Substance abuse isn’t good for anyone. Overuse of nearly any drug can lead to serious health problems. And there are indirect problems, as well. The craving and deception. People who abuse drugs are consumed by them as much as they consume them. But most people don’t put their jobs at risk if they can keep their abuse separate from their professional lives. Lawyers do.

Lawyers suspected of abusing drugs or alcohol may end up facing professional investigations. The question is if their abuse renders them unfit to practice law. The stakes are their licenses and careers.

Substance abuse and your career

In 2016, the ABA and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation collaborated on a groundbreaking study on substance abuse among lawyers. They surveyed more than 12,000 licensed, active lawyers and found that 20.6% of them used alcohol or drugs in unhealthy ways. The study also found that more than one-quarter of all lawyers suffered from either stress, anxiety or depression.

The authors remarked that the study was “alarming.” The lawyers responsible for managing people’s money and legal concerns may not be healthy themselves. Substance abuse can impair judgment, and the study suggested many lawyers could be impaired and unfit to practice.

The State Bar doesn’t necessarily view substance abuse—or even a related DUI—as grounds for suspension. But a conviction or complaint may prompt the Bar to investigate further. If you ever find yourself facing such an investigation, it’s important that you respond appropriately. The investigators will be looking for any sign that you’re likely to put yourself or others at risk.

Indeed, even in the 2014 case of a former prosecutor who was disbarred due to alcohol-related issues, the State Bar judge referred to future risks, not past convictions:

“Until respondent learns why he turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism […] and learns how to avoid repeating that behavior in the future, he is certainly capable of putting himself and others at risk.”

A focus on real change

It’s not enough for someone facing a State Bar investigation or discipline to promise they’ll change. It’s not enough for them to say they’ll never drink again. Such arguments are likely to sound hollow and fall flat.

Instead, it’s often wiser to focus on rehabilitation and mitigation. By pro-actively taking steps to change your behaviors, you can better protect your career—and your health. The strategy you choose can vary. It may involve the Lawyer Assistance Program, or it may not. But the more you can dig to the root of your problem, the more likely you are to resolve the matter fully and to your satisfaction.

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