Problem Drinking Among Lawyers and Law Students

Problem drinking in the legal field

The numbers are in: Alcoholism is a real concern for legal professionals

In recent years, startling data has surfaced revealing the amount of alcoholic tendencies among legal professionals. Many attorneys and law students display warning signs of alcoholism but fail to seek the help they need.

There’s little doubt that being a lawyer is a prestigious profession. Like every career, however, the legal field is not without its pitfalls. Mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety can begin to escalate in law school and continue throughout an attorney’s life.

Additionally, alcoholism in the profession is frequently in the spotlight as law students and lawyers have higher “problem drinking behaviors” than many other adults. This articles analyzes alcohol abuse in the legal profession in order to help students and attorneys combat a potential addiction before it starts.

The 2016 study

Though concerns about attorney drinking began in the 1990s, public attention shifted in 2016 when the American Bar Association (ABA) partnered with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (HBFF) to conduct a comprehensive study of nearly 13,000 judges and lawyers. The numbers of problematic alcohol use were staggering and the Journal of Addiction Medicine published the findings.

Problem drinking was defined as “hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking,” and some of the results included:

  • One in three lawyers or judges have a drinking problem as compared with only 6% of the general population. (By comparison, only 15% of surgeons, who are considered to be in a comparatively competitive profession, reported similar drinking problems).
  • 28% of judges and lawyers suffered from depression while 19% reported anxiety.
  • 44% of the respondents stated that their alcohol abuse started within the first 15 years of practice.

These statistics reveal just how much of a problem alcohol is for attorneys, and a call-to-action has been sounded in order to try and reduce this epidemic.

Why do so many lawyers drink?

There appears to be a definitive correlation between the legal profession and alcohol, so many mental health professionals and fellow attorneys have begun to hypothesize as to the source of this connection.

Patrick Krill, an attorney and executive with HBFF, wrote:

“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. 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.”

With the struggle to earn billable hours and a profession built on the principles of winning and losing, mental anguish is unavoidable. Additionally, young lawyers, who were most likely to show problem drinking behaviors, are struggling with employment concerns and student loans.

As The Recovery Village explained:

“When it comes to young lawyers in particular, along with culture and competition, there’s also a theory that while the number of well-paying jobs is on the decline, the cost of a legal education is on the rise. Young lawyers often graduate with more than $100,000 in debt, putting even more pressure on an already stressful profession.”

Though debt and job competition can’t be erased, other factors that contribute to alcoholism in attorneys may be alleviated. Many attorneys focus on maintaining an image of perfection and strength. Too often, lawyers, don’t pursue the help they need because they don’t want to admit weakness. Opening up, however, may be the secret to preventing depression, anxiety and alcoholism.

As Dr. Indra Cidambi explained:

“If you feel the demands at work are overwhelming, talk to your boss or mentor and let him/her know that you are unable to cope with the workload and enlist their support. This is the most effective step one can take, as the conversation will be with the person who directly controls the workload. Most employers want a healthy employee and will help address concerns. You should also be able to open up to a family member or friend who will be able to advise you as an outsider. This will help relieve stress and serve as a support system. If you are already in a bad situation and are abusing substances to cope, you should schedule a substance abuse evaluation with a counselor.”

The ABA and other organizations repeat similar mantras and stress the importance of seeking health before a seemingly innocent drinking habit gets out of control.

Concern for law students

Just as attorney mental health has been in the spotlight, law student mental health and alcohol abuse has been in the forefront of the media. A number of studies have been conducted with the finding mimicking that of the 2016 attorney study. Many law students are depressed, anxious and turning to substance abuse to relieve stress.

As Psychology Today explained:

“For many students, the excitement of getting into law school ends when they start school. Excessive workloads and intense competition with like-minded perfectionists leads to long hours of study and creates an enormous amount of stress. Additionally, the emphasis on analysis makes many students lose their connection to their original reason for joining law school – passion for the law or helping people. Students, therefore, turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve tension and relax.”

Like attorneys, law students are encouraged to speak with loved ones and mental help professionals in order to prevent their drinking and mental anguish from escalating. Law schools, however, are also being pressured to do a better job at preventing students from overindulging in alcohol. Popular social events such as tailgates, the Barrister’s Ball and other student activities feature drinking as part of the fun. Though an active social life will helps students minimize stress, the emphasis should be taken off of alcohol.

As LawyerWellBeing.net described:

“Although the overwhelming majority of law students are of legal drinking age, a law school sends a strong message when alcohol-related events are held or publicized with regularity. Students in recovery and those thinking about it may feel that the law school does not take the matter seriously and may be less likely to seek assistance or resources. A law school can minimize the alcohol provided; it can establish a policy whereby student organizations cannot use student funds for the purchase of alcohol. Events at which alcohol is not the primary focus should be encouraged and supported. Further, law school faculty should refrain from drinking alcohol at law school social events.”

Though many students will drink responsibly at these events, it may not hurt to try and take precautions before drinking habits spiral out of control.

Helping yourself and other lawyers with a possible drinking problem

Attorneys and loved ones are encouraged to help prevent a potential drinking problem from escalating to an alcohol addiction. The ABA lists the following as signs to look for as symptoms of an alcohol dependency:

  • Behavioral changes (they start coming in late to the office or leaving early)
  • Work product changes (they decrease production or the quality of work suffers)
  • Isolation (they stop attending work-related functions or communicating with colleagues)
  • Noticeable mood changes with irritability or apathy
  • In later stages of problems with alcohol, they may come to work smelling of alcohol
  • When asked if there are problems, they avoid the question or insist nothing has changed

Additionally, if you’re wondering whether your alcohol use is bordering on a dependency or addiction, reflect on the following warning signs from the HBFF:

  • 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"

If you or someone you know is in the legal profession and suffering from alcohol abuse, consider the following resources:

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