Substance Use in the Legal Profession

Helping a lawyer in trouble

Substance Use in the Legal Profession

I was dancing with the devil, out of control
Almost made it to Heaven
It was closer than you know
Playing with the enemy,
gambling with my soul
It’s so hard to say no
When you’re dancing with the devil

— Music and Lyrics by D. Lovato,
J.Q. Ho, M. Allan, B. D. Atterberry,
recorded by Demi Lovato

How entrenched is alcohol in the Canadian legal profession? This is hard to answer as we don’t have a lot of data. In the USA, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation showed that nearly 21% of lawyers and others in the legal profession were considered problem drinkers and 36% struggled with alcohol use. Data for prescription and illegal drug use are even harder to find.

What we do know is that firms everywhere are grappling with these problems. How does a firm compassionately deal with someone struggling here? What are the legal, ethical and moral issues raised in this situation? What are the duties and responsibilities of a firm? Should a firm reassign files from the affected lawyer?

The Canadian Lawyer magazine stated:

“LPAC also notes that studies in Canada and the United States have shown that approximately 60% of disciplinary prosecutions and malpractice claims involve alcoholism and 90% of serious disciplinary prosecutions involve alcohol abuse.”

When a law firm becomes aware that a lawyer is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, they should approach the situation with sensitivity, compassion and professionalism. Here are some considerations:


Respect the privacy and confidentiality of the lawyer while also balancing the need to address the issue within the firm.

Recognize the duty of care and accommodation the firm has toward the lawyer, including providing support and assistance in accessing appropriate resources for treatment.

Uphold the integrity and reputation of the firm by addressing the issue transparently and responsibly.

Ensure fair treatment of all lawyers and employees, including providing support for recovery without discrimination.

Prioritize client interests by taking appropriate measures to ensure continued service and representation.


Ensure compliance with employment laws, including laws related to disability, discrimination and confidentiality.

Review contractual obligations, such as partnership agreements or employment contracts to understand the legal rights and obligations of both the firm and the lawyer.

Consider the legal obligations to report, such as mandatory reporting requirements in cases of impairment that may affect client representation or professional conduct. See the Duty to report, s. 7.1-3 Code of Professional Responsibility.


Approach with compassion and empathy, recognizing that addiction is a medical condition that requires support and treatment.

Acknowledge the firm’s responsibility to help support the lawyer in seeking help for their addiction and promote their well-being.

Hold the lawyer account-able while recognizing the importance of providing opportunities for rehabilitation and recovery.

Demonstrate the firm’s ethical leadership by addressing the issue openly, honestly and with integrity.

Consider the consequences of the lawyer’s addiction on their own well-being, the well-being of their colleagues and the reputation of the firm.

Ultimately, strive to balance these considerations in supporting a lawyer with addiction while also protecting the interests of clients and the firm as a whole. This may involve providing support and resources for treatment, implementing appropriate workplace policies, and addressing any legal obligations or consequences in a fair and compassionate manner, when you find a lawyer is dancing with the devil.

Related Articles