Attorneys and Alcohol

A lawyer walks into a bar… While that is the title of a 2007 independent film about lawyers, law school, and the California Bar exam, it also relates to a very serious problem that has been brought to light.
Attorneys are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than any other profession or even the general population. An article in this month’s California Bar eJournal reports that one in three attorneys has an alcohol abuse problem.
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association conducted a national survey of 14,895 lawyers in 19 states (including California). The study was released last month in the Journal of Addiction Medicine[1]. Using a sample of 12,825 attorneys, 36.4 percent showed signs of alcohol abuse or dependence.
The highest rates of alcohol abuse were among young attorneys with only a few years of practice – 31.9 percent of attorneys age 30 and younger were problem drinkers, and 28.1 percent of those with less than 10 years of expereince in law had the highest rate of problems with alcohol. The graphic below demonstrates the proportion of attorneys in each age group who said they had problems with alcohol use. There were also higher reports of problem drinking for attorneys at private firms, and more men than women reported problems with alcohol abuse.
While this is the most comprehensive national research to date, it is not perfect. Participants were not random, but were recruited though e-mail blasts and news postings to state bar mailing lists and websites.  As such, there may be a voluntary response bias with the survey sample representing those who have strong opinions. Also, since surveys were anonymous and no IP addresses or geo-location data were collected, there is no way to know if individuals took the survey more than once, creating duplicate responses. In addition, 91.3 percent of the participants were Caucasian/white, so it is not an ethnically diverse sample. Regardless, the results are still alarming.
In 2004, the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs stated that “[b]ecause many lawyers and judges are overachievers who carry an enormous workload, the tendency to ‘escape’ from daily problems through the use of drugs and alcohol is prevalent in the legal community.”[2]
As pointed out in an article by Patrick R. Krill, co-author of the study discussed above,

[A]t least 25 percent of attorneys who face formal disciplinary charges from their state bar are identified as suffering from addiction or other mental illness, with substance abuse playing at least some role in 60 percent of all disciplinary cases. Furthermore, approximately 60 percent of all malpractice claims and 85 percent of all trust fund violation cases involve substance abuse.[3]

Attorneys with alcohol dependence “are substantially more likely to underserve their clients, commit malpractice, [and] face disciplinary action and disbarment.”[4]
Disciplinary actions and disbarment due to alcohol abuse are not limited to incidents that occur in the work place. Like most licensed professionals, getting a DUI can have negative impacts on an attorney’s license. However, unlike the medical profession where a single DUI will result in a disciplinary action, “[t]he California State Bar itself does not generally consider a single misdemeanor conviction for drunk driving by an active member of the bar to warrant referral for consideration of professional discipline.”[5] Nevertheless, the attorney’s suitability to practice law can be called into question “where the incident is compounded by serious injury or death or is coupled with other aggravating behavior (a high-speed chase, lack of cooperation with police, probation violation, possession of illegal drugs, etc.).”[6]
For example, even though no moral turpitude was found, the Supreme Court has approved the State Bar’s issuance of a public reproval and three years probation for nothing more than a second drunk driving conviction while on probation for the first conviction.[7] Other aggravating behavior has included frequent DUI charges, using Deputy Attorney General title to get out of a citation, or physical altercations with the police during the arrest.

[1] Krill, PR, JD, LLM, et al. “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol. 10, No. 1 January/ February 2016
[2] Soden, Richard, Toolkit History and Sources, Substance Use and Mental Health Toolkit for Law School Students and Those Who Care About Them, 2004
[3] Krill, Patrick R., If There is One Bar a Lawyer Cannot Seem to Pass: Alcoholism in the Legal Profession, The Brief, Volume 44, Number 1, Fall 2014
[4] Ibid.
[5] In re Respondent I (Review Dept., 1993) 2 Cal. State Bar Ct. Rptr. 260
[6] Ibid.
[7] In re Kelley (1990) 52 Cal.3d 487, 276 CR 375
Also, the source for the above graphic: Krill, PR, JD, LLM, et al. “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol. 10, No. 1 January/ February 2016