Managing Pre-Law Stress: Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Alcohol and substance abuse are serious problems for lawyers. As many as 1 in 5 lawyers is an alcoholic or addict. A significant percentage of lawyer discipline cases—as much as a third or more, in just about every state—involves problems related to addiction (those client funds can look pretty tempting when you need a fix). So it’s really no joking matter.

Why is there such a high prevalence of substance and alcohol abuse among lawyers? The number one reason is stress. Alcohol can help you take the edge off. Stimulants can help you get all that work done.

But there are also a couple of more reasons that have to do with lawyer culture, a culture developed and fostered in law school. Element number one of that culture is the “work hard, party hard” ethic.  Instead of using any precious time off to pursue healthy adventures, law students (and then lawyers) often find themselves drinking. A lot. And because everyone else is drinking too, it seems normal. Not a problem at all. In fact, in law firm culture, it is often expected, as a part of the networking necessary to be a successful attorney.

Element number two of this culture is the dispassion bred into law students and lawyers. Part of “thinking like a lawyer” is learning to bracket one’s emotions in order to more objectively analyze the situation at hand. That bracketing is useful to a great extent, but it also breeds a culture in which emotion is derided and disdained. Lawyers aren’t supposed to have emotions, the thinking goes, and therefore if you do, you better drown them with alcohol or drugs.

If you suspect you might have a drinking or drug problem already—if friends tell you they’re worried, if it runs in your family, if this page is making you angry or anxious—then you’d be wise to begin addressing it now, before you take on the added stresses of law school and lawyering. Before the lawyer culture takes hold of your addictions and feeds into it day after day. It’s so much harder to stop when you’re immersed in a world that is unhealthily encouraging you to keep going.

There are resources on campus for current students dealing with alcohol or drug issues.  State bar associations also sponsor resources for law students and attorneys, like Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in Massachusetts.

Other resources for managing stress