Lawyers as a group suffer addiction at a rate two to three times higher than the average population.
Eric Webber, coordinator of Legal Professionals Program at Caron Treatment Centers in Berks County, said the program is designed to address the work lifestyle and stressors that attribute to the increased rate of addiction.
Physicians and the financial services professionals fall to just under that rate, he said.
“There has been a continual uptick in the rate of addiction among the general population,” Webber said. “Since 2020, we’ve seen a giant spike with an increase in the retail sale of alcohol as people stayed home.”
Since the COVID crisis waned, Webber said, alcohol and drug use did not.
“People who increased their consumption continue to do so,” Webber said. “And those suffering from mental health issues often use substances to help them cope.”
Gambling has also become an issue since it became legal in 2018. Webber said Pennsylvania’s gambling revenue is the second highest in the nation behind Nevada.
“Addiction doesn’t discriminate, and education doesn’t matter,” he said. “It is a physiological and biological brain-based disease.”
That said, Webber said people who work in professions where alcohol and drugs are more prevalent are at higher risk.
Lawyers, he said, are exposed to a “permissiveness.”
“Many have happy hours every day and they all take clients out, so drinking is accepted,” he said.
It starts in law school because it is socially acceptable to have alcohol at events, he said. Then in practice, especially at larger firms, lawyers are expected to take clients out and “show them a good time.”
Typically, he said, “they celebrate at the end of a case so this is a profession where alcohol is involved in many ways.”
Webbers said, while its slowly changing, many lawyers have mini refrigerators in their offices and a lot of practices have bars and lounges in house.
Webber runs the special program for lawyers, judges and law students, not only because of the high rate of addiction, but because of other challenges they face when entering the treatment center.
“Law school teaches them how to think critically and analytically from everything from transactions and negotiations to arguments,” he said.
With that default mindset, Webber said he has found treatment to be challenging for them. He explained that since they are used to advising others, it is harder for them to succumb to the disease, which they must in order to move forward.
“The program offers them a space to sit with their peer group and talk,” he said. “Lawyers are held to an esteem, whether high or low, by the public. When they are with a group of their peers, there is no judgement. They can be fully transparent and present in who they are.”
Webber said he finds most in law have a tendency to critique the program and then argue with it.
“The critique is helpful as it allows them to go through the process and see there is a problem,” he said. “Once they see it, they are willing to succumb and get help.”
While the lawyers live among the general population during treatment, he said Caron has had great success with the program.
“They don’t talk about what they do outside of the program, and they don’t give legal advice while in treatment,” Webber said. “That would be unethical.”
And while they are permitted to keep in contact with their assistants and associates, they are not allowed to practice while in treatment because they are considered impaired, which can be an ethical issue.
“We have to be careful with that,” he said.
People that work for a large firm can easily get cases covered. Webber said it is those who work for small firms or are in solo practice that find it challenging to stay up with their workloads.
The American Bar Association has begun to address the issue and is taking wellness seriously, Webber said.
“Many law firms are making policy changes, which is culturally important. But those changes have to start from the top down to create new behavior,” he said. “If it doesn’t come from the top down, people will be afraid to ask for help for fear of damaging their careers.”
Some firms are even embedding counselors in the practice so people can get help. Webber said that results in fewer absences and better productivity.
“I see people when they are pretty banged up,” Webber said. “They usually come in when work is in jeopardy, or they see the train wreck coming. They see the damage and know they need to stop it.”
Webber said some are referred from a wellness professional.
“Rarely do I see them in trouble with the law, but if they are, it’s usually a DUI, which is a wakeup call for anyone,” he said.
Once the 28-to-31-day treatment is completed, Webber said patients are referred to outpatient programs or groups.
He also works with them to consider how to reenter their jobs while alcohol and drugs are still the norm.
“I tell them to show up early and tip the bartender and let them know they won’t be drinking,” he said. “That way, they can let everyone order what they want. Then I tell them to leave early and call their sponsor.”