1:30pm is lunch break. For Ali*, that meant rushing out of the revolving glass doors of his centrally heated building and into the piercing London cold to collect his daily package from his dealer.
At the young age of 24, it is quite an achievement for Ali that he has managed to secure a job at one of the top central London law firms. Since his graduation from his LLM only a month prior to the job start date, he has barely had anytime to relax from the stress inducing 4 years he’s had to endure. His entrance into the corporate world has been anything but smooth; the high pressure environment with strict deadlines, ungodly long hours and immense competition would take a toll on anyone as young as him. To cope with the work day, he turned to an unlikely solution.
Ali’s tampering with drugs during his university years but it was always recreational and usually on weekends or on a night out partying with college friends. “It was never like an addition or like I felt that I needed to it, it was just in the fun of the moment back then,” he recalls. Now, he can’t envision getting through the day without taking a few cocaine breaks in between.
I went to visit him on a rare Sunday when he actually let his friend’s come see him. His apartment, a tiny ensuite that his starting salary could afford, was littered with junk food wrappers. He worked so much that he didn’t have time to cook, surviving only on fast food, snacks, coffee and ibuprofen.
He explained his drug usage by revealing his fears of the erratic nature of his job; everyone around him is more qualified, everyone is working more hours and seemingly putting in more effort into their work. If he doesn’t step up the pace everyday, then they’ll just fire him. “This is one of the best firms in the country,” he explains, “the competition is intense. They don’t need me like I need them, they have thousands of other applicants who could easily replace me”.
The more I probed about his cocaine usage at work, the more I realised that it wasn’t as unconventional as I initially assumed. “I only started because my colleague told me he was doing it” explained Ali. Apparently, it’s commonplace for his colleagues to do cocaine to get through the tough day, they just aren’t open about it. “Everyone’s doing it, they need it to straighten up for the day especially when you haven’t gotten enough sleep the night before which is usually the case”. In fact, Ali explained that it’s so commonplace that it’s likely that many of their bosses are in the know, or are even doing it themselves. However, according to Ali, no employer would ever bring it up though. “There’s an underground culture when it comes to law firms about this kind of stuff,” he explains. The ideology behind it is that provided the employee is performing, it’s easier to avoid the topic altogether.
Upon further investigation over this, I found that drug use among lawyers is on the rise and deeply hidden. The first thing I learned was that there is little research on drug abuse among lawyers. Nor is there a lot of data about drug abuse among lawyers compared with the general population or white-collar workers specifically.
One of the most comprehensive studies about lawyers and substance abuse was released in a 2016 report from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association in which they analysed the responses of 12,825 licensed practising attorneys across 19 US states.
Over all, the results showed that about 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, while 28 percent struggle with mild or more serious depression and 19 percent struggle with anxiety. Only 3,419 lawyers answered questions about drug use, and that itself is telling. While reading this information, Ali’s words about an underground culture among lawyers kept ringing in my mind. It’s not a stretch to assume this correlation; people working in stressful and competitive professions are more likely to develop mental health issues, which may then encourage them to turn to mind-altering substances to cope.
This encounter marked the last time I spoke to Ali. Both of us had busy schedules and I ended up leaving the UK shortly following this visit. When I think back at that last meeting with him, his bloodshot eyes habitually checking his work phone even during the short and only time that his friends came to visit, I feel a pang of sympathy. With more research into this issue, we will hopefully get to a place where we can help young lawyers starting out in the profession cope with the everyday stress of their lives without turning to drugs.
*name changed for privacy purposes