Skip to main content
The Bar Bulletin
Jax Daily Record Monday, Apr. 2, 201806:20 AM EST

Reflections on attorney stress, addiction and mental health

It took a toll on TV’s Don Draper as it does on real-life attorneys. We have to take time for ourselves.

By Adam Edgecombe

I was a huge fan of the AMC network television series “Mad Men,” the mid-20th-century period drama about advertising executives in Manhattan.

One of the recurring plot devices for the show was how much alcohol the characters consumed — at work, at home and when taking their sons to see “Planet of the Apes.”

While there was a superficial and surface glamour to the drinking, the show also did an excellent job of showing the mental, physical and emotional toll it took on the main character, Don Draper.

I was reminded of Draper when I read an article in The Florida Bar Journal regarding addiction and substance abuse among attorneys. The article, written by the lead author of a hallmark 2016 study by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation examining the prevalence of substance abuse and mental health disorders in the legal profession, was eye-opening.

The results of the study found that between 21 and 36 percent of us qualify as problem drinkers, and that many of us also report suffering from depression, anxiety or stress.

Additionally, a substantial number are abusing prescription drugs.

And while the most at-risk segment is young lawyers, to quote the author, “no age bracket or experience level within the profession could even remotely be held out as an exemplar of good health.”

As to causes for the alarming statistics, the author attributes them to the general stress of working in the legal field, as well as a professional culture that encourages poor responses to that stress.

Chronic stress increases the risk for developing depression and stress also is a well-known risk factor for the onset of addiction.

As a result, it seems that addiction and mental health problems are an unfortunate risk that always will be an element of our profession.

I don’t know about you, but I found all of this pretty distressing, and I found myself reflecting on those things I’ve found help me cope with the stress that comes with litigation, and which have helped me avoid becoming one of the statistics mentioned previously.

Primarily, I’d say the friendships I’ve made, and the volunteer and service opportunities I have had, with professional organizations have helped me tremendously.

I know that all of the incredible people I have met while serving on the Young Lawyers Section board have let me bend their ears a time or two to blow off some steam. And nothing puts my own stress in perspective like giving my time to serve others, especially those less fortunate than I am.

Running, biking and enjoying our beautiful beaches with my family and friends are two of my favorite ways to clear my head and recharge.

I also thought about the importance of simply creating time for the things we love to do, and the people with whom we love to do them.

There’s always some kind of work that could be done, every waking hour of every day of the week, whether that is working for our clients, taking care of administrative tasks, reading legal journals and articles or other tasks.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that to withstand and push past the stress of our profession, we have to take time for ourselves or risk succumbing to addiction or mental health issues.

But, given that attorneys are by nature driven and focused people, it can be easy to forget that and not take time out of each day or week to simply enjoy life and our friends and family.

As a last thought, given the statistics, we should all make sure to look out for each other.

Practicing with professionalism is not just an issue of decorum and high-mindedness, it also helps reduce stress in our profession.

By respecting deadlines, timely communicating with one another, remaining respectful even in disagreement and taking other steps, you reduce the stress of those you are working with, no matter your practice area.

And, clearly, we should all be doing everything we can to manage our stress and to assist our colleagues do the same.

Related Stories