Robert B. Thornhill
Most of the attorneys I have known are hard-working, self-motivated and ambitious, and certainly intent on bringing about the best possible outcome for clients. As a class, they expend tremendous effort to be disciplined, responsible and detail-oriented. These attributes have enabled them to endure the enormous challenges of undergraduate school, law school, studying for and passing the bar and facing the rigors of practicing law as a newly-licensed attorney. Most are able to navigate these unique challenges and to find practical and healthy ways to cope with the stress of practicing law. However, recent studies have confirmed that there is also a significant proportion of lawyers who have not adjusted well to these multi-faceted challenges, and who have acquired very unhealthy coping skills and/or undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorders.
In a landmark study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in February 2016 entitled, "The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys," researchers found "rates of hazardous, harmful, and potentially dependent drinking and high rates of depression and anxiety symptoms.” Review of this important study found that 15 bar associations participated, and almost 15,000 lawyers from 19 states (Alabama was one of the states that participated) completed surveys addressing alcohol use, drug use and symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health concerns. Of these, approximately 11,300 completed a 10-question instrument known as the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AuDIT-10), which screens for levels of problematic alcohol use. Of these respondents, 21 to 36 percent revealed a score consistent with an alcohol use disorder. The study also revealed that 28 percent reported concerns with mild or high levels of depression, and 19 percent reported mild or high levels of anxiety. Overall, 23 percent reported mild or high levels of stress.1
The purpose of this article is to define and discuss these issues, propose recommendations that can result in improved lives and careers and describe the various ways that the Alabama Lawyer Assistance Program (“ALAP”) can provide effective guidance and support.
Becoming a licensed attorney is an arduous and stress-filled challenge. Once the license is obtained, a new and often unexpectedly difficult process of discovering experientially how to function as an attorney begins. For those who have found healthy ways to deal with stress, a workable and fulfilling path to a successful legal career can emerge. However, for those who have resorted to over-consumption of alcohol or other drugs, or to excessive reliance on food, sex, gambling or other forms of behavioral addictions as a means of coping with the stress of practicing law, the inevitably worsening negative consequences will become painfully evident over time. These negative consequences include formal complaints to the Office of General Counsel at the Alabama State Bar, alcohol- or drug-related arrests, other legal problems such as arrests for domestic violence or harassment, neglect of cases and responsibility to clients and colleagues, unethical use of trust fund monies and the onset of undiagnosed and untreated mental health maladies such as depression, anxiety disorder, substance use disorders and bipolar disorder. Without evaluation, accurate diagnosis and effective treatment of these issues, additional negative consequences such as loss of family, profession, health and eventually life itself are almost certain.
The Alabama Lawyer Assistance Program is designed to provide confidential...