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Study: Future Lawyers Are Hiding Depression and Drug and Alcohol Use

Some law students fear that getting help for addiction and mental health problems will hurt their chances of becoming lawyers.

Some of America’s future lawyers are hiding drug, alcohol, and depression problems instead of seeking help, a new report shows. Law students with addiction and mental health issues may be afraid to report the problems because they think that doing so would jeopardize their chances of being admitted to the bar or getting a good job after graduating, according to the study, which was conducted by a law professor, a dean of law students, and the programming director of a nonprofit focused on lawyers' mental health. It was published last month in the Bar Examiner, an industry magazine. 

“Students who probably need to seek help are profoundly reluctant to, because they don’t perceive seeking help as being beneficial to their bar admission process,” said Jerome Organ, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and one of the report’s authors. Organ suggested that the effect of untreated addiction or depression in lawyers could affect their ability to serve clients. “If I am dealing with mental health issues that are untreated, and I am not taking care of myself, I’m probably not going to be able to take care of someone else well.”

From February to May 2014, Organ and his colleagues surveyed more than 3,300 law students from 15 law schools about their drinking, drug use, and mental health. Twenty-two percent reported binge drinking two or more times in the previous two weeks, and almost a quarter showed signs that they should undergo further testing for alcohol addiction. More than a quarter had received at least one diagnosis of “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, personality disorder, and/or substance use disorder,” the study found.  

Fourteen percent of law students said they’d used marijuana in the past 30 days, and 2.5 percent said they’d used cocaine in that time. That's higher than the results shown in a 1991 study of 3,388 students at 19 law schools, in which 8 percent  of law students reported using marijuana and 1 percent said they'd used cocaine in the previous 30 days.

Only 4 percent of would-be lawyers said they had ever relied on a health professional to deal with alcohol or drug abuse. The same pattern played out with mental health. The researchers found that 17 percent of survey takers screened positive for depression. Forty-two percent said they thought they needed support for emotional or mental problems in the past year, but only half of the people who thought they needed counseling got it.

People preferred to leave their illnesses untreated than risk not becoming a lawyer. More than 60 percent of students said they didn’t get help for their reliance on drugs or alcohol because they were worried it would affect their career prospects or their chances of getting admitted to the bar. Before they can practice law, students have to pass a “character and fitness” screening, in which officials look into their personal histories with the aim of rooting out people who are too morally compromised to serve clients. The American Bar Association says potential red flags include “drug or alcohol dependency” and “mental or emotional instability.”

Law schools have tried in recent years to convey that students will not be penalized for admitting that they’re suffering, but the report suggested that the efforts haven’t gone far enough. It is tough to counter what the study characterized as a deeply rooted culture of fear in legal education that discourages students from admitting weakness. 

“While in law school, students are getting messages indicating that seeking help may be problematic for their professional careers,” the authors wrote. “The competitive nature of law school reinforces a message that students are better off not seeking help and instead trying to handle problems on their own.”