Drink Like a Lawyer: The Neuroscience of Substance Use and Its Impact on Cognitive Wellness

57 Pages Posted: 1 Oct 2014 Last revised: 8 Oct 2015

See all articles by Debra S. Austin

Debra S. Austin

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Date Written: September 29, 2014


Lawyers have a powerful voice in the American legal system, government, and news and entertainment businesses. But do they make their contributions to society while impaired?

Lawyers suffer from higher levels of anxiety and depression than the rest of the population, but most do not start law school with these mental health issues. Lawyers rank fourth in professions with the most suicides, which may be linked to stress, anxiety, depression, and/or substance abuse.

Law students, lawyers, and judges are vulnerable to substance abuse because drugs of abuse can make a lawyer feel less stressed. Disciplinary actions against attorneys involve substance abuse 50-75 percent of the time. These problems may start in law school where school events may teach students to “drink like lawyers.”

Legal educators need a better understanding of what aspects or characteristics of legal education contribute to the decline in mental health of law students, lawyers, and judges, and neuroscience developments may provide this insight. Law students, lawyers, judges, and law professors will benefit from the knowledge of how stress and substance use effect the lawyer brain.

This article describes the neurobiology of learning; explains the brain’s reward system; examines the neural impact of stress; details the transformational conditions of neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and epigenetics; discusses lawyer addiction; and illustrates how medications such as antidepressants, and substances such as alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, caffeine, cocaine, study drugs, and opiates impact brain function. The article concludes with neuroscience-based recommendations for law students, lawyers, judges, law schools, and law firms to optimize brain health and lawyer wellness.

Suggested Citation

Austin, Debra S., Drink Like a Lawyer: The Neuroscience of Substance Use and Its Impact on Cognitive Wellness (September 29, 2014). 15 Nev. L. J. 826 (2015), U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper 14-52, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2503021 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2503021

Debra S. Austin (Contact Author)

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States

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