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Study shows ‘problematic’ alcohol use by attorneys

March 23, 2016
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A new study completed by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation has given some much needed data on lawyers struggling with substance abuse and depression.

The study, which was released in early February, found 20.6 percent of lawyers and judges surveyed reported problematic alcohol use, while 28 percent of responding lawyers experienced depression. Nineteen percent of lawyers experienced anxiety and 23 percent experienced stress.

abuse-chart.gifThe study consisted of nearly 13,000 lawyers and judges throughout the United States who responded to the 10-question Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, which was developed by the World Health Organization. A score of eight or higher on the test indicates hazardous or harmful alcohol intake and also possible dependence, and the lawyers that reported problematic alcohol use had a score at eight or above.

Terry Harrell, executive director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, wasn’t surprised by the numbers. She said she was glad to finally have some concrete data to support what she knows has been a problem for a long time.

“We’re not imagining this, guys,” she said. “It’s not like nothing’s been happening. This gives us even more ammunition to say ‘Hey guys, we even need to do a better job of reaching out, especially to young lawyers.’”

The lack of data among lawyers who suffer from alcohol or substance abuse was the reason why the study was done, explained Patrick Krill, a study co-author and director of the legal professionals program at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He said the last credible study on lawyers and substance abuse was done in the early 1990s.

“The data was 25 years old and it was from one state,” Krill said. “We needed credible, persuasive data. The data from before was borderline useless, and we had to know the dimensions of this problem.”

What was most concerning about the study, Krill said, is that it wasn’t just one subsection of lawyers, or lawyers practicing in just one section of the country, or just one type of law.

“Abuse was consistent regardless of law practice, which really showed the systemic nature and cultural problem we have,” Krill said.

The study found nearly 44 percent of lawyers reported problematic alcohol abuse within 15 years after completing law school, while 27.6 percent of lawyers reported it started before law school. Nearly 14 percent reported alcohol abuse started during law school.


“With the stress and pressure on law students and young lawyers, it’s not surprising at all,” Katherine Bender, executive director of the Dave Nee Foundation, said. The foundation focuses on helping young law students seek treatment for depression and substance abuse. “Drinking habits from undergraduate studies follow people into law school.”

bender-katherine-mug Bender

Bender said a culture among especially young lawyers is to blame for some of the problem.

“Students get into the mindset that they work really hard, they want to play really hard as well,” Bender said. “They definitely like to do everything to the best extent possible. That goes for being the top of class, partying hard, everything.”

Harrell said that kind of mindset is prevalent among lawyers, and it definitely contributes to driving them to find an escape. Lawyers tend to be achievement-oriented, perfectionistic people.

“There’s a lot of pressure to be perfect and as human beings we can’t achieve perfection,” she said.

Long hours and isolation can also lead to stress, Harrell said. Because lawyers can’t talk about their jobs as much as people in other professions because of client confidentiality, that leaves them to bottle it all inside.

“They’re holding in a whole lot of stuff that others get to talk to friends and family about, and that leads to compassion fatigue,” Harrell said. “If a wife comes in and her husband and kids are in an auto accident, you see her grief but you can’t talk about it with anyone; that takes a toll on you.”

Harrell said competition within the profession also creates stress.

“When you’re a surgeon, for instance, there’s not another equally well-trained, equally smart surgeon on the other side of the operating table trying to kill them. When you’re a lawyer, there’s someone on the other side saying you’re wrong, you’re stupid, and adds another layer of pressure.”

What can be done?

Defining the problem is only half of it. Now the question is what can be done to help lawyers so they don’t abuse alcohol and drugs. There are many ideas for solutions, and they start by reaching students while they are still in school.

“We need a cultural change, a legal culture change,” Bender said. “Law students put too much pressure on themselves and if they’re not in the top 10 percent of class, they think they will not get jobs at big law firms. We need changes in law firms and law schools in the pedagogy.”

Bender said things changed in the medical profession when medical students doing residencies were found to not fare as well when they were sleep deprived. Something similar needs to happen in law school, she said.

“They feel like they need to buck up and they can’t, and they don’t seek help. If they don’t understand that now, they are not going to be successful and it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “Students need to have a balanced life now.”

Bender suggested a couple of changes that would eliminate some stress on law students. More law schools could forgo ranking students, as is the case in some schools. Also, students should receive more feedback throughout their studies.

Krill said any changes will have to be implemented on a gradual basis.

“Change is a difficult process,” Krill said. “We should start with something targeting one small segment, making interventions easier, then move to a bigger solution. There are a lot of law students who are struggling right off the bat, and that’s where we need to start. We need to address the students who have alcohol and substance abuse issues coming in before anything else.”

Krill said lawyers are independent and competitive, and therefore a lot will not seek help for themselves.

“Attorneys perceive barriers between them to get help and it’s usually two primary things: fear of others finding out and because of that, confidentiality being breached.”

Krill said that “paranoia” of others finding out is crushing to a lot of lawyers and makes them spiral further down.

And Krill said while programs like JLAP are great, they can’t be expected to solve the problems on their own.

“We need widespread buy-in to reform the private sector,” Krill said. “We can’t expect JLAPs to be solely responsible for this. The rest have to be on board, or solving this problem will be impossible.”

Harrell said it comes down to finding better ways to relieve stress.

“Alcohol has become very acceptable in our culture,” Harrell said. “It’s an easy way to relax at the end of a long day. It’s a lot easier to crack open a bottle of wine than go to a yoga class or another healthier option.”

“Whatever’s going on, we need to fix it,” Harrell added. “To go on not recognizing the problem of depression and substance abuse is not possible. Everyone needs help.”•

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