February 01, 2018

Midyear 2018: Panel to examine lawyer substance abuse, mental health – and solutions

The legal profession is in the midst of a crisis: substance abuse and untreated mental health issues.  Two recent surveys – law students in 2014, lawyers in 2015 – showed staggering rates of alcohol use. The survey of nearly 13,000 lawyers, conducted by the ABA with the Hazelden Betty Ford Center and released in February 2016, showed 1 in 5 lawyers are problem drinkers – double the rate of other professionals with similar education. One in 4 lawyers struggles with some level of depression, and 1 in 5 demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.

The numbers are numbing:

  • 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers
  • 28 percent struggle with some level of depression
  • 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety
  • 11.5 percent admitted to having suicidal thoughts at some time during their career
  • Younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems.

Lawyers, some of whom have battled substance abuse themselves, and other experts will convene at the Midyear Meeting in Vancouver for a panel discussion, “Houston, We Have a Problem! Substance Abuse and the Legal Profession” on Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Vancouver Convention Centre from 3-4:30 p.m. to discuss the issues, available resources and what lawyers can do in support of the profession and colleagues. The speakers are Tracy L. Kepler, director, ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, Chicago; Jeffrey R. Kuester, partner, Taylor English Duma LLP, Atlanta; and Francine D. Ward, Law Office of Francine D. Ward, Mill Valley, Calif.

The ABA’s Report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, released in August 2017, made a number of recommendations for each segment of the legal profession – law firms, law schools, bar associations, regulators, liability carriers, lawyer assistance programs and judges. The overarching goal is to remove obstacles that prevent lawyers from seeking treatment and to take small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.

ABA President Hilarie Bass created a working group to implement the recommendations in the report and will sponsor a national conference on April 25 in Washington, D.C., to address these issues. At the Midyear Meeting, the ABA House of Delegates is scheduled to vote on a resolution urging all courts, bar associations, law firms, law schools, lawyer regulation entities and liability carriers to help implement the task force recommendations.

Panelists Kuester and Ward offered their views in a Q&A on the issues the program will tackle. Kuester serves as a special assistant attorney general for the State of Georgia for intellectual property matters, was chair in 2017 of the State Bar of Georgia Lawyer Assistance Program and was also on the advisory committee for the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs in 2017. Ward, who struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism and is 38 years sober, is a member of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. She is also a member of the ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law’s Substance Abuse Committee and is the section’s opioid summit representative:

Why should society as a whole care that this is happening to lawyers?

Kuester says Lawyers are responsible for helping people navigate the complexities of our legal systems, “so society will suffer as the overall judgment of lawyers is impaired, particularly if the problem is ignored since it can be difficult for clients to otherwise detect.”

Ward says we should care because impaired lawyers make decisions that affect society. “They affect people’s lives, their finances, their families, businesses. When we are unhealthy as a group of people, we make unhealthy choices. And I think, depending on the severity of the problem, they steal money by comingling funds. They charge for services that they never performed. So, when a lawyer is impaired it affects everything.”

Nearly one-third of lawyers deal with some level of depression. What are the top three contributors to that?

Kuester says there is a perception that unhappy and worried lawyers often make better lawyers. “Some law firm cultures may unknowingly encourage these attitudes,” he says. “Lawyers also often go into large amounts of debt that create additional pressures to work more hours, creating even more stress.  Finally, depression and alcohol often go hand-in-hand, as studies have shown, and attorneys often do not realize that the “depressant” of alcohol is actually a big contributor to their depression because it is otherwise so normalized in the profession.

Ward says at the top of her list is feeling like you are a victim. “Feeling like they absolutely have no choice in their life, which is just beyond me that so many smart people get to a place where they feel they have no choice. Secondly, I think is making poor choices. And I think the third would be just not taking care of themselves. In a way, these are all kind of tied to each other because not taking care of themselves is about not protecting their boundaries and not being willing to say no in some instances.” 

Attorney Ward, you have an interesting story, having overcome drug and alcohol addiction. Will you be sharing your story during the panel discussion?

Of course, I will talk about my drug addiction and alcoholism, which all happened before I went to law school. I shouldn’t say of course, because there are many lawyers who would never talk about it. But I think that is part of the problem, too. I think for those of us who have literally changed our lives and gotten clean and sober, if we don’t talk about it, if other lawyers who are suffering don’t see that there are examples of people who can not only survive but thrive, then they think that they can’t do it.  I am also 38 years sober so I am in place where I am not afraid to share my story. Everything single thing I have done has been in sobriety. I went to law school when I was sober. I became a lawyer when I was sober.  So that’s the other reason why I’m willing to be candid.

Younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems. What’s going on that first decade of an attorney’s career that makes this the most dangerous time to be an attorney?

Kuester says he believes students come out of law school unprepared for the rigors of the profession. “The increased demands of billable hours, expectations of partners and keeping up with others in a law firm class can be extremely stressful, particularly now that email and mobile devices create a 24/7 expectation of availability, and most law schools do not prepare attorneys for these adjustments.”

Ward says she is not surprised by this statistic. “These kids come out of law school and they want to make partner, that’s their goal when they get into the firm,” she says. “They want to get paid the big bucks. So, they will do anything to realize that goal. I think going for goals are key in life, but at what cost?  If your goals are such that you’re going to actually do anything to get to that goal, then you’re going to suffer.”

What do you tell people in the profession who might be struggling with substance abuse issues but are trying to keep it under wraps?

“Talk to someone,” Kuester says.  “A famous mathematician philosopher (Ludwig Wittgenstein) once said that there is nothing more difficult than not deceiving oneself.  EAPs and LAPs have confidential resources that can provide a safe space with a truthful personality mirror that can allow genuine examination and growth.  Also, if you are considering suicide as a possible way out, please talk to someone today.”

Ward says while she is open about her own recovery, she doesn’t voluntarily approach people whom she suspects might be struggling. “But if someone approaches me about it, I say get help before it’s too late. And I can think of many of the reasons why people don’t get help. There is this issue of privacy, confidentiality. I think they are afraid that if they go for help it will become public knowledge. That if they seek help they’ll lose their job or lose their license. And I think still we live in a society where this stigma attached to those who abuse drugs and alcohol or have attempted suicide, it’s a horrible thing, yes, but it exists. But regardless of the reasons they have for not getting help, I strongly encourage people to do that.”

Have we seen progress? Are people more willing to seek help?

Kuester says he is not aware of conclusive evidence that this is true. “There is such a culture of fear and silence that we have a lot of work to do.”

“No, not really,” says Ward. “I think as time goes on and if we keep talking about it, we will see more progress. The more that lawyer bar associations, for starters, are stepping up to the plate, I think we’ll start to see more change. Or that lawyers like me who are in recovery and are willing to be a face, we’ll see more people coming forward. But it’s still a stigma and the fear of losing their privacy, their job or their license. Those are all things that get in the way.”

What do you want the audience to take away from the panel discussion?

Says Kuester: “Don’t deceive yourself. Have someone with whom you are completely honest about substance use and about how you are dealing with stress.”

Ward says for people to understand that substance abuse is a serious problem in the legal profession. “It is not a joke. It has been uncovered and it’s a serious problem. Also, that there is a causal connection between the problem and our ability to be competent. We have ethical rules that speak to competency. But if you are an impaired lawyer, you’re not competent. And finally, that help is available.”