The Link Between Law Students and Substance Abuse

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Link Between Law Students and Substance Abuse

by Amanda Lang | Featured | Feb 14, 2017

When I was a child, people used to always tell me I would be a good lawyer because I was so gifted at debating even the most trivial of subjects. At one point they really had me convinced and I found myself fantasizing about my future in litigation. I would prance into the court room in my sky-high heels and pencil skirt, argue fearlessly and passionately with some judge and save the life of my wrongfully accused client. I would pore over large, leather bound volumes in the musky college library and go on to my graduate degree from Harvard Law School. Much like Elle Woods, one might say.

I never did go to law school but I did go on to become a hard drinker and a connoisseur of various forms of substances and psychedelics during my college years. I probably wouldn’t have made a very good Elle Woods, but I definitely would have fit in among those who endured the real law school experience first hand.

A recent study by the Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association found that up to 21 percent of licensed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers; 31.9 percent if they are under the age of 30. By comparison, only 6.8 percent of Americans have a drinking problem. And that’s just concerning alcohol–the drug of choice for most law students. Participants of the study were asked about their drug use and of those who admitted to using stimulants, 74 percent said that they used them weekly.

According to a study done by the National Law Journal, one in six law students had been diagnosed with depression while 37 percent screened positive for anxiety. This is nearly double the rate found by the National College Health Assessment Survey for the average college student. But then, most college students aren’t thrown into the isolating and intense environment that young law students experience as early as their first year.

“My first day of orientation, several professors quoted to us the suicide stats, told us our personal relationships would be thrown into disarray, we’d all break up with our boyfriends/girlfriends, advised us on avoiding drugs or risky behavior, and more or less told us to expect it,” former law student Adrian Ballard, 29, tells BTRtoday. Those cozy oak walled study sessions I envisioned as a child? Not so realistic as it turns out.

“I was doing 70 plus hour weeks between an internship, work, class, and mountains of homework. I figured out the right combination of uppers and downers to keep me going early on in. I barely slept, and when my classmates and I partied, we partied hard, recklessly and promiscuously.” Continues Ballard, “I don’t think I would’ve been able to get through the time I was there without the variable cocktail of different things I was on.“

For those going through law school, the right cocktail of substances isn’t a stress reliever or celebratory technique, but instead a necessity for the stamina and self confidence needed to get through the average semester. According to Adrian, rather than a grading system based off a collection of test scores, students are “only tested once at the end of every semester for each class and the rest of your grade is based off of class participation, which is either from cold calling, or your own arguments.” While all college students experience stress to some degree, at least in most environments one is armed with the knowledge that their abilities are being judged on a collective average rather than on a subjective impression taken by a single ruling figure.

So students turn to drugs, and no one seems to notice or care. And why would they? As long as the student makes the grade, shows up to class everyday, sprints along the treadmill of adult life, it’s easy to turn a blind eye. Because we all know what a drug addict looks like and it isn’t the clean-cut boy wonder in the four-piece suit. Or at least that’s what we’ve been told by television and superiors throughout our entire lives. Is the real message being sent here that it’s OK to be a junky as long as you don’t look like one?

It is certainly not okay to look like one, especially not if you intend to succeed in a career in law. The Betty Ford Foundation study reports that one of the main reasons most lawyers do not seek help for their issues is a fear of others finding out. And most of the time, no one ever does end up finding out. New York City lawyer and author Lisa Smith spoke to BTRtoday about her law school experience.

“This is where the progressive nature of the disease of addiction is important,” she says. “When I was in law school, I drank more than other people at parties and I drank more frequently than a lot of other people. So, I was a ‘partier.’ I had bad hangovers and certainly had many blackouts, but it was nothing the faculty would have seen. I never drank during the day and I continued to get great grades. At that point, there was nothing that would have flagged me as being on the beginning of a dangerous path.”

This “don’t ask, don’t tell” mindset is constantly perpetuated by those whom the student might otherwise turn to for help. “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 in a report by Bloomberg News. Could this stigma surrounding a student’s need for help just be the egotistical desire to avoid being deemed in the wrong? After all, the environment surrounding law students is often one of self sufficiency.

A separate mental health study published by The Bar Examiner Industry notes a “deeply rooted culture of fear in legal education that discourages students from admitting weakness.” The fact is, even if a student were to come to a superior for help, the superior in question would most likely never want to hear it in the first place. No one likes to feel responsible for their hand in someone else’s self destruction.

Not everyone turns a blind eye though. Professor Heidi Brown of Brooklyn Law School is the author of “The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven-Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy,” a book written for introverted, shy, and socially anxious law students and lawyers. “When I posted flyers at New York Law School inviting students to join an Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety workshop, I had approximately 50 students sign up,” Heidi tells BTRtoday. “Students often are advised by law school mentors to just ‘push through the anxiety and perform’ because ‘lawyers need to be able to communicate orally.’ These well-intentioned advisors might not understand that, for many naturally quiet individuals (who have great assets to offer the legal profession), overcoming public speaking anxiety in the legal context is not as simple as just ‘faking it till you make it.’”

Instead, Heidi offers outlets for her students to talk through their anxieties and suggests physical techniques for managing these emotions during their high stress lecture classes. “In my opinion,” explains Heidi, “much of the stress and anxiety that breeds in law school stems from the notion that all law students and lawyers must automatically learn, speak, or act in a similar assertive, confident, outwardly expressive manner—like the stereotypes of lawyers we see on TV and in movies. But law students come to law school from all walks of life.”

The need to conform affects everyone, whether as students or young professionals, indiscriminate of what career path they are in. Ever since we were cavemen, struggling for survival on a barely populated Earth, we have felt the need to be accepted by a tribe. When a tribe calls for a strong, extroverted speaker, it’s unsurprising that young students will go to any length to become that person, altering their brain chemistry in the process. This isn’t to say that no one should become a lawyer, in fact there is a greater need now than ever for them with the unconstitutional political environment perpetuated from the top down.

It is more so that those with power and experience must begin paying attention to the mental and physical health of their charges. After all, substance abusers, like law students, come from all walks of life. And some of them dress themselves in well-tailored, three-piece suits.


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