On Well-Being

Tales of addiction: What every attorney should know about alcohol and substance abuse

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Jeena Cho

Photo courtesy of the JC Law Group

According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, 20.6 percent of lawyers screened positive for hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking. Men had a higher proportion of positive screens, as did younger participants and those working in the legal field for a shorter duration. Attorneys age 30 or younger were more likely to have a higher likelihood of harmful drinking than their older peers.

Attorneys in the first 10 years of their practice experienced the highest rates of problematic use (28.9 percent), followed by attorneys practicing for 11 to 20 years (20.6 percent), continuing to decrease slightly from 21 years or more.

Lawyers often are warned about the dangers of excessive alcohol use. But according to Bree Buchanan, director of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, “We have been trained through the culture of our profession that alcohol use is the way to celebrate wins as well as mourn losses. Alcohol is the legal profession’s sanctioned way to deal with feelings.”


One California attorney currently in outpatient treatment shared that when she was at Stanford University as an undergrad, “Being hungover was a fact of life. Everyone was doing it.”

She didn’t realize she had an issue because excessive alcohol use was socially normal. When she started law school at Georgetown University, she began using Ritalin, then Adderall. It was a shortcut: The drugs made it easier for her to keep up with her schoolwork.

After law school, she continued to use Adderall as an associate. She thought the drug was the key to her success. “Partners loved me because I was able to work late into the hours and crank out good work. I associated Adderall to producing good work product,” she says.

Eventually, the drug use caught up with her. She started missing deadlines, and people around her noticed. However, she felt the partners at her firm were also hesitant about showing empathy or concern. “As long as the billable hour is king, it’s not in their interest to ask too many questions.”

When she finally checked in to a residential treatment program for three weeks, she felt relieved. “It was the first real time off I had since I started practicing law,” she says. Surrendering her smartphone and being away from work helped her gain perspective on her life, and she began to address not only her substance abuse issues but also bipolar depression and anxiety.

Through her recovery, one of the most important lessons she learned was she was incredibly critical and demanding of herself. “It was so hard for me to be nice to myself,” she says. The journey to healing also meant taking time for self-care and learning to be kind toward herself.

A lawyer from Texas didn’t address his issues with alcohol abuse for 15 years. Even though the alcohol use interfered with sleep, personal and professional relationships and his health, he rationalized it was OK because he didn’t drink during the day. “I was always able to wait until the end of the day to drink,” he says.

When he finally sought help, he realized alcohol was a way he coped with procrastination at work. It was a way to help him deal with the mental distress the procrastination created.

“The more I procrastinated, the more I drank. Alcohol brought relief, and it made everything OK. Alcohol was a constant in my life,” he says.

He would become defensive when people told him, “You smell like alcohol.” But he knew it was true. “I was able to smell alcohol from my pores. I had to keep a 3-foot buffer zone from people. It was embarrassing. The comments weighed on me,” he says.

Even though he responded with defensiveness, he thinks those comments from his colleagues and others planted the seed that he should seek help. He realized in recovery he never gave himself a break. “I wasn’t practicing self-care; I took care of it by taking drugs,” he says. He thinks if he had taken regular mental breaks and practiced mindfulness, it would’ve helped.


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Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco.

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