Law students are prone to substance abuse.

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Although law school can be stressful, don’t let alcohol or drugs become your crutch.

It is well-documented that substance abuse is a common problem among lawyers. A 2016 Study on Lawyer Impairment (SLI), which surveyed almost 15,000 judges and lawyers in nineteen states, found that:

  • 33% of respondents had a drinking problem, compared to 6% in the general population.
  • 3% of respondents had used stimulants or sedatives within the 12 months prior to receiving the survey.
  • 6% of respondents had taken opioids within the 12 months prior to receiving the survey.
  • Although the SLI raised alarm, it didn’t answer an important question:
  • Are law students or practicing lawyers more likely to abuse substances than they are?
  • Students of law are more likely to abuse substances than ever

While lawyers have been subject to a lot of attention for their substance abuse, law students are not receiving the same attention. It appears that this issue has been the subject of only one empirical multi-school study.

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The survey was conducted in spring 2014 by 15 law schools. It examined alcohol, drug and mental health among law students. Survey of Law Student Well-Being (SLSWB) was officially titled this survey and was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.

The SLSWB discovered alarming similarities in the use of drugs among practicing lawyers and law students. The SLSWB discovered that:

  • 53% of students drank at least once in the 30 days following receipt of the survey.
  • 43% of students binge-drank within 14 days after receiving the survey
  • 3% of students missed class because they had been drinking, and 13.9% believed that they might have been alcoholics.
  • 14% of students took prescription drugs without a prescription within 12 month of receiving the survey
  • 25% of respondents used marijuana within 12 month of the survey’s completion.
  • Within 12 months of the survey, 6% of students had used cocaine.

The Journal of Legal Education published data that showed that law students are more likely to abuse substances than students in other disciplines. For example, 53% of law students were found to have been drunk within the last 30 days, but only 39% of other graduate students did the same.

It’s important to note that many writers argue that the reported percentages may be lower than the actual percentages. This could be because law students with drug or alcohol use issues might not have responded honestly to the SLSWB, which asked a lot of intrusive questions that included illegal conduct.

Why are so many law students abusing alcohol and drugs?

Many factors are often cited by researchers to explain why substance abuse is so prevalent among lawyers. Patrick Krill, an attorney who is also executive at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation explained:

Many of the same stressors and characteristics that lawyers have are common to law students. Law students are competitive, self-reliant and highly motivated. The SLSWB found that academic performance was the main reason for prescribing stimulants.

The SLSWB identified the following reasons for drug abuse:

  • Concentrate better when studying (67%)
  • To increase alertness and allow you to study for longer periods of time (64%)
  • To improve academic performance (49%)
  • To increase alertness and productivity (46%)
  • Concentrate better while working (45%).
  • To counter any competitive advantage other students may have due to the use of stimulants (20%)

Combining the desire to be a successful academic and the long hours spent studying creates a lot of pressure comparable to the stress experienced by lawyers. Perhaps it’s not surprising that law students and lawyers experience the same levels of anxiety and depression.

SLI also discovered that 28% of lawyers had symptoms of depression, and 19% suffered from anxiety. More than 17% of law student were positive for depression, while 37% had positive screenings for anxiety. Harvard Law School and ABA also conducted studies that found similar, and in some cases even higher, rates of anxiety and depression among law students.

Doctor Indra Cidambi is a pioneering expert in the field and perhaps the best description of the precarious situation of law students.

What are the signs you should be looking for?

Law faculty, staff and law students must be able recognize when students are abusing drugs or alcohol. This is a serious problem. Here are the signs of dependency that the ABA recommends you look out for:

  • Behavior changes (the student arrives late or leaves early)
  • Changes in the work product (students decrease production or their work quality suffers).
  • Isolation: The student ceases attending functions or communicating directly with peers.
  • Noticable mood changes in irritability and apathy
  • Students may arrive at school with alcohol odors in later stages of alcohol addition.
  • The student will not answer the question if they have any problems or insist that nothing has changed.

These signs are especially important because law students often resist seeking help. To this end, many of the same factors that play a role in law students abusing alcohol or drugs–namely, self-reliance and competitiveness–cause law students to avoid seeking help.

The SLSWB discovered that law students are reluctant to accept help because of the following reasons.

  • Threat to bar admission (63%)
  • Threat to academic or job status (62%)
  • Social stigma (43%)
  • Privacy concerns (43%)
  • Financial reasons (41%)
  • Believe that they can handle the problem (39%)
  • 36%) Not having enough time

These warning signs can help you determine if your alcohol consumption is bordering on addiction or dependency.

  • You are unable to limit how much alcohol you consume
  • Feeling a strong desire or compulsion for alcohol
  • Tolerating alcohol in excess so you can feel its effects more often
  • Drinking can lead to legal problems, problems in relationships, finances, and employment.

Drinking in private or alone

  • When you stop drinking, you may experience physical withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, nausea, sweating, or shaking.
  • Sometimes referred to by “blacking out”, the inability to remember conversations and commitments.
  • Establishing a ritual of drinking at specific times, and getting annoyed when the ritual is interrupted or questioned.
  • You are losing interest in hobbies and activities that once brought you joy
  • Irritability, particularly if you don’t have alcohol available.
  • Keep alcohol out of reach at work, at home and in your car.
  • Drinking to feel normal, drinking, or ordering doubles.

What now?

Experts have suggested solutions to reduce substance abuse in lawyers. Many of these solutions can also be modified to make them more applicable to law students.

Let’s take a look at three common ways to curb attorney substance abuse.

First, many attorneys cite the state bars’ lawyer assistance programs as a place they can go for confidential help with drug and alcohol problems. Many of these services are free or very affordable for law students. Here is a link to help law students locate the nearest lawyer assistance program.

Advocates encourage law firms and other employment places to establish detection and intervention protocols and take steps to destigmatize those seeking help. Law schools should lead the charge in addressing substance abuse among students. Law schools have the opportunity to use Law School Mental Health Day (10/10/10) to sponsor events and educational programs that break down stigmatization of anxiety and depression among students.