Laura’s alcoholism started well before she became a public defender. She began drinking every day in law school “because the culture permitted it, even celebrated it.”
“People would drink in the library while they were studying,” she told The Crime Report.
Laura, who is 40 years old and has been a public defender for seven years, joined a public defender’s office in the Northeast immediately after graduating law school. Right away, she was overwhelmed by the hardships of her clients and the 100-plus cases she was expected to handle.
Struggling to keep up with her work, Laura found support in the office camaraderie. This often took the form of “happy hour” in the evenings—which typically started around 4 pm and lasted until 2 o’clock in the morning.
Thursday and Friday were “big days,” but “pretty much every day after work, you could find someone who’s going out for happy hour.”
“It was the adult thing to do,” she recalled. “To go and get the court off of you, get the client drama off of you.”
At the time, Laura didn’t see any problem with that routine. Many of her coworkers “drank hard and heavy” and still managed to come to work ready for court each day, she said.
But in Laura’s case, the drinking began to take a toll. She felt depressed and intimidated by the scale of her workload. The office culture, however, which regarded binges as a normal way to de-stress, kept her from attributing her unhappiness to alcohol.
Laura, whose real name has been kept confidential, is far from unique.
In 2016, a study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association uncovered widespread problem drinking and mental health issues among legal professionals.
Published by the Journal of Addiction Medicine, the study reports that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, compared to 12 percent of the highly-educated workforce.
The study also found elevated levels of mental health disorders: 28 percent of attorneys surveyed struggled with some level of depression, compared to an estimated seven percent of the general population. Some 19 percent experienced anxiety.
While the study inquired about drug use, only 25 percent of participants chose to answer the relevant questions. Of the lawyers who did respond, 5.6 percent used cocaine, crack, and stimulants; 5.6 percent used opioids; 10.2 percent used marijuana and hash; and nearly 16 percent used sedatives.
As for the 75 percent of participants who declined to answer, Patrick Krill, the study’s lead author, believes legality played a greater role than lower rates of use.
“It makes sense to me that there were far fewer attorneys willing to discuss their drug use, because that potentially raises legal implications and implications for their licensure,” he said in an interview.
“So even in the context of an anonymous online survey…lawyers just aren’t comfortable discussing this.”
That’s not to say that drug use among lawyers isn’t an issue.
“What I know from practical experience and what I can tell you anecdotally from working with lawyer assistance programs around the country is that lawyers use plenty of drugs,” said Krill, who is also a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, and whose consulting firm, Krill Strategies, works with law firms on drug abuse and mental health issues.
Whether the emotional problems lawyers reported resulted from problematic drinking, or whether attorneys drink to cope with existing emotional issues is unclear.
But “the ubiquity of alcohol in the legal professional culture certainly demonstrates both its ready availability and social acceptability, should one choose to cope with their mental health problems in that manner,” the study says.
A Rite of Passage
Indeed, a culture of drinking pervades the entire legal profession, according to Kevin Chandler, Director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Legal Professionals Program.
“The notion that you work hard and play hard and drink hard goes back for decades,” he said. “It’s seen as a rite of passage.”
Chandler recalled speaking to a judge once who told him, “I drank heavily every day for over 23 years, and in all that time, I never had a drink I didn’t deserve.”
“I think that’s the attitude of much of the legal profession,” Chandler said. “That’s something that goes hand in hand with practicing law, whether as a defender or a prosecutor or [an attorney] in a private firm.”
Raúl Ayala, a 65-year-old federal public defender from Los Angeles who abused alcohol for over 30 years before finally getting sober, agreed.
Like Laura, Ayala’s alcohol intake ramped up during law school to deal with what he described as “cutthroat pressure.”
“Everybody was out to outdo you,” he said. “Because they wanted to make the law review, for example, or to get the good corporate job, or the clerkship.”
Addiction itself is not particular to public defenders, and there is currently no data comparing the rate of substance abuse by public defenders to other attorneys.
Nevertheless, defenders dealing with addiction face unique challenges given the nature of their work, according to Krill.
“These are offices that tend to be under-resourced, and the people have extraordinary caseloads that they are unable to keep up with,” he said. “They don’t have the same level of support that they might have in a law firm setting.”
The most recent workload data at the national level comes from a Bureau of Justice Statistics study published in 2010, which found that the majority of public defender offices far exceeded the maximum recommended number of cases per attorney.
Figures at the state level, which are more up-to-date, demonstrate that this trend continues. In Kentucky, for instance, the Guardian reported that individual defenders took on an average of 448 cases in 2016—54 percent above recommended national standards.
This workload does not leave defenders with much room to handle personal issues.
“People’s firms can put off cases to an associate, or they might have paralegals working with them,” said Laura. “But public defenders have the entire responsibility for their caseload.”
Public defenders are also among the lowest-paid members of the legal profession, meaning they often lack the funds to address addiction properly.
According to the National Association for Law Placement, which collects statistics on legal professionals, the median salary for entry-level public defenders was $58,300 in 2017—less than half of the median first-year salary of an associate in the private sector, which was $135,000.
“Defenders’ benefits and salary just don’t provide them with the same level of health care and access to resources that someone else might enjoy,” said Krill.
“They have the same barriers as all lawyers—fear of how it’s going to impact their job and their reputation—but beyond that, they have this compound barrier of not having that level of resources at their disposal.”
Public defenders also must contend with the emotional toll of their work. The trauma that sometimes ensues from dealing with clients’ misery can exacerbate addiction, even when it’s not the root cause.
Chandler reported seeing many defenders using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.
“I had a patient not long ago who was given a big case in which he was required to review reams of evidence on infant pornography,” he recalled. “He said it was so disturbing that it really caused him to up his usage of alcohol.”
The State Bar of Wisconsin undertook a study to learn just how significant the emotional toll of public defense is. The study examined the prevalence of “compassion fatigue,” or the cumulative physical, emotional, and psychological effects of continual exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity.
Researchers found serious impairment among the public defenders they studied, with 39.5 percent demonstrating significant symptoms of depression and 11 percent with clinically significant PTSD symptoms.
Laura herself would be diagnosed with depression. As time went on, she felt increasingly fatalistic about her ability to execute justice.
“The reality…is that you walk in thinking you’re going to free everyone, and in effect you end up spending 99 percent of your time negotiating how much time someone is going to be in prison or on probation, and what they will admit to,” she said.
“The problems we are responsible for aren’t making sure that somebody doesn’t have to pay $200,000 for a breach of contract. Our responsibility is to make sure somebody doesn’t go to jail. And the weight of that—it’s psychologically heavy.”
Ayala spoke to the pressures of public defense as well.
“We’re dealing with people’s lives and their liberties,” he said. “Their ability to raise a kid and hold a job and have homes and have families and just be a regular member of society.”
“We take it on ourselves a lot emotionally.”
Perhaps because of the burden of her responsibility, Laura took great pride in her job—which only increased her alcohol intake.
“You are the ones who are willing to do this work that so few people are willing to do,” she said.
“There’s this sense that you’re a better lawyer, you have more integrity, you’re more moral, you work harder for less money, you don’t have the prestige. And you carry people’s lives in your hands.”
“That’s what makes it OK when you’re drinking to keep up with work. There’s some sense that you will handle everything at all times.”
“Serious Access-to-Justice Issues”
Because defenders are tasked with aiding vulnerable populations—people facing criminal charges who often cannot afford to hire other legal counsel—there can be more serious consequences when they are unable to cope with their substance use.
Krill said addiction among defenders raises “rather serious access-to-justice issues.”
A defender’s struggles with substance abuse can lead to “everything from minor delays or glitches in a defendant’s case…to on the other end of the spectrum, a complete miscarriage of justice,” he said.
“I remember working with a patient once who was in treatment, and in the depths of their addiction sometimes they wouldn’t pick up the phone and wouldn’t answer clients, basically just ignore them, because they were too burned out and engaged in too much self-medication to really care,” he said.
Krill had not personally dealt with patients who revealed that their addiction lead to a wrongful conviction—“as you can imagine, those are not the types of things that people are very inclined to discuss”—but he was confident such instances existed.
The National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks every known exoneration in the US since 1989, lists inadequate legal defense as a contributing factor for 565 of 2,239 exonerations—about one in four.
What this means exactly is unclear. To begin with, the number of exonerees does not come close to the number of people who have been wrongfully convicted. Many more people have gone to prison for lack of adequate defense than have been exonerated for this reason.
That said, defense can be inadequate for many reasons other than substance abuse.
The data that exists, therefore, doesn’t put a hard number on how many miscarriages of justice have taken place because a defender’s addiction went untreated.
Still, it is easy to imagine the ways big and small that substance abuse can take a toll on job performance.
“We have great potential to cause harm to our clients,” said Ayala. “Either by not looking at the case properly, not investigating it, not aggressively litigating motions, plea negotiations, trials, appeals, habeas….There’s a lot of moving parts, and if you have an attorney that’s off-kilter, that could spell problems.”
Laura said she wasn’t fully aware of the ways alcohol impaired her at work until she got sober.
“At the time I would have told you, ‘I’m fine, I’ve got it,’ but I have to say, [there is] no way I could have performed optimally under that condition,” she said.
“Do I think I was providing ineffective counsel? I wouldn’t go that far….But do I think that I was the good lawyer that I am now? No, I don’t think anyone under that condition can do that job well.”
The Road to Recovery
Laura tried to quit drinking multiple times before she finally got sober for good. The first time she enrolled in a 12-step program, she found it impossible to quit drinking and simultaneously keep up with her workload.
“I didn’t know how to get sober and go to work and experience the withdrawal symptoms I was going through and not have a place to talk about it,” she said. “I didn’t think you could be a public defender without drinking.”
Particularly difficult was forgoing the happy hours that had been her support system in the past.
“Because that’s really where you would get to know that you’re not crazy,” she said. “Like, ‘Yes, that judge was horrible to you, those clients are really challenging, you did the best you could.’”
“If you don’t have a place to go hear that at the end of the day, how do you do that work?”
She ended up leaving the defender’s office and taking on work as an attorney in a solo practice. Her logic: no colleagues meant no exposure to alcohol.
“I thought the only way to be sober and be a lawyer was to be by myself,” she said.
But finding that she missed representing indigent clients, she soon returned to public defense—and promptly began drinking again.
Within a year and a half back at the public defender’s office, Laura had an emotional breakdown. She was taking prescription drugs by that point to cope with her anxiety and depression, and decided she needed serious help. She took medical leave and went to a rehabilitation program for a month to get clean.
When Laura returned to work, she initially isolated herself again. But she quickly realized that without some kind of support from her colleagues, she would be unable to do her job.
“If you do not have lunches, if you do not hang out after work, if people don’t come visit you in your cubicle, then you just can’t do it,” she said.
So she began to seek out the other members of her office who drank less, and realized, to her surprise, that fewer people were partaking than she had previously thought.
“My perception of the entire office changed when I stopped drinking,” Laura said. “I thought when I was drinking that everyone went out to drink.”
Many treatment programs are available to lawyers who are dealing with addiction and substance abuse issues. Every state has a Lawyer’s Assistance Program, which takes calls from people suffering from addiction or mental health issues and provides short-term interventions along with service referrals to appropriate providers in an individual’s community.
Still, many say that the resources available are insufficient.
Krill wants to expand prevention services, including trainings and awareness programs, “so defenders can understand some of the signs of substance use disorders and mental health problems.”
He would also like to see offices hire managers or counselors who are trained to detect signs of trouble and direct attorneys to the appropriate services.
“I say all this with the appreciation that this would sound like complete fantasy land in most public defender offices, because they’re sometimes struggling to have enough office supplies, let alone mental health resources,” Krill said.
“Silence is the Biggest Enemy”
One large obstacle to addressing addiction in the legal world is changing the discourse around substance abuse.
“Silence is the biggest enemy, and for too long in the legal profession we have swept this under the rug,” said Chandler. “That’s why we have twice the addiction rate of the larger population.”
Ayala, who now speaks to other attorneys about his journey to sobriety, expressed a desire to see increased dialogue surrounding substance abuse within the profession also.
“I think that we should do more as defenders by addressing this openly and honestly as much as we can,” he said. “At least once or twice a year, let’s get recovering lawyers to give programs on these issues to try to bring down that silence.”
Slowly but surely, the conversation is changing.
According to Laura, many in the younger generations of lawyers advocate placing a social worker or mental health professional in each office, as Krill hopes, to work through trauma with the defenders the same way that defenders provide such services for their clients.
This might help to diminish the stigma that leads many people to keep their struggles with addiction to themselves.
When asked what barriers might prevent them from seeking treatment, participants in the ABA study had one major answer: not wanting anyone to find out.
Ayala spoke to the stigma he feared when he was first getting clean: “Are people going to hold that against you? Will your clients stay away, will your reputation suffer, will the prosecutors know that and try to exploit that?”
Laura shared this fear, but she was less concerned for her reputation and more worried about seeming weak.
“If you’re going to be a public defender, you have to be Teflon,” she said. “You have to be scraped at by judges and prosecutors and your own clients, and you have to withstand it.”
“After work we go out and drink and we laugh about it. So I didn’t see that there was a space for me to say, ‘Hey, I’m having a hard time.’”
After she quit drinking, however, she slowly began coming out to people in her office. The more she shared her history, the more she heard from other people experiencing the same things—and the more respect she had for her own struggle.
“To be in that environment and deal with the trauma, the horrific injustice that you experience once you get to know your clients and see what they’re experiencing, and to be sober in the face of that is incredibly strong,” Laura said. “And that’s not something I realized until I got sober.”
Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.