Passing the Bar: Alcohol and Substance Abuse in Law School

By Stacy James

We all know how important it is to pass the State Bar but law students also must learn how to pass the ones that serve alcohol too. Pass by them, that is.

In 2010, The California Bar Journal and the American Bar Association (ABA) published articles listing a study done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The study found that “while about 7 percent of Americans were alcoholics, nearly 13 percent of lawyers surveyed by the ABA admitted to consuming six or more alcoholic drinks per day.” In case you were wondering, moderate drinking is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men, according to the NIAAA. In 2014, the numbers still hadn’t changed much, as those in the legal profession still reportedly abused alcohol at twice the rate of the general U.S population.

The study of law is brutal. For 3 or 4 years students have to learn the language and rules of law, learn new study habits, and focus on passing midterms and final exams. All the while, the anxiety of passing the state bar at the end of it all looms overhead. Student’s weeks are filled with all night study sessions and a demanding academic calendar. So, it is easy to understand that students may go out with friends and get drunk on weekends or during semester breaks as a means to relax or even celebrate. However, these occasions can soon turn into a daily way to escape or cope with school pressures. Anxiety over financial worries and fear of failure can also lead to depression or the use of drugs in order to cope with it all.

What law students need to know is that stress does not end once they officially enter the legal profession. And those addictive behaviors that began in law school (or in undergrad) oftentimes follow fledgling attorneys into the workplace and remain during their career. The stress of starting a new legal practice, paying back student loans, and building a prosperous career can all lead legal professionals to use alcohol and drugs. Depression is also very high within the legal field, particularly among women attorneys. The ABA reports that, “The legal profession has the 4th highest rate of suicides, and that those who are lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than those who are not.” Depression causes sadness, hopelessness, and trouble sleeping. Sometimes medication is needed to combat depression, but  if not prescribed, people may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

The website, Lawyers With Depression (, features a September, 2015 blog from a woman attorney who writes, “Acknowledging my depression for the first time during my third year of law school was as terrifying a realization as it was liberating … I would wake up in the morning in tears, yet by the afternoon I was at school, going through the motions, and relieved to just make it to the end of the day.” Since law school is where addiction and depression seem to initially become noticeable, this is the best time to make students aware and give them the skills needed to cope with these issues. Developing an healthy lifestyle of eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep are key. Also, maintaining good support systems with friends and family, as well as ties to their faith and interaction with their local community are great ways to combat isolation.

While each law student has different motivations for entering the legal profession. It is probably safe to say that one motivation they all share is the desire to be their best. Being the best can be measured by reputation, income, or impact on the communities they serve. So perhaps, the best reason and motivation for not getting “hooked” on drugs and alcohol is knowing that the quality the legal services you provide will be greatly compromised when you are impaired. Whether it is a malpractice suit for ineffective counsel, a DUI arrest or showing up late to court; students should be aware of the detrimental impact substance abuse will have on their career.

Still, reports from the ABA indicate that, “50 to 75 percent of major attorney disciplinary cases nationwide involve chemical dependency.” While the ABA Rules of Professional conduct are not binding in California, the state does look to its rules for guidance in many cases. California State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 3-110 states that, “A member shall not intentionally, recklessly, or repeatedly fail to perform legal services with competence.” For students who will be taking the bar elsewhere, those states may adhere to the ABA rules of have its own rules as well.

In an effort to deal with the problem of substance abuse the ABA has created Lawyers Assistance Programs (LAP’s) in each of the 50 states. LAP’s provide free and professional, confidential counseling for bar members, immediate family members, and law students. The goal is not to punish but to intercede and provide help before an attorney not only causes irreparable damage to his career, but to clients and the legal profession as a whole.

Stress is an unavoidable part of both law school and the legal profession. However, it is incumbent on each of us to be committed to finding healthy ways to deal with that stress. The first step is admitting that you are human, and that you need help to develop tools for stress management  such as yoga, exercise, prayer and meditation. Therapy, counseling and setting realistic work goals and boundaries can help keep stress from becoming unmanageable.  If you need help now as a law student, or know someone who does please contact your school or the LAP for California.


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