mental health problems: threat or damage to clients. Whatever the reason, this increased focus on mental health and substance abuse in the legal profession is welcome and much needed.

If you’re interested in reading more about this survey, Krill will be releasing additional columns over the coming weeks on the findings.

Filed Under: Law | Workplace Issues

Tags: Biglaw | Law firms | lawyer behavioral health | lawyer mental health | lawyer substance abuse

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