Alcoholism in the legal profession
“Stressed? Drink. Not happy? Drink. Happy? Drink, and invite some co-workers. Need to entertain clients? Drink. Work hard, play hard, as the trite mantra goes, and don’t let anyone know if you can’t keep up" – Patrick R. Krill
It is no secret that the high-pressure workplace legal professionals are immersed in fosters a powerful drinking culture. However, for the first time in 25 years a study, conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA), has uncovered alarming quantitative data that illustrates the extent of this issue. Patrick R. Krill, who conducted the study, remarked that he has never "seen a professional population out there with a higher level of problem drinking". Whilst alcohol dependence has been studied extensively in other high intensity professions, such as physicians and paramedics, the stigma and normalisation of drinking in the legal field has led to a statistical silence. This research has shinned a light on concerns which have been lurking in the shadows for far too long, prompting questions about the systemic causes and what can be done to change this dangerous culture.
I. The Issue
The ABA’s 2016 study used both objective and subjective measures in assessing approximately 13,000 legal professionals to uncover the secrets of alcoholism in the profession. 20.6% of lawyer’s drinking behaviour was recorded as problematic in comparison with 11.8% of the broader highly educated workforce. 3 of 4 respondents reported that their problematic drinking began after they started law school. This has a strong correlation with the fact lawyers have a disproportionately higher rate of developing mental health issues.
For current law students and recent graduates these statistics are even more alarming. The analysis of age categories revealed lawyers under the age of 30 had the highest rate of excessive drinking at 32.3%, followed by those 31-40 years old at 26.1%. This is consistent with the finding that "among the 23% of lawyers who said they believed their drinking was a problem, 44% stated the problem began within their first 15 years of practice.”
One objective test in the study was based off three objective questions about the frequency and quantity of alcohol consumed. This revealed 36% had consistent results with hazardous drinking. When the same test was used to assess physicians, only 15% of respondents were above this threshold. Another, more subjective test, posed 10 questions about the nature and impact drinking had on the respondents’ lives. This measure revealed only 21% were engaging in hazardous drinking behaviour. Alarm bells are ringing for the gap of 15% who, for whatever reason, either didn’t admit or were unable to see the hazardous nature of their behaviour.
II. The Cause
Alcohol consumption knows no social, economic or educational barriers, and with the unique stress factors lawyers face, the legal professional is no exception. Krill believes factors that put lawyers at high risk include “workloads, office culture and unwillingness to seek help”. American Bar Association President Paulette Brown further comments on the “ground-breaking” research stating that "This new research demonstrates how the pressures felt by many lawyers manifest in health risks."
Lawyers and other legal professionals are forced daily to navigate an unending series of ethical conflicts, which is only a single aspect of their complex and excruciating workload in a high-pressure, competitive workplace. It is a sad reality that for many the data isn’t surprising, simply confirming what they see every day. Chelsy Castro, the clinical case and program manager at the Illinois Lawyers' Assistance Program, finds that “With lawyers, it is a zero-sum game all of the time: One side has to win, and one side has to lose," she said. "So, there is a lot of pressure to be perfect."
Anecdotal evidence further confirms that the pressure beginning in law school heavily influences how soon to be lawyers approach drinking culture. The ABA interviewed Robert (who requested his last name be omitted due to fear of stigma) who has been in the profession for 26 years. His experience taught him that drinking was a pillar of his firm’s, and the industries, identity and that soon conflated with his own identity. It is not only that lawyers choose to unwind with a drink in hand, but it is how they entertain clients and ultimately “there was a significant amount of pressure early on to fit in, and usually that is done through cocktails," Robert commented.
There is a subtly widespread acknowledgement of these issues and yet the profession remains stoic and silent about the unhealthy approach to dealing with the pressure of their workplace. To many this research is alarming but the fact that the professional culture is unstainable is not news to those who have experienced it first-hand. Krill put it best when he said “Attorney impairment poses risks to the struggling individuals themselves and to our communities, government, economy and society. The stakes are too high for inaction."
III. The Solution
All the research points to these issues beginning in law school, meaning we should take a proactive, preventative approach to developing a healthier relationship with alcohol consumption. It also means that part of the change needs to be in teaching young law students and lawyers to be proactive in reaching out and leaning on their support systems before they feel overwhelmed and turn to alcohol as a solution. Whatever the solution it is clear that "This is a mainstream problem in the legal profession” and "There needs to be a systemic response."
The biggest barrier to getting treatment, as reported by current lawyers, was the belief that admitting they had a problem would ruin their image, career, or both. Half of all lawyers in a survey stated they would be afraid of peers finding out they needed help. A solution to this can be seen in nonprofit organisation such as Lawyers' Assistance Program in Chicago which provides free and confidential mental health and addiction services for lawyers, judges and law students. They are working closely with local law schools and some law firms to bring the issue to the forefront and remove the stigma around seeking help. Robert, the aforementioned lawyer, commented “I want people to know that it’s OK to have a problem and it’s OK to be a human being.”
The ABA student division has been working to change this status quo and normalise seeking help. The ABA law student podcast, which they present, covers issues that affect law students and recent grads, including alcoholism. Episodes such as “Substance Abuse and Mental Illness in the Legal Profession”, “Dealing with the pressures of law school” and “Mental health and well-being: how law students can get help and help others” are sending a message to the next generation of lawyers that it is important to seek help.
Lawyers are known for their stereotypically career orientated personalities. This focus on their work can often be to the detriment to their health. However, one solution could be for the industry to use their influence on lawyer’s personal lives to ensure they took care of their health instead of ignoring these issues. From his own experience at Hazelden, Krill has noticed that lawyers, law students and judges don’t seek help at early signs of a problem. Whilst most patients at Hazelden join the program when they start to suffer consequences in their personal lives, most of the attorneys he sees join when their firms have mandated they get help. Krill comments that "It's a population that really prioritizes their career, and it is a career that has leverage to force them to be mindful of their health.”
For this to happen, there will need to be a severe reconstruction of the legal professions culture. There needs to be greater focus on health and seeking help instead of promoting dysfunctional coping mechanisms at law firms, where "heavy drinking is 100 percent normalized." While some law firms are trying to be proactive, "on the whole, they don't pay adequate attention or give it enough resources or adequate messaging," Krill said. Linda Albert, a social worker who serves on the ABA's Commission for Lawyer Assistance Programs, said the messaging must be consistent and constant to change the culture. Some ways to implement this is to have mandatory courses in law school on the importance of person well-being as well as starting the conversation about removing alcohol from professional events. Albert also suggests that mentoring programs would be beneficial for young lawyers before these problems develop.
Whilst the data may “seem disheartening” it is really “a call to action for all of us," Albert said. These issues are not new or unheard of, but these alarming statistics will hopefully lead the legal profession down the road of building a healthier culture.
By Emma Ashley
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