Are We On Drugs?

In an op-ed emblematic of the times, Eileen Zimmerman recounts the fall of her ex-husband, Peter, into addiction and, ultimately death. Having spent a good deal of time discussing, and learning, from my dear pal, Brian Cuban, about the walls that make it hard, if not impossible, for an addicted lawyer to seek help, it’s easy to appreciate why a lawyer who falls into that dark hole of drugs or alcohol feels that there is no way out.

But there is a secondary question behind the myriad problems with a lawyer overcoming the pressures and incentive to conceal his problem. While there may be no reason why lawyers would be any more immune to the causes that turn someone into an addict, are lawyers more prone to addiction?

The plural of anecdotes is not data (I know, but it’s still true). There are a lot of lawyers out there. Ten, one hundred, one thousand sad stories are sad, but don’t prove much. Nor do surveys add much to the mix:

Illicit drug use, however, is illegal. “I think the incidence of drug use and abuse is significantly underreported,” he said.

In the government’s most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health report on substance abuse by industry, professional services (which include the legal profession) ranked ninth out of 19 industries in terms of illicit drug use. The entertainment industry ranked higher on the list; finance and real estate ranked lower.

Despite the absence of any hard evidence to suggest that lawyers are particularly likely to suffer from addiction, which in no way alters the flip side of the problem, that lawyers are particularly unlikely to seek help for addiction, the assumption is driving a call for changes, and the changes are beginning in the beginning: law school.

For now, I want to focus on one small section of the piece, sub-titled “The Law School Effect,” which suggests that law school is part of the problem. Prior to law school, future law students are healthier than the general population–they drink less, use less drugs, have less depression, and are less hostile; they also begin with a stronger sense of self and values. Then it all changes in law school, which “twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility.” Following the start of law school, students show “a marked increase in depression, negative mood and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction.”

The piece points to a few factors. One is the way law school encourages students to remove emotions from their decisions. Another is the focus, and the shift in student focus, to status, comparative worth and competition, looking at things such as grades, honors, and potential career income, and away from the idealism that had motivated them to come to law school. The result is that young lawyers succumb to substance abuse when “the reality of working as a lawyer does not match what they had pictured while in law school.”

Is it true that law school drives people to drink (or worse)? Howard Wasserman challenges the assumptive reasons offered by the op-ed, and as noted in the comments by other law profs, the extent to which even the assumptive reasons apply varies greatly from school to school, professor to professor. While there may be a Paper Chase-esqe sense about what happens in law school, that’s not necessarily reality, and many prawfs employ a far warmer and fuzzier pedagogy.

But Howard raises one aspect that was omitted from the op-ed as a cause:

Another obvious factor, not mentioned in the article, is that law school is a lot of work–a lot of reading, a lot of preparation, and a lot of assignments going on at once. And it is not structured passively, with students sitting and listening to us lecture, so it is difficult to just skate by (at least in first year). Again, however, so is legal practice.

Law is hard. So is law school. Is this a bad thing? If students can’t survive the crucible of law school, will they be prepared to do their job in the trenches*? As law profs raised their pet pedagogical peeves in the comments, one was the single final exam presenting too much pressure for mere mortals. In a snarky comment, meant as a precursor to a more thoughtful comment, Orin Kerr replied:

“And wow, the final exam, which in most of my classes was the only grade. I have no idea what purpose that is supposed to serve other than to just recreate some sort of romanticized trial by fire. It’s terrible for classes aimed at imparting subject matter expertise, and it’s terrible for classes aimed at developing reasoning skills. If a professor was creating a class from scratch with a clear idea of what the learning objectives were, I couldn’t imagine him thinking a single end of semester exam would serve any sort of useful purpose.”

Fortunately, the legal system doesn’t hinge bar admissions on a single exam, or make determinations of guilt or innocence hinge on a single trial.

While this isn’t the whole of the practice of law, and not every lawyer tries cases or holds people’s lives in his hands, Orin’s jab still makes a point: our duty as lawyers has life or death consequences for real people, and regularly hinges on a single act, a single decision. Fail to make an objection and a guy is sentenced to life plus cancer.

There has been a lot of discussion here of late about how hard, how sad, how demanding it is to be a lawyer, and how it’s so unfair to lawyers and our families. And this is all true. But what about the poor shmucks who depend on us? Life isn’t a bowl of cherries for them either. It’s not that lawyers shouldn’t enjoy a little happiness,** but that the reason for lawyers to exist is to serve clients. Any discussion of how hard it is to be a lawyer that fails to deal with clients is worthless indulgence.

Whether law school drives students, and eventually lawyer, to addiction is a good question, and may well be worthy of more research and discussion. But maybe the answer won’t be found in watering down law school, particularly when half of all law student can’t pass bar the now, but in the admission of students who shouldn’t be lawyers. Law isn’t for everyone. Maybe it’s time to split up the profession by skillset and let those who can’t handle the stress take a different path where they won’t need drugs to overcome their inability to handle the pressure.

*Yes, not all lawyers try cases, but all lawyers are licensed to do so, and hold themselves out to the public as qualified to do so. If you want to use the #NotAllLawyers excuse, then you need to advocate for specialized licenses so those admitted lawyers incapable of handling the pressure of litigation are not given license to pose as if they can.

**Ironically, the same voices that rise for concerns about lawyers health and happiness die when the question of lawyers earning a living is uttered, crying sad tears for the high cost of legal services and the lack of “access to justice.” So they love lawyers, but not enough to feel tht lawyers deserve to get paid and be capable of feeding their children. Go figure.

21 thoughts on “Are We On Drugs?

  1. B. McLeod

    I recall a study some thirty years ago (by a university in Arizona, I think) that found students become hostile and paranoid in law school. I don’t know if anyone has checked in jurisdictions that still allow apprenticeship to see whether that alternate track carries the same effects. Such a study would be well worth doing, and might provide additional support for changing the model back to apprenticeship everywhere.

    1. SHG Post author

      Meh. First, in jurisdictions that allow apprenticeships, would there be a statistically significant enough population to do a meaningful study? Highly unlikely. But as for students becoming “hostile and paranoid in law school” (assuming your recollection to be moderately accurate, because well, you’re old), it’s meaningless as a stand alone finding. More so than any other difficult grad school? Do students inclined to be hostile and paranoid choose law, is does law school turn students into psychos?

      And it raises the same old problems, do people go to law school because they want to be lawyers or their mommies want them to be “professionals” but they can’t do math or can’t stand the sight of blood? Shallow crap like this adds nothing useful and inflames the ignorant. Don’t do that.

      1. B. McLeod

        I believe it was a study at University of Arizona’s law school, cited: G. Andrew H. Benjamin et al., The Role of Legal Education in Producing Psychological Distress Among Law Students, 1986 AM. B. FOUND. RES. J. 225

        the study checked apparent normalcy at beginning of law school, and noted that the students began to manifest the anxiety, depression, hostility and paranoia @ 6 months into law school, and that it persisted through at least the first two years of practice (no further follow-up). The study could not rule out that students who selected law school might disproportionately have undetected predispositions to these issues. As you say, it also did not compare law school to other difficult graduate schools. So, as studies often do, it raised new questions, but I do not see that as putting it in the “nothing useful” bucket.

    2. Scott Jacobs

      students become hostile and paranoid in law school

      I’m even further ahead of the curve than I thought!

    1. SHG Post author

      You’ve got to stop. Here, you get one. I’ve deleted the other hundred, but you’re killing me. This is it for today. No more.

  2. Marc Whipple

    If you’re a lawyer actually practicing law, every day is a goddamn bar exam. You fail, and you lose your license. And that’s one of the least horrible possible outcomes.

    Admittedly most days, for most of us, it’s the really easy part of the multiple-choice part of the exam, open-book and with questions allowed. But it’s still a test with very high stakes. If that basic principle bothers you, this may not be the profession for you.

    Not that lots couldn’t be done to make both law school and law practice less soul-destroying, and I’m all for that. But in the end, this job is one big bitch of a test that never ends.

    1. SHG Post author

      The law is soul-destroying for someone every time, and contrary to the rainbow army, there isn’t always some happy compromise or fuzzy solution that makes the misery that people inflict on one another go away. Not everyone is cut out to be a janitor, cleaning up the shit people leave behind. It’s fine that it’s not your cup of green tea, but if not, do something else.

  3. Lee

    Military boot camp is hard, too. But it is a necessary precursor to prepare men and women to survive in combat.

    Law school should be hard. If one cannot survive law school with one’s psyche intact, how is one supposed to survive practice?

    And, BTW, I started law school because I wanted to be lawyer, not because of parental pressure. Most of the time, I am happy with that choice. (Although I must admit that sometimes I wish I’d remained a legal assistant).

    But I was a returning student, having been out in the real world and the school of hard knocks, so perhaps the rigors of law school were not as debilitating for me as for my classmates who came directly from undergrad.

    1. SHG Post author

      One of the possible problems is that students today come to law school soft and mushy, filled with their entitlement and unwarranted self-esteem with a room filled with participation trophies. You learn a lot from hard knocks. You learn little from tummy rubs.

  4. Charles

    In law school, I found the process bothersome. Read a bunch of cases, listen to lectures, take an exam. Then, a month into the next semester, you find out how you did. Seriously? Teach me along the way, give me assignments that show my progress during the semester. Let me find out before the end whether I am understanding the material.

    Little did I know, this is perhaps the perfect preparation. As a lawyer, you study facts and law. You draft a complaint, contract, discovery requests, subpoenas, whatever. Then, months—and sometimes years—down the road, a judge finally confirms whether you covered the bases.

    Now, I’m not saying law schools are intentional about this. It’s just the way their professors did it, so wash, rinse, repeat. But when you think about it, if you can’t handle the “not knowing” in law school, it might be a sign you need to get out.

    1. SHG Post author

      There may be better ways to do it, but the arguments being made for them are malarkey. If they think it’s too tough in law school, wait until they get their butts kicked in real life. More importantly, in law school, their only concern is themselves. If they are one of the few who emerge giving an actual fuck (as opposed to the slacktivist fuck) about other people, think how they feel when the cell door slams on their lives.

      If changes are to be made, then make them for good reasons, not because the fragile teacups crack too easily.

  5. Scott Jacobs

    law school, which “twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility.”

    If law school twists people, does that mean I’m going to emerge from it as someone who isn’t fundamentally broken on the inside?

      1. Scott Jacobs


        Must mean I’m even further ahead of the curve. I’ve already gotten all the psychological stuff outta the way, so now I can focus on the academics.


  6. Jake

    “Is it true that law school drives people to drink (or worse)?”

    I don’t have any experience with law school but I do have twenty years of experience with active alcoholism and ten years of sobriety as a participating member of AA.

    Based on those qualifications I will tell you the answer to this question is no. Alcoholics represent society. What makes us different, without exception, is an obsession with drinking and a compulsion to keep drinking once we start.

    1. SHG Post author

      Insular groups have a tendency toward thinking their problems are worse and special. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but there’s almost a competition for victimhood, as if that’s a good thing and without it, serious problems would be insignificant. Law students don’t have to be “the worst” for addiction to be a problem worthy of help.

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