Shocking number of depressed and alcoholic attorneys

A shocking research report in the February 2016 issue of Journal of Addictive Medicine reports that lawyers in the U.S. have a rate of alcoholism and depression three times higher than the overall population. 1 in 5 attorneys would meet the traditional definition of “alcoholic” and 28% self-report that they are suffering from depression. The report was based on a survey of 12,821 attorneys in a screening called the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test developed by the World Health Organization. The highest rate of alcoholism was found in younger male attorneys working for private firms. The survey also collected data on drug use by attorneys but no statistically valid results were reported from the study.

There seems to be a widespread public opinion that substance abuse is prevalent among attorneys but there has previously been little statistical data to validate this belief. In my own anecdotal experience, I find many examples of otherwise unexplained behavior by attorneys in my business and personal life:

  • One otherwise apparently successful attorney was caught lying to two separate judges in two different courts to protect a client. He now has to face pending disciplinary investigation and eventual civil charges that could end his career.
  • Another attorney failed to meet a filing deadline in a major case that cost the firm a six figure fee and cost the client even more in lost settlement.
  • At my last meeting with our county prosecutor, she admitted that her staff “dropped the ball” with a series of errors that allowed an indicted defendant to walk free.
  • In some matters I feel like I am continually reminding the attorney of the passage of time, immediate deadlines and sometimes even legal issues that I presume they should know already. Yet is is clear that apart from my coaching, the case would be stalled.

Of course there is no way to know if any of these are related to substance abuse or depression. I sometimes have suspicions. The unfortunate reality is that there is likely little that clients can do to protect themselves from under-performing attorneys.  We can presume that an under-performing attorney has a good excuse for the way things worked out. The best advice I can give myself is that if the attorney has unexpected behavior or performance, cut ties and move on rather than stay and see how things level out in the future.

I have jokingly said to clients that you meed a lawyer to talk to your lawyer. Yet the concept may hold some validity in that I notice that the frequency of problems originating from the attorney tends to be lower when a three-way team of accountant, layer and client are involved in a matter together.


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