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Alcoholism in the Arena of Biglaw

There is little question that Biglaw is a drinking culture. Meetings take place over drinks, wins, and losses are celebrated and mourned with alcohol, and firm social events seem to always revolve around the open bar. Contributing to the high rate of alcoholism is the high-stress work environment that marks most Biglaw firms.

Alcoholism in the Arena of Biglaw

A study done in 2014 showed that 6.8 percent of attorneys had an alcohol misuse disorder, but the reality is probably far higher. Lawyers are unlikely to be completely open about their use and misuse of alcohol, given the culture of silence around all forms of mental health issues and addiction in the legal field.
The life of a Biglaw attorney plays a significant role in the rate of alcohol use disorders. Long hours make it hard to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and close relationships suffer. Demanding clients, demanding deadlines, and a workload that never stops play a role in leading to a disordered relationship with alcohol. Disappointment and dissatisfaction with the trajectory of a career is another often unspoken reason behind the inflated rate of alcoholism in the legal field.
Lawyers working in large firms also have a harder time recognizing their misuse of alcohol. Most live, eat sleep, and breathe the firm culture, which is so steeped in drinking that it can skew a personal perspective about crossing the line to a drinking problem. Drinking problems become normalized within a firm’s culture, making it challenging to identify when it has become a problem.
Mental health issues associated with alcoholism
According to the American Bar Association, as many as one in five attorneys has a drinking problem. Those results are based on respondents using the Alcohol Use Disorders Test, which is used by the World Health Organization to identify problem drinking. The same results showed that over one-third of attorneys suffer from mental health issues like stress, anxiety, and depression.
Attorneys experience mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, at a higher rate than most other professions. The relationship between mental health and alcoholism is complex. People often turn to alcohol to treat feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression, so alcohol is commonly used to self-medicate an underlying mental health issue. At the same time, problem drinking can exacerbate the same mental health issues, creating a vicious cycle.
A culture of secrecy
Many Biglaw firms have a deeply ingrained culture of secrecy when it comes to alcohol, addiction, or any type of mental health issue. The pressure from the firm to keep all matters private comes from the belief that appearing less than perfect will reflect negatively on the firm’s image.
This mindset presents a significant barrier to getting treatment for alcoholism or other addiction issues. Lawyers believe that admitting they have a problem poses a grave danger to their image, career, and their chances of moving up in the firm. Attorneys who realize they have a problem fear their peers finding out, as large law firms pit attorneys against each other in the race for the top. Peers might use something like a drinking problem to leapfrog over their competitors.
The culture of secrecy is fear of anyone outside the firm finding out that an attorney at the firm has a problem. Inside the firm, there are few secrets. Attorneys have valid fears about confidentiality and privacy if they seek treatment or otherwise open up about a struggle with addiction.
How to recognize a drinking problem?
Alcohol misuse and abuse are difficult to identify in any circumstances. Few people fit the stereotype of “going on a bender” and not getting off. Instead, alcohol is insidious, and it can take years for the problem to progress to the point that it is recognized. Most alcoholics go through a phase of being a functional alcoholic, which can last for months, years, or decades before it is addressed. During that time, significant harm is being done to the body, mind, and careers of attorneys.
There are warning signs of problem drinking, but it does little good for anyone other than the person with the problem to recognize the warning signs. An alcoholic or person with a drinking disorder will remain resistant to treatment until they realize the problem for themselves. Signs of an alcohol disorder include:
  1. Struggling to limit the amount of alcohol you consume.
  2. Developing a tolerance that leads to consuming increasing amounts of alcohol to feel the effects is common in alcohol and substance abuse disorders.
  3. There is a compulsion or strong need to drink.
  4. Friends or family have expressed concern about your drinking. You find yourself feeling defensive or angry if anyone questions the amount or frequency of your drinking.
  5. Getting a DUI or developing other legal problems as a direct result of your drinking.
  6. Do you find yourself drinking alone or in secret?
  7. Developing withdrawal symptoms that can include:
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Shakes
  • Delirium
  1. You realize you have lost interest in people, hobbies, and activities that once brought you pleasure.
  2. You experience blacking out, which can include forgetting conversations or commitments.
  3. Do you have a drinking ritual? Is there a particular time or circumstance when you always have a drink and do you become annoyed or frustrated if this ritual is interrupted or questioned?
  4. You feel anxiety at the thought of not being able to drink.
  5. Intentionally becoming intoxicated to change how you feel, or needing to drink to feel normal.
  6. Keeping alcohol secreted away in unlikely places at work, home, or in your car.
If any of the above circumstances seem familiar, there is a high likelihood that you have developed a problem with alcohol. There are numerous treatment options available, and with treatment, you will start to recognize your disordered thought patterns that make drinking seem like a normal part of life in a high-pressure firm.
Do yourself, your firm, your clients, and your friends and family a favor by seeking treatment to address your drinking problem. Taking the step of realizing there is a problem is a big one, but most attorneys with an alcohol misuse problem try to get the problem under control on their own. Quitting, or cutting back is seldom a permanent solution with professional help. Without addressing the root cause of the problem, success is unlikely to be permanent.
What can Biglaw firms do to address the problem?
Firms are recognizing the dangers associated with unaddressed addiction and mental health issues, and some large firms are leading the way by establishing health and wellness guidelines or departments to address the issue. The single biggest step is removing barriers to treatment that arise within the firm. Substance abuse and mental health issues come with a heavy stigma that poses a danger to the career of a legal professional. By addressing and removing the stigma, firms are opening doors for attorneys and other legal staff to receive the help they need.
Initiatives that encourage firm employees to recognize the signs of mental health issues and substance abuse and make treatment options readily available need to be standard in all large firms. Support of those in recovery, especially during the first year, is critical for success. Changes in a career path may be necessary to protect the recovery, and firms can play a significant role in facilitating these changes if necessary.
Biglaw and small to mid-sized firms need to consider ways to promote the well-being of legal staff, such as:
  • Provide resources and services to enhance the wellness of employees
  • Educate all employees about stress, depression anxiety, and other mental health issues
  • Provide similar education regarding addictions
  • Provide CLE credits for education about tools to confront or prevent problems related to the misuse of alcohol, drugs, opioids, and sedatives.
  • Promote non-alcoholic professional events
  • Create healthy initiatives involving the HR department
  • Lower the expected billable hours and set a maximum limit
  • Create policies that encourage and permit employees to seek help for mental health issues and addiction without fear of reprisals or loss of job security.
  • Provide a return to work plan for employees who have received help for such a problem.
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