Lawyers have been the butt of jokes for centuries. Even Shakespeare took them on: ”Let’s kill all the lawyers” in Henry VI. While many attorneys laugh off the digs, the profession does have two big problems: The drinking and depression rates for lawyers are much higher than those of the general public.
According to a study presented Saturday at the 2016 American Bar Association Midyear Meeting, the amount of problem drinking and mental health symptoms found in the legal profession are far higher than previously believed. This is particularly prevalent in younger practitioners.
The latest study showed that one in three practicing lawyers could be labeled as problem drinkers, based on the amount and frequency of their alcohol consumption. Additionally, 28 percent of those in the legal profession suffer from depression and approximately 19 percent exhibit symptoms of anxiety. In the general American adult population, only 6.8 percent have harmful drinking levels, and only 8 percent have depression in a given year.
The research, published in the February issue of Journal of Addiction Medicine, is based on responses to a widely-used 10-question Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. Approximately 12,825 licensed, employed lawyers (which included some judges) in 19 U.S. states completed the screening tool, which was developed by the World Health Organization. The study was conducted by the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs along with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Center City, Minn.
According to the study’s coauthor, Patrick R. Krill, director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Center’s legal professionals program, only 20.6 percent of the lawyers and judges surveyed indicated that their alcohol use was problematic. However, using a variation of the questionnaire that focused on their alcohol consumption frequency, the data showed that 36.4 percent of the questionnaire respondents could be considered problem drinkers.
While the study indicated alcohol use and mental health issues affected more in the legal profession than in other careers, it did not offer a clear answer as to why legal professionals seem to be more susceptible to these problems than other professionals. Krill noted that other “studies have shown that most lawyers are pessimists (either by nature or by training), which can be psychologically taxing and inconsistent with healthy coping skills.”
About 44 percent of those responding acknowledged that their drinking issues began during the first 15 years of their legal career. The fact that younger lawyers drink more may be culturally driven. Problematic levels of drinking may be normalized in many law firms, with lawyers encouraged to socialize and grab a drink with each other or clients. The origins may also be tied to stress over student debt, hours and pressure as associates try to make partner, and even second-guess their career choice.
The study also notes that, in spite of the rates being higher than the general public, many lawyers do not seek treatment for their drinking, substance abuse, depression or other mental health concerns. Legal professionals identify fears about their reputation as a significant barrier to getting treatment, despite having relatively good benefits that provide access to mental health and substance abuse care.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Journal of Addiction Medicine: The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys
New York Times: High Rate of Problem Drinking Reported Among Lawyers
Washington Post: One-fifth of this occupation has a serious drinking problem
ABA Journal: Younger lawyers are most at risk for substance abuse and mental health problems, a new study reports
Photo Courtesy of Ryan Melaugh’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License