Guest Blog Post by Professor Debra Austin, JD, PHD, author of Drink Like a Lawyer

Substance Misuse in the Legal Profession

The legal field may be in the midst of a wellbeing crisis. Recent research has shown high rates of anxiety, depression, and substance misuse in both law students and lawyers.

2014 law student study, published in the Journal of Legal Education, of 11,000 law students in 15 law schools showed:

* 37% had anxiety;

* 17% had depression;

* 90% had consumed alcohol in the last 30 days; and

* In the previous two weeks, 43% had participated in binge-drinking once & 22% at least twice

A 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation of 12,825 practicing lawyers found:

* 23% were stressed;

* 19% have anxiety;

* 28% suffer from depression; and

* 23% qualify as problem drinkers, with the highest risk of alcohol misuse occurring during the first part of the lawyer’s legal career.

In the WellnessCast this month, Dr. Anna Lembke describes the Neighborhood Effect risk factor for substance misuse.  A Neighborhood is an environment a person frequents where substance use is encouraged and the substance is highly accessible. The high-risk Neighborhood for law student alcohol misuse is law school.

In my article, Drink Like a Lawyer: The Neuroscience of Substance Use and its Impact on Cognitive Wellness, I discuss how drinking is a way for law students to unwind and how law school functions often highlight the availability of alcohol to draw students to attend them. The research cited above indicates that the law practice Neighborhood might create an even greater alcohol misuse risk to new lawyers.

In Drink Like a Lawyer I explain that drugs of abuse cause a release of a high level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine was once believed to be responsible for the sensation of pleasure that drugs of abuse can cause. Scientists now know that pleasure is experienced in tiny hedonic hot spots via opioid and endocannabinoid receptors. The role of dopamine is to inspire repeat behavior. Dopamine helps lawyers to develop bad habits, including substance misuse. Since lawyers suffer from so much stress, anxiety, and depression, they have a tendency to self-medicate and their Neighborhoods are high-risk environments.  Drink Like a Lawyer details how drugs like alcohol, marijuana, stimulants, and opiates activate different receptors in the brain. It also provides recommendations for healing the compromised lawyer brain.

Professor Debra Austin teaches lawyering skills at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. She writes and speaks about how neuroscience research findings can improve law student and lawyer wellbeing. Her articles can be downloaded at