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Summary: Currently, the legal profession has a higher rate of alcohol abuse than any other profession.
There’s no doubt that law is a stressful profession.
In fact, so stressful is the practice of law that the legal world currently is saturated with alcoholism.
Find out what can lead to an attorney becoming an alcoholic, and why something needs to be done about it ASAP.
The scene is set. A gritty lawyer enters into his office after another hard day of work; his fourth consecutive day working inhumane hours. He sits in his chair and sips on a non-distinct beverage. We do not know what it is, but from the effects on our attorney, we can guess that it must be something alcoholic. This set up for TV may seem cliché, but it is the unfortunate reality for a large portion of legal professionals.
A recent study found that 1 in 3 attorneys is classified as a “problem drinker”, showing dangerous drinking behaviors. The legal profession now has a higher rate of alcohol abuse than any other profession. Pair this with the fact that the legal industry also suffers from significant mental health issues as well, and you have a shocking problem on your hands.
Let’s be honest here, we all know someone struggling with a drinking problem. In the United States alone, 17.6 million people, or about 1 in 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse. Sadder still, alcoholism is the 3rd leading cause of death in the nation.
To see how we as a culture have gotten to this point, take a look at any of our national holidays. We start the New Year as drunk as possible. Then we celebrate Fourth of July with a bucket of beer housed in festive red, white, and blue cans. Don’t even get me started on the holidays! Can you imagine surviving Thanksgiving with your family without a glass or two of merlot or some spiked eggnog?
The effects of drinking are widespread and devastating, including but not limited to:
Dementia, stroke, and neuropathy
Cardiovascular problems, including myocardial infarction, cardiomyopathy, atrial fibrillation and hypertension
Psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety, and suicide
Social problems, including unemployment, lost productivity, family problems, and violence (including child abuse, fights, and homicide)
Unintentional injuries, such as motor-vehicle traffic crashes, falls, drowning, burns and firearm injuries.
Increased risk for many kinds of cancers, including liver, mouth, throat, larynx (voice box) and esophagus
Liver diseases, including fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis
Gastrointestinal problems, including pancreatitis and gastritis
Alcohol abuse or dependence – alcoholism.
How do we know if we have a drinking problem? Keep reading to find out key symptoms of alcohol abuse.
Signs of Alcohol Abuse
It can be difficult for someone to acknowledge they have a problem if they do not recognize the symptoms. Addict-help.com has a list of 11 key signs of alcoholism to help those who wonder about their potentially hazardous behaviors.
11 Key Signs of Alcoholism
Cravings for alcohol
Loss of control
Drinking alone or in secret
Inability to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
Losing interest in hobbies or activities that used to bring pleasure
Feeling the need or compulsion to drink
Irritability when your usual drinking time appears, especially if alcohol is not available
Keeping alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work, or in the car
Having legal problems or problems with relationships, employment, or finances due to alcohol
Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms
It is important to note that you can have problems with alcohol and not be an alcoholic! Even smaller drinking problems can cause damage to relationships and daily life. It is crucial to seek help if you recognize any of the above issues.
Why Do Attorneys Suffer from Drinking Problems?
I have previously written about the stresses of working within this industry. Legal professionals often cite workplace dissatisfaction as a key component to their unhappiness. This feeling stems from negative leadership styles, confusion about job expectations, stressful clients, law school, negative job stereotypes, and an overall company culture, which encourages working overtime and brushes workplace fairness and harassment under the rug. Over 60% of study participants reported working over 41 hours a week!
Attorneys may feel unsupported in the work environment, often stating that they do not know what is expected of them at work. And if they run into any misconduct or harassment, human resource departments are often not on their side.
Whoa there! Those are some serious allegations! Yes, they are, but we need to get serious about the issues facing professionals in the legal industry or else we will never fix these problems. Countless attorneys will suffer due to lack of sleep or client and law firm-related pressure. When attorneys get stressed, they tend to drink—a lot.
What the Studies Say
A study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine aimed to provide data about drinking within the legal profession. The authors of the study had a common idea that the industry suffered from mental health issues and drinking problems, but there were no previous studies that dealt directly with the issue. So, the authors took it upon themselves, with approval from the institutional review board, to conduct a comprehensive study on the subject.
A total of 14,895 participants completed the survey. Demographics of the individuals are represented below:
Reported Career Length
10 years or less
11 to 20 years
21 to 30 years
Most Commonly Reported Positions
The survey revealed that 20% of those surveyed stated that they have felt that alcohol or other substances were problematic at some point in their lives. Within this subset, “27.6% reported problematic use manifested before law school, 14.2% during law school, 43.7% within 15 years of completing law school, and 14.6% more than 15 years after completing law school.”
Here we can see that the majority of drinking problems manifested after law school, in the beginning stages of their careers. This is not a good outlook for students looking to enter this field. The data also definitively supports the idea that work culture has a large role in the stress felt by legal professionals.
Additionally, there was a high number of reported drug use among legal professionals. Of those who “endorsed use of a specific substance class in the past 12 months, those using stimulants had the highest rate of weekly usage (74.1%), followed by sedatives (51.3%), tobacco (46.8%), marijuana (31.0%), and opioids (21.6%).
These facts are surprising, even to those who knew the prevalence of drug use within the industry. Why are so many attorneys turning to substance abuse to cope with the rigors of the practice?
Lawyers and Mental Health
There are numerous forms of treatment for those who feel overwhelmed or stressed out in the workplace, and lawyers often have great health insurance options. So, why aren’t we taking advantage of the rich assortment of resources in front of us? One prevailing theory is the resilience mindset found in the legal industry. Often we are told legal professionals are strong. They strive to overcome challenges and rise above any conflict.
In fact, this study also found significant amounts of mental health conditions self-reported by participants.
“The most common mental health conditions reported were anxiety (61.1%), followed by depression (45.7%), social anxiety (16.1%), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (12.5%), panic disorder (8.0%), and bipolar disorder (2.4%).”
One of the most sobering pieces of data from this study details that 11% of individuals said they had suicidal thoughts at some point in their career.
But this “culture of resilience” is hurting professionals everywhere. Mental health should not be something to be ashamed of. All professionals of any industry need to take charge of their mental health and get help if they need it. Susan Liebel, Founder & CEO of Solo Practice University, describes the hidden secret within the legal profession as a “very dark grey elephant in the room” that lawyers aren’t speaking up about.
According to her sources, about “20 percent of lawyers have depression at any given time, compared with 6.7 percent of the general population.”
She also argues that an overwhelming workload is partly to blame for the mental health issues:
“Some of the more specific work qualities that make lawyers particularly prone to depression are long work hours; the competitive nature of the work; the adversarial nature of the work; the requirement for highly focused attention to detail; the extreme repercussions of professional errors; the need to be pessimistic and skeptical, and to be prepared to deal with 'worst case scenarios;' responsibility for assisting clients and others who are in crisis or dealing with tragic situations; constant scrutiny of your work by employers, judges and opposing counsel; the reality that your work will directly impact the client’s financial, relationship, liberty and quality-of-life interests; the pressure of deadlines and the potential consequences of missing deadlines; rigid and particularized rules and procedures that must be followed carefully and completely; the need to perform, both in terms of achieving results and being 'on-stage' and observed by others in public arenas; the need to advance or defend a position that might conflict with your personal values.”
Hopefully, we will see a resurgence of health advocates, law firms, and companies changing the way lawyers work to provide a supportive atmosphere instead of the toxic environment we see so often today.
A recent survey asked a sample of surgeons about their drinking habits. Now, surgeons arguably have one of the most stress-inducing jobs in the world today. You have a patient’s life in your hands when you operate on them. You are in charge of a team of nurses, anesthesiologists, residents, and hospital staff to ensure a positive outcome for every patient.
Despite the extreme work structure and environment, surgeons maintain much healthier drinking habits than lawyers and legal professionals.
The numerous personal issues attorneys experience cause drops in mental health, work productivity, and overall happiness. Though there is not much research in this area, one recent study did find that attorneys are turning to drinking and drug abuse to cope. And, most of these negative habits start right after leaving law school and starting their careers.
Along with the destructive drinking behavior, lawyers are coming out to speak about their mental health issues such as depression. There is even a website titled lawyerswithdepression.com, which aims to provide struggling professionals with a support group and resource center.
The site distributes free books, magazines, blog articles, and speaking engagements for the community to come together and share their personal stories. Lawyers do not have to feel alone. The site was voted the best depression blog every year from 2012 to 2016. It has also been mentioned in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The National Law Journal, New York Law Journal, Fox News Channel, ABAJournal, and AARP.
Websites like Solo Practice University and lawyerswithdepression.com are a few of the ways that lawyers are fighting back against the stigma of heavy drinking. We can attack this issue from multiple sides in an effort to contain the problem. We need to give resources to professionals, but we also need to fix the work culture surrounding legal professionals that drives them to work inhumane hours every week and accept work harassment as an everyday occurrence.
If we can improve work environments in both private and public firms, while providing resources to those who need them, hopefully we can fix the big elephant in the legal industry.
This and other attorney related issues have to change, and it is up to us as an industry to do something about it. Let’s open a discussion about our troubles and work together to find a solution.
In short, a larger part of your future as an attorney is to recognize your destiny. Yes, you can be a legal practitioner who is also an addict, or you can resist the potential addiction component to allow yourself the ability to clearly focus on your practice.
Otherwise, blame the profession if you want. Cite the continual deadline pressure, grimace at the holier-than-thou law firm attitudes, or shake your head in dismay toward the overall world of law and its inherent flaws – all three of which are valid reactions to the alternate reality that law provides. It’s when these reactions cause lawyers to delve into alcohol and drug abuse that one needs to worry.
Promise yourself to engage in the practice of law with a clean and sober intent, and you will effectively find that for as difficult as being a lawyer is, the rewards exponentially outweigh the costs.