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Not Giving Way to Substance Abuse is Essential for Professional Success

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This month, the Nevada bar association hit the headlines when it petitioned the Nevada Supreme Court to require attorneys take 12 hours of continuing legal education on substance abuse every year. According to Bar President Francis Flaherty, the requirement “is essential to public protection.” While the Nevada Supreme Court has set a hearing on Nov. 5 and inviting comments from judges lawyers and the public, the issues of economic uncertainty, moral stress, work-dissatisfaction and consequent substance abuse in the lives of attorneys bears closer inspection.
 Not Giving Way to Substance Abuse is Essential for Professional Success

The State Bar of Nevada claims a prevalence of greater than average alcohol and drug abuse among lawyers. According to the board of governors of the State Bar, almost 33 percent of disciplinary cases against lawyers “involve underlying abuse, addiction, or mental health problems,” and at least 23 percent of new entrants to the bar in the past two years have a history of substance abuse.

The petition made by the Nevada Bar Association also mentions in case of reimbursements to clients who are victims of attorney theft, “26 percent of all reimbursed claims in the past decade were made on behalf of attorneys removed from practice due to an underlying substance use, gambling addiction or mental health issues.”

So, it's time to wake up and take stock of the situation. Chronic stress in an attorney's life is not new, and only the best get into a law school, and only the best survive the ordeals of law practice. While the general populace takes attorneys to be inhumane, such ideas permeate because professional attorneys learn to be ‘detached.' Like a surgeon learns to be ‘detached.' And those who fail to learn not to feel every pain of each client fail in their careers, burnout, or start alcohol or drug abuse leading to breakdown of everything they wanted to be.

Though people try to brush aside the issue of alcohol or drug abuse among lawyers, even back in 1996 the American Bar Association had found that 15 to 20 percent attorneys suffer from alcohol dependence or substance abuse, while in the general population it was closer to 10 percent. Also, the ABA found almost 33 percent of attorneys have high chances to “experience either short-term or chronic symptoms of depression or stress.” That was in 1996, since then the stress and economic uncertainty and the plethora of laws and regulations constricting the lives of attorneys have only multiplied and not reduced.

When you think of it, mostly in the case of regular local lawyers who handle clients directly or work solo, where the clients are their neighbors or from the same social circles, it is difficult to evade feeling the pain of a client who is suffering injustice. The pain individual to each client is sufficient to make them impatient and exasperated – the pains of a hundred clients residing in the brain of a single individual – the attorney – is difficult for general people to grasp. This is why, in order to survive the rigors of law practice, attorneys need to cauterize many sensitivities, cannot afford to feel the pains of a client, as he/she would feel the pain of a friend, because all that pain would either make the individual insane or drive them to substance abuse or other dependencies. The professional lawyer is the lawyer who manages to remain sane by remaining emotionally remote to client pains, not problems. Sometimes, I believe that it is not surprising that the percentage of substance and alcohol abuse among attorneys is so high, but that it is surprising that the percentage is so low.

Be that as it may, the crux of the matter is that the occupational hazard of high stress and the beckoning of alcohol or drug abuse would always go side by side in an attorney's life. In order to succeed professionally in an attorney's career, one has to be conscious about such temptations and has to learn to avoid them assiduously. There is no easy way out, and substance dependency is worse than death because it will tear you away from everything you love, while you still keep breathing.

At the end, it is not truly about winning in the court, because even the side that loses gets attorney fees, but it is about winning over one's self and winning over temptations – age-old adages – that matter for professional success, or survival.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

About LawCrossing
LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit

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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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