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Passing the Bar: Mobilizing Lawyers to Create a Healthier Profession


Lawyers learn stress early. They stress through three years of law school, they stress preparing for and taking the bar exam, and they stress at highly competitive jobs in law firms, corporations, and government. Stress is often part of the legal profession’s culture.

So perhaps it is no surprise that studies show a substantial proportion of lawyers and law students suffer from substance use disorders (SUDs), depression, and anxiety at far higher rates than the general public and even other professionals.

In 2016, the American Bar Association (ABA) partnered with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation on a comprehensive study of the issue to determine the extent of the problem (Krill, Johnson, & Albert, 2016). The survey of nearly thirteen thousand licensed, employed lawyers found that

  • 21 percent qualify as problem drinkers—that is more than three times the rate for the general population (6 percent) and nearly double the rate for other highly educated professionals (12 percent)
  • 28 percent struggle with some level of depression
  • 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety

In part, the ABA-Hazelden study blamed the culture of the legal profession. The study’s lead author, Patrick R. Krill of Hazelden, said the study’s findings are a call to action: “Any way you look at it, this data is very alarming and paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people,” he stated (Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, 2016).

While mental health issues and substance abuse pose significant problems for lawyers and their families, they can have major consequences for clients as well. Last year in Illinois, for example, 29 percent of the 118 lawyers disciplined for misconduct had one or more problems with substance abuse or mental health, according to a report from the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission.

For many lawyers, problem drinking and mental health issues start early. The ABA-Hazelden study found that attorneys in their first decade of practice have the highest frequency of these problems. Additionally, a 2014 survey of students at fifteen American law schools published in the Journal of Legal Education found that 53 percent said they got drunk in the prior thirty days (Organ, Jaffe, & Bender, 2016). Forty-three percent acknowledged binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks.

Since the ABA-Hazelden study results were released, the ABA has launched a series of initiatives to raise awareness and reduce the incidence of problematic substance use and mental health problems.
With the goal of ensuring that every lawyer, judge, and law student has access to support when dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues, in February of 2018 the ABA’s policy-making House of Delegates recognized the magnitude of these issues and urged all law firms, law schools, and bar associations to take specific steps to solve the problem.

The ABA also created the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, which issued a report last year calling for widespread changes (Buchanan et al., 2017). The report included forty-four specific recommendations aimed at changing the culture of the legal world. It addressed every institution in the profession, including law schools, law firms, judges, bar associations, regulators, insurers, and lawyer assistance programs. Many recommendations aim to reduce the stigma that prevents so many lawyers from seeking help.

For example, the report recommends that

  • Law schools and law firms deemphasize alcohol at events
  • Law firms adopt model policies for handling lawyer impairment, including creating procedures for lawyers to seek confidential help and working with lawyer assistance programs to secure services for impaired lawyers
  • Judges monitor for impaired lawyers and develop policies to help impaired colleagues on the bench
  • Legal regulators expand continuing education requirements to include well-being topics, and narrow questions related to behavioral health history for bar applicants
  • Liability carriers collect data on when impairment is a factor in claims and create incentives for desired behaviors in underwriting risks

The report concluded, “The budding impairment of many of the future generation of lawyers should be alarming to everyone. Too many face less productive, less satisfying, and more troubled career paths” (Buchanan et al., 2017).

To help ensure the report’s recommendations become reality, the ABA has formed a Presidential Working Group. The Group assists legal employers who want to help but do not know where to start. In August of 2018, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs released a one-hundred-page report, titled the “Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers,” that offers practical guidance to help attorneys and employers improve well-being (Brafford, 2018).

The toolkit includes an eight-step action plan for legal employers; guidance on conducting a policy and practice audit to evaluate what factors support and harm well-being; and a list of organizations that focus on lawyer well-being that can assist legal employers in their efforts.

Finally, the ABA launched a campaign in September 2018 for legal employers—law firms, corporations, government agencies, and legal aid groups—to sign a pledge to improve lawyer well-being (ABA, 2018). In the first month, twenty-two law firms signed the pledge, including some of the largest firms in the country.

We know our friends and colleagues are suffering. Today, through specific actions and policies, the ABA is dedicated to alleviating the addiction and mental illness that plague our profession.

We recognize that it will not be easy and it will not be quick, but that it is a challenge we cannot ignore.



American Bar Association (ABA). (2018). Working group to advance well-being in the legal profession. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/working-group_to_advance_well-being_in_legal_profession/

Brafford, A. M. (2018). Well-being toolkit for lawyers and legal employers. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/lawyer_assistance/ls_colap_well-being_toolkit_for_lawyers_legal_employers.pdf

Buchanan, B., Coyle, J. C., Brafford, A., Camson, J., Gruber, C., Harrell, T., . . . Slease, W. D. (2017). National task force on lawyer well-being: Creating a movement to improve well-being in the legal profession. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. (2016). ABA, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation release first national study on attorney substance abuse, mental health concerns. Retrieved from https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/about-us/news-media/press-release/2016-aba-hazelden-

Krill, P. J., Johnson, R., & Albert, L. (2016). The prevalence of substance use and other mental health concerns among American attorneys. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 10(1), 46–52.

Organ, J. M., Jaffe, D. B., & Bender, K. M. (2016). Suffering in silence: The survey of law student well-being and the reluctance of law students to seek help for substance use and mental health concerns. Journal of Legal Education, 66(1), 116–56.