Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Is Malcolm Gladwell Right: Do 50% Of Harvard Law Students Take Drugs To Enhance Their Academic Performance?

MHLSBloomberg Law, Is ‘More Than 50%’ of Harvard Law School on Drugs?:

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, was a guest [on Lance Armstrong's podcast] in October. Armstrong and Gladwell’s conversation turned to performance enhancing drugs and therapeutic use exemptions. Gladwell commented on how debates about high performance in sports parallel debates about high performance in society. By way of example, he pointed to extraordinarily high uses of drugs like Adderall among students at elite universities. From there, Gladwell went on to speculate about students at Harvard Law School…

Malcolm Gladwell: “If you go to Harvard Law School, I would, I don’t know, I would…

Lance Armstrong: “I want to hear this number.”

Malcolm Gladwell: “I would venture that more than 50% of the students are taking something. Whether it’s Provigil to help them study, or Adderall the day before some major test.”

Am I naive or is anyone else surprised by how high the number was that Gladwell put out there? More than 50%? Could he be right?

Earlier this year, the Journal of Legal Education published a study on law students and substance abuse, including use of drugs to enhance academic performance [Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being]. Among other things, they found high uses of prescription drugs without a prescription, including Adderall. In November, followed up on that research calling Adderall use by law school students a dirty little secret.

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Sorry friend, searching for "law" (forget about "law student") results in just two hits in your link - one to the state of DeLAWare and the other to the phrase "trouble with the law." Context indeed. What magic beans are you using to glean that law students are less likely to use drugs than the general population from that document, pray tell?

Let's add some more context:

"Lawyers are at roughly twice the risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol as people in other professions. They also have higher incidence of depression, anxiety, suicide and other mental health issues than the general population"


"From February to May 2014, Organ and his colleagues surveyed more than 3,300 law students from 15 law schools about their drinking, drug use, and mental health. Twenty-two percent reported binge drinking two or more times in the previous two weeks, and almost a quarter showed signs that they should undergo further testing for alcohol addiction. More than a quarter had received at least one diagnosis of “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, personality disorder, and/or substance use disorder,” the study found.
Fourteen percent of law students said they’d used marijuana in the past 30 days, and 2.5 percent said they’d used cocaine in that time. That's higher than the results shown in a 1991 study of 3,388 students at 19 law schools, in which 8 percent of law students reported using marijuana and 1 percent said they'd used cocaine in the previous 30 days."


“In August 2014, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation announced that they were collaborating on a major research project to survey current rates of substance abuse, depression and anxiety among licensed attorneys throughout the United States… Citing just a few findings, Krill said 21 percent of the attorneys responding to the survey acknowledged that they are problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with depression, 19 percent experience anxiety, and 11.5 percent have reported suicidal thoughts. The project surveyed 15,000 lawyers around the United States during 2014 and 2015... Substance abuse plays a role in 40 percent to 70 percent of all disciplinary proceedings and malpractice actions against lawyers, said Krill.”


“In total, over 14% of respondents reported use of some prescription drug without a prescription in the prior 12 months, while roughly 13% of those with a prescription reported sharing their prescription drugs with others in the prior 12 months, with prescription stimulants distributed most frequently, followed by sedatives and pain medication.”


By the way, your one link does note that “Among people aged 12 or older, an estimated 18.9 million misused prescription psychotherapeutic drugs in the past year, representing 7.1 percent of the population,” so in it would appear that law students are TWICE as likely to misuse prescription drugs as the general population. Whoops.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Dec 17, 2016 11:31:50 PM

It sounds like law students are less likely to use drugs that most of the rest of the population.

I wonder why Organ & Co. don't provide any context?

Perhaps "Law students less likely than most to use drugs" isn't as catchy as "Houston, We Have a Problem."

Posted by: Comparison | Dec 17, 2016 8:44:43 AM

(The survey and article I mention above is the same one cited in the post.)

Posted by: John | Dec 16, 2016 9:26:50 AM

Harvard may differ, but there is a decent sized survey that pegged about 13% of law students at 15 schools having a stimulant prescription and about 9% taking it without a prescription.

Posted by: John | Dec 16, 2016 9:25:03 AM

Gladwell's claim depends heavily on the definition he employs. If he means taking any substance that improves performance, he's clearly right, as almost all of us drink caffeine in one form or another. If he means, taking prescription drugs that were prescribed to you (for any reason), I think 50% is high but not outlandish. To my mind, this category includes anti-depressants as well as stimulants. But if he means that 50% take prescription drugs without a prescription (your sister's Adderall) or non-prescription drugs (cocaine), I think it's high.

But just my two cents.

not pres

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Dec 16, 2016 7:45:29 AM

Keep this trend up, and the legal profession will have a truth-in-advertising issue. If they promote the fact that one of their lawyers graduated at the top of his class at Yale while using enhancement drugs, then they'll have to guarantee that he'd continue to use them while representing clients.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Dec 15, 2016 7:10:12 AM

My guess is that he is right. I once asked an honor court member here about the issue of drug use to assist exam performance and was told it would be too hot an issue because so many were involved.

Posted by: Jeffrey harrison | Dec 15, 2016 6:49:54 AM

Does caffeine count?
But the younger generations do seem to be more heavily "self-"medicated with prescription meds than I recollect among my own cohorts in the 1970's. Who were more into recreational street drugs.

Posted by: ruralcounsel | Dec 15, 2016 4:45:03 AM

On the one hand, it is Gladwell we're talking about here; salt must be applied. On the other hand, if I were to extrapolate from all of the HLS basket cases who by demeanor are either permanently on Adderall or cocaine, well...

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Dec 14, 2016 3:39:44 PM