One of the most significant studies of alcohol abuse and mental health disorders among practicing attorneys conducted in the past quarter century has concluded that attorneys are at a much higher risk than other professionals for alcohol use disorder, depression, anxiety, and stress.
Researchers from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs teamed up to conduct the study, surveying 15,000 lawyers across 19 states. The study reveals that between 21% and 36% drink at levels consistent with an alcohol use disorder. For comparison, those numbers are roughly 3-5 times higher than the government estimates for alcohol use disorders in the general population.
The ABA-Hazelden study, which will be published in February issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine, reveals that 20.6% of the sampled attorneys screened positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking. Moreover, 28 percent of the respondents reported experiencing symptoms of depression, 19% of anxiety, and 23% of stress.
Problems with alcohol abuse were found at an earlier stage in the lawyers’ careers and far outpaced their peers in other professions. According to the ABA-Hazelden study, attorneys in the first 10 years of their practice now experiencing the highest rates of problematic use (28.9%), followed by attorneys practicing for 11 to 20 years (20.6%), and continuing to decrease slightly from 21 years or more. The study found that junior associates have the highest rates of problematic use, followed by senior associates, junior partners, and senior partners. The study found that being in the early stages of one’s legal career is strongly correlated with a high risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Working from the assumption that a majority of new attorneys will be under the age of 40, that conclusion is further supported by the fact that the highest rates of problematic drinking were present among attorneys under the age of 30 (32.3%), followed by attorneys aged 31 to 40 (26.1%), with declining rates reported thereafter.
So what are the symptoms of a problem drinker? According to an ABA article on alcohol abuse, look for the following signs:
- Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
- Feeling a strong need or compulsion to drink
- Developing tolerance to alcohol so that you need increasing amounts to feel its effects
- Having legal problems or problems with relationships, employment or finances due to drinking
- Drinking alone or in secret
- Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea, sweating and shaking — when you don’t drink
- Not remembering conversations or commitments, sometimes referred to as “blacking out”
- Making a ritual of having drinks at certain times and becoming annoyed when this ritual is disturbed or questioned
- Losing interest in activities and hobbies that used to bring you pleasure
- Irritability when your usual drinking time nears, especially if alcohol isn’t available
- Keeping alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work or in your car
- Gulping drinks, ordering doubles, becoming intoxicated intentionally to feel good or drinking to feel “normal”
According to the ABA-Hazelden study, “While some individuals may drink to cope with their psychological or emotional problems, others may experience those same problems as a result of their drinking. It is not clear which scenario is more prevalent or likely in this population, though 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. Attorneys working in private firms experience some of the highest levels of problematic alcohol use compared with other work environments, which may underscore a relationship between professional culture and drinking.”
Why are lawyers so prone to alcohol abuse and mental health issues? Patrick Krill, lead author of the ABA-Hazelden study, surmises:
The law has always been a magnet for hard-working, self-reliant, and competitive people who often prioritize success and accomplishment far above personal health or wellbeing. On top of that, stress, unhappiness and imbalance abound, while unhealthy coping skills such as excessive drinking are the cultural norm — malignant, learned behaviors passed down through the profession with the frequency of a dominant gene.
The new study suggests a need for greater investments in lawyer assistance programs and an increase in the availability of attorney-specific treatment. According to Krill, “Any way you look at it, this data is very alarming, and paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people. Attorney impairment poses risks to the struggling individuals themselves and to our communities, government, economy and society. The stakes are too high for inaction.”
Attorney alcohol and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand with misconduct that leads to professional discipline. Indeed, the root cause underlying many violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct is alcoholism or substance abuse.
In an excellent article published in the February 2016 edition of The Bencher, Chicago-based attorney John Ratnaswamy noted that 27% of attorneys disciplined in 2014 in Illinois had at least one substance abuse or mental impairment issue. Lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) commonly work with and provide a wide variety of services for disciplinary authorities. The types of service programs provided for disciplinary counsel include attorney monitoring, contract development, screening, assessments and evaluations, support groups, and 12-step calls. But lawyer assistance programs are underutilized, according to the LAPs themselves. Lack of awareness of their existence among the members of the bar and of the judiciary are two of their biggest problems.
For a sobering look at one attorney’s struggles with alcohol addiction, you might wish to read the anonymous blog, “The Sober Lawyer – One Alcoholic’s Journey into Recovery.” As the author “Dick” notes: “lawyers are notoriously difficult to treat. I am no different. An attorney’s strengths professionally are major liabilities in recovery. A lot of us lawyers have super-egos, ultra-competitiveness, and over-analytical ways of dealing with life which can become major impediments to recovery. We often think we can out-think and out-smart this disease. The problem is that addition is your evil twin, always smarter than you and one step ahead.”
According to the recent ABA study, greater education aimed at prevention is needed, along with public awareness campaigns within the profession designed to overcome the pervasive stigma surrounding substance use disorders and mental health concerns. The most significant barriers to getting help, according to the study, are lawyers not wanting others to find out and concerns about confidentiality. The confidential nature of lawyer-assistance programs should be more widely publicized in an effort to overcome the privacy concerns that may create barriers between struggling attorneys and the help they need. And while such education should begin in law school, it should be reinforced throughout the practice of law.
While addiction is a pervasive problem in the Bar, law students and young lawyers should be particularly mindful of the warning signs. It is never too early to get help.