Understanding The Relationship Between Legal Professionals And Alcohol Abuse

A majority of lawyers and other legal professionals are forced to daily navigate an unending series of ethical conflicts on top of an excruciating workload in a high-pressure, competitive workplace. As such, for decades the infamously intense careers of lawyers have contributed to the stereotype of “drunk lawyer.” There are many stories of judges ruling lawyers too inebriated to represent their clients in court. Rates of abuse among lawyers and related legal professions are among the highest of any career field in the U.S.

In a study by the American Bar Association (ABA) done in collaboration with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, 20.6% of licensed, employed attorneys showed signs of problematic drinking, compared to just 11.8% of the total workforce with the same level of educational attainment. Furthermore, the study showed that 28% reported experiencing “mild or higher levels of depression”; nearly half reported having concerns over their depression during their career. Anxiety is also a problem for lawyers – 19% reported “mild or higher levels of anxiety” and 61% reported anxiety issues at some point in their career.

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.

Patrick R. Krill
co-author of the study

Most alarming, however, was that 11.5% of lawyers reported having suicidal thoughts at one time in their career, 2.9% reported self-harming behaviors, and 0.7% reported at least one suicide attempt.

Similar to other high-stress careers (such as emergency first responders, police officers, doctors, et cetera) some people tend to lean on unhealthy habits to cope with job anxieties. People who repeatedly turn to alcohol are likely to become dependent on it over time. Lawyers have described heavy drinking habits (5 or more drinks in one sitting on at least 5 of the last 30 days) that led to poor job performance. In turn, this can result in lying to your family, friends, coworkers, and boss; depression; and anxiety.

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A Breakdown Of Alcohol Abuse Rates Among Lawyers

Regardless of the pervasiveness of a drinking culture among legal professionals, rates of alcohol abuse are not equal among all lawyers. Younger lawyers and those who are newer to their positions have the highest rates of excessive drinking. Lawyers under 30 years-old had the highest drinking rates (32.3%), followed by those between 31 and 40 years-old (26.1%), with rates on a steady decline as lawyers aged.

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
Legal Professionals Program Director at Hazelden Betty Ford

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. Next, 26.7% said the problem started before law school and 14.5% said it began after 15 years in their profession. Additionally, the study revealed that lawyers working for private firms or for the bar association had the highest percentages of alcohol abuse. This may indicate a culture of drinking in private firms that can quickly ensnare young, new lawyers trying to “make their mark.”

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Rehab And Addiction Treatment For Legal Professionals

The biggest barrier to getting addiction 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; 44.2% had general confidentiality and privacy fears.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Robert (an attorney at a national firm who asked to have his last name withheld) detailed pressures to fit in at his firm that typically involved cocktails: “From entertaining clients to unwinding after a long day at work, there usually is a drink in hand.”

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After years of addiction, guilt, and lying to everyone around him, Robert believed he was ready to kill himself. Instead, he reached out to family for help. Following a recovery program, he’s been able to maintain sobriety and a more fulfilling life.

“I want people to know that it’s OK to have a problem and it’s OK to be a human being.”

For legal professionals, specialized services have been the most effective in treating addiction. Similarly, “profession-specific guidelines for recovery management” for physicians have dramatically improved recovery results in that field. Fortunately, many of the professionals suffering from addiction have a number of recovery resources available to them – such as paid time off or company-funded addiction treatment.

The first step is overcoming your fears and asking for help.

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