Workplace Culture Contributed to Lawyer’s Death from Addiction

Attorneys may be the last profession to recognize the need for psychologically healthy, safe and fair workplaces, but as Eilene Zimmerman points out in her New York Times article, “The Lawyer, the Addict,” they need them as much as everyone else. The article is a heartbreaking examination of what drove her ex-husband, a successful patent attorney, to the drug addiction that eventually killed him and how everyone in his life missed the red flags.

Lawyers are notorious for working 60 hour weeks driven by competition for dwindling jobs, professional rivalry and the need to achieve a certain number of billable hours. The effect can take quite a toll. A report in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with depression and 19 percent struggle with anxiety. The numbers reporting drug use are much lower, which is unsurprising for officers of the court. Attorneys don’t seem to be more predisposed to addiction than other profession. In fact, studies of incoming law students have shown them as being more physically and psychologically healthy compared to other graduate students.  Clearly the workplace culture and the legal training take a toll.

The sad truth is that there is no segment of society immune from issues with mental health and/or addiction. What is truly tragic in Zimmerman’s story is the fact that there were bright red flags everywhere, but both the workplace culture in law firms and society’s mental picture of successful lawyers rendered them invisible.

Andrew Faas is the author of From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire

Photo credit: BIGSTOCK