Our nemesis

24 Oct 17
This New York Times story of the death of an intellectual property practitioner at Silicon Valley's Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati is both harrowing and heart-breaking. "He had been working more than 60 hours a week for 20 years, ever since he started law school and worked his way into a partnership …", only to slowly but inexorably become an addict of various drugs, finally felled by a bacterial infection common among IV drug users. The last call on his phone he ever made was to call into a conference for a client, mere hours before he succumbed.
The ABA and Ford Foundation commissioned one of the most comprehensive surveys ever done of drug and alcohol use among lawyers, released last year in the Journal of Addictive Medicine (cited in the NY Times piece). 12,825 lawyers across 19 states participated. Only 3,419 lawyers responded to the section of the survey dedicated to drug use, provoking the study's lead author to speculate on "what motivated 75 percent of attorneys to skip over the section on drug use as if it wasn't there."

The results, among those who did respond:
  • 5.6 percent used crack, cocaine and stimulants in the last year;
  • 10.2 percent used marijuana and hash;
  • 16 percent used sedatives; and
  • 85 percent used alcohol (compared to 65 percent of the general population).
What is it about us and our profession that causes too many of us to fall prey to drug or alcohol abuse or addiction? The most likely culprits: anxiety and stress, the hallmarks of our profession. The combative and adversarial nature of our job renders us vulnerable to the enticing escape that alcohol and drugs afford. From the Times article:

'Yes, there are other stressful professions,' said Wil Miller, who practices family law …. He spent 10 years as a sex crimes prosecutor, the last six months of which he was addicted to methamphetamines. 'Being a surgeon is stressful, for instance — but not in the same way. It would be like having another surgeon across the table from you trying to undo your operation. In law, you are financially rewarded for being hostile.' 

We should recognize this problem for what it is: our nemesis, and our vulnerability, as a profession. We must be diligent in identifying and defeating it—not only in ourselves, but among our brothers and sisters in the bar.