Substance Abuse Among Law Students: A Big Problem, With Little Attention

Law school is stressful, but don’t let drugs or alcohol be your crutch

The prevalence of substance abuse among attorneys has been well documented. Most notably, a 2016 Study on Lawyer Impairment (SLI) surveyed nearly 15,000 lawyers and judges across nineteen states and found that:

  • 33% had a drinking problem (compared with just 6% of the general population)
  • 21.3% had used sedatives or stimulants within 12 months of receiving the survey
  • 5.6% had used opioids within 12 months of receiving the survey

The SLI sounded the alarm, but it left an important question unanswered:

Is substance abuse an issue among law students, or just practicing attorneys? 

The prevalence of substance abuse among law students

Though quite a bit of attention has been paid to the prevalence of substance abuse among lawyers, little notice has been given to the use of drugs and alcohol among law students. To date, it appears that only one multi-school empirical study has looked at the issue.

In the spring of 2014, 15 law schools participated in a survey designed to examine alcohol, drug, and mental health issues among law students. The survey, formally titled the Survey of Law Student Well-Being (SLSWB), was administered with a grant from the ABA Enterprise Fund and sponsored by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.

The SLSWB found some alarming similarities between the use of substances among law students and practicing lawyers. For example, the SLSWB found that:

  • 53% of students got drunk at least once within 30 days of receiving the survey
  • 43% of students binge drank within 14 days of receiving the survey
  • 19.3% of students missed class at least once because of drinking and 13.9% thought they might be alcoholics
  • 14% of students used prescription drugs without a prescription within 12 months of receiving the survey
  • 25% of students used marijuana within 12 months of receiving the survey
  • 6% of students used cocaine within 12 months of receiving the survey

What’s more, the Journal of Legal Education, which published the data, found that, when compared to graduate students in other disciplines, substance abuse across the board is higher among law students. For example, while 53% of law students got drunk at least once within 30 days of the survey, only 39% of graduate students in other disciplines got drunk in the same timeframe.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that many writers have argued that the reported percentages are probably lower than the actual percentages, as law students with alcohol or drug use issues may have declined to respond honestly to the SLSWB given that it asked a number of intrusive questions, some of which involved illegal conduct.

Why do so many law students abuse alcohol and drugs?

Researchers commonly point to a number of factors to explain the high prevalence of substance abuse among practicing lawyers. Patrick Krill, an attorney and executive with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, explained:

“The law has always been a magnet for hard-working, self-reliant, and competitive people who often prioritize success and accomplishment far above personal health or wellbeing. On top of that, stress, unhappiness and imbalance abound...”

Unsurprisingly, many of the characteristics and stressors that exist among lawyers are also present among law students. Law students tend to be high-achieving, self-reliant, and competitive. To this end, the SLSWB found that the most common reasons for using prescription stimulants without a prescription were directly related to academic performance.

Specifically, the SLSWB found the following reported reasons for drug use:

  • To concentrate better while studying (67%)
  • To increase alertness to study longer (64%)
  • To enhance academic performance (49%)
  • To increase alertness to work longer (46%)
  • To concentrate better while working (45%)
  • To counter any competitive edge other students might have as a result of using stimulants (20%)

The desire for academic success, combined with the long hours of study, creates an enormous amount of pressure that rivals the stress experienced by practicing attorneys. It’s not surprising, perhaps, that lawyers and law students experience similar rates of depression and anxiety.

The SLI also found that 28% of lawyers experienced symptoms of depression and 19% experienced symptoms of anxiety. Over 17% of law students screened positive for depression and 37% screened positive for anxiety. Other studies conducted by Harvard Law School and the ABA found similar—and in many cases even higher—rates of depression and anxiety among law students.

Doctor Indra Cidambi, a leading expert and pioneer in the field of addiction, perhaps best sums up the precarious state of law students:

“For many students, the excitement of getting into law school ends when they start school. Excessive workloads and intense competition with like-minded perfectionists leads to long hours of study and creates an enormous amount of stress. Additionally, the emphasis on analysis makes many students lose their connection to their original reason for joining law school – passion for the law or helping people. Students, therefore, turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve tension and relax.”

What are the signs to look out for?

Understanding that the problem of substance abuse among law students is significant, law faculty, staff, and fellow law students need to be able to recognize when a student is abusing alcohol or drugs. The ABA lists the following dependency signs to look for:

  • Behavioral changes (the student starts arriving late or leaving early)
  • Work product changes (the student decreases production or the quality of their work suffers)
  • Isolation (the student stops attending functions or communicating with their peers)
  • Noticeable mood changes with irritability or apathy
  • In later stages alcohol addition, the student may come to school smelling of alcohol
  • When asked if there are problems, the student avoids the question or insists nothing has changed

Recognizing these signs is particularly important given the reluctance of law students to seek help. To this end, many of the same factors that play a role in law students abusing alcohol or drugs—namely, self-reliance and competitiveness—cause law students to avoid seeking help.

Specifically, the SLSWB found that law students avoid help for the following reasons:

  • Threat to bar admission (63%)
  • Threat to job or academic status (62%)
  • Social stigma (43%)
  • Concerns about privacy (43%)
  • Financial reasons (41%)
  • Belief that they could handle the problem themselves (39%)
  • Not having the time (36%)

If you’re wondering whether your own alcohol use is bordering on a dependency or addiction, reflect on the following warning signs:

  • Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Feeling a strong need or compulsion to drink
  • Developing tolerance to alcohol so that you need increasing amounts to feel its effects
  • Having legal problems or problems with relationships, employment, or finances due to drinking
  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms—such as nausea, sweating, and shaking—when you don't drink
  • Not remembering conversations or commitments, sometimes referred to as "blacking out"
  • Making a ritual of having drinks at certain times and becoming annoyed when this ritual is disturbed or questioned
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies that used to bring you pleasure
  • Irritability when your usual drinking time nears, especially if alcohol isn't available
  • Keeping alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work, or in your car
  • Gulping drinks, ordering doubles, becoming intoxicated intentionally to feel good, or drinking to feel "normal"

So what happens now?

A number of experts have proposed solutions to curb substance abuse among lawyers, and many of these solutions can be tweaked to apply to law students.

Let’s look at the 3 most common suggestions for curbing attorney substance abuse. 

First, the lawyer assistance programs offered through the state bars are frequently cited as places attorneys can turn to receive confidential help with alcohol, drug, and mental health issues. But most law students don’t realize that many of these services are available to them for free (or at a low cost) as well. Law students can locate the lawyer assistance program in their area here.

Second, advocates encourage law firms and other places of employment to set up detection and intervention protocols, and to take steps to destigmatize help-seeking behaviors. When it comes to substance abuse among students, law schools must take the lead. For example, law schools can take advantage of Law School Mental Health Day (October 10th) to sponsor educational programs and events that help break the stigma associated with depression and anxiety among law students.

Third, law firms are encouraged to match young attorneys with a mentor. The same can be done for law students. To this end, the National Task Force on Well Being points out that extensive reputable research connects the fostering of collegiality and respect with well-being, and that one of the most important ways to foster collegiality and respect is through mentoring. However, care must be taken to create a mentorship program that focuses on overall health and well-being, and not just networking and professional success.

Substance abuse among law students is a growing problem, but it also represents an opportunity. If substance abuse can be curbed and healthy behaviors can be taught at the law school level, the profession will see a gradual dip in the percentage of lawyers who abuse substances.


If you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol or drug abuse, consider the following resources:


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