It turns out healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, etc.) are not the only professionals facing unique challenges regarding issues of substance use and finding appropriate sources for recovery from addiction. Lawyers and other legal professionals, too, have been shown to be a high-risk group for substance use disorders. Fortunately, though, treatment programs that focus on those in legal occupations have risen in popularity among addiction treatment providers.
The first question to address is: Is there any distinction in the prevalence of substance abuse between legal professionals and the general population? The answer is yes.
In two separate national surveys of professionals, those in legal professions were shown to have higher rates of “problematic drinking behaviors” than other professionals. In fact, a 2016 study found that more than 1/3rd (36.4%) of respondents—all of whom were lawyers and other law professionals—had scores on the Alcohol Disorders Identification Test (version C: AUDIT-C) indicating problematic drinking. This finding stands in stark contrast to the 15.4% of surgeons who recorded the same outcomes on the same test (i.e., less than half).
In another set of studies, the rates of problematic drinking for women in legal professions was markedly higher than it was for women in the general population, based on the same AUDIT-C test used in the research mentioned above): 39.5% compared to 19%.
The problem of “heavy drinking” among lawyers was determined in another study to afflict 18% of those participating in the research, versus the 10% prevalence rate in the U.S.
And though virtually all populations encounter some level of the stigma surrounding having a substance use disorder (a.k.a., chemical dependency or addiction), attorneys and other legal professionals often must face unique factors that could discourage them from seeking assistance with their recovery.
One study of law students found the two most frequent barrier to seeking treatment for a substance use disorder were the “potential threat to bar admission” and the “potential threat to job or academic status.” And half of all law students in another study declared the belief that their chances of getting admitted to the bar would be better—if they indeed had a problem with alcohol or drugs—if they were to hide the problem.
Unfortunately, this same attitude grew significantly as the substance use behavior increased. Almost 3/4ths of those law students who reported three or more serious substance use behaviors in the previous two weeks (including behaviors such as two or more binge drinking episodes, use of street drugs or use of prescription drugs without a prescription) believed they were more likely to get admitted to the bar if they concealed their substance use problems, rather than seek help for such.
One more factor that can negatively affect attorneys and other legal professionals with substance use disorders is the “culture of drinking together” when networking with other legal professionals. The tendency is for a status division to arise—which can also include unequal social capital—for anyone who doesn’t drink with his or her colleagues. This can create further pressure and challenges for those who have substance use disorders to avoid seeking treatment and “just go ahead and drink,” instead.
Given the higher prevalence of substance use disorders among attorneys and other legal professionals and the unique obstacles to treatment those in the legal field have to face, specialized lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) have been developed in most every state. Their aim is to decrease the barriers to seeking treatment for substance use disorders, ensuring that confidentiality and safety from any professional, legal or political risks for each person is maximized.
Fortunately, since their inception, LAPs have been led by judges and lawyers, who can empathize with the often stressful environments and unique challenges facing legal professionals. Also, LAPS have generally established a good reputation for maintaining confidentiality for lawyers and legal professionals entering treatment, including, upon successful completion of their treatment programs, their reentering the field to continue practicing law while building a new life free from active addiction.
Treatment services specific to those in the legal field and addressing their unique professional concerns have proven successful and offer a safe, confidential avenue for legal professionals seeking recovery assistance.
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