study on attorney lawyers alcoholism addiction

lawyers-drinking-copy-1024x676-702x463Groundbreaking Study Confirms Up to 33% of Lawyers Suffer Alcohol Abuse Disorder

I was debating the title to this post — “Study Confirms Lawyers Booze Too Much” … “Lawyers Drink Even More Than Doctors” … “Your Lawyer May Be An Alcoholic.” But seriously, this is a very important study on problem drinking in the legal profession conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association. The study confirms what many of us already know — lawyers drink wayyyyy to much and many of them wind up with alcohol problems.

To quickly recap, The ABA-Hazelden study surveyed 15,000 lawyers across 19 states. The study reveals that between 21% and 36% of attorneys drink at levels consistent with an alcohol use disorder, otherwise known as alcoholism. For comparison, those numbers are roughly 3-5 times higher than alcohol use disorders in the general population. Moreover, 28% of the respondents reported experiencing symptoms of depression, 19% of anxiety, and 23% of stress. Worse, attorneys drink twice as much as doctors!

I think the more important question, however, is the why. The study did not set out to answer that question, but I can give you some of my theories, as I’ve discussed here on the blog:

  • The legal profession has a long and proud tradition of drinking to excess. Check out any local watering hole next to a courthouse around 1pm. Law schools are even worse. Every social event revolved around drinking copious amounts of booze.
  • Legal “marketing” events are filled with booze. At one of my former firms, we had beer and wine in the office every Thursday afternoon. At marketing events, we had Mexican (i.e, tequila) events, wine tastings, professional sporting events (beer), and of course the booze filled “holiday” parties.
  • Attorneys often have Type A driven, super-competitive personality types. These personality types are more prone to addictive behaviors.
  • Lawyers are over-analytical and linear in thinking. These traits, while valued in the profession, are impediments in recovery from addiction. We often think we can out-think and out-smart this disease. The problem is that addition is your evil twin, always smarter than you and one step ahead. Attorneys are also notoriously bad at asking for help. That is a sign of weakness which must be avoided at all costs. Lawyers are strong, not weak.
  • The practice of law is incredibly stressful and anxiety ridden. Have you ever prepared for and conducted a jury trial? Aside from combat, it’s probably one of the most stressful things anyone can do. Whether you win or you lose, after that trial, you might as well hook up an IV with booze to alleviate the stress.
  • Much of the actual practice of law, especially litigation, is out of the attorney’s control and attorneys are control freaks. It has taken me a long, long time to get to the point where I “do my best and forget the rest” — meaning that I have no control over what the judge or jury does on any given case. Shit, sometimes I can’t even control my client. Letting go as a control freak attorney is nearly impossible. This can lead to drinking too much.
  • Much of law is adversarial rather than collaborative which does not make for warm and fuzzy feelings. See, e.g, divorce attorneys. Lawyers are often called upon to deal with people’s most stressful life situations, and this can wear on the attorney. It’s hard not to take your client’s situation to heart. It can grind on you.
  • The big law firm hierarchy and model is like a dysfunctional fraternity (oxymoron intended). The first couple of years as a junior associate is not unlike pledging a frat. The older brothers (i.e, the partners) shit all over you. You have “hell week” not once per semester, but every other week. You are pasty white and hardly get to see the sun and outdoors. The only difference between a frat pledge and a junior associate is the associate gets paid to be miserable. I’d rather be pledging my fraternity again. At least I would be young and skinny again….
  • Lawyers are assholes, and if your boss is an asshole, it can drive you to drink. A lot. See, supra.

Ok, now that we have some hard statistics on lawyers and alcohol addiction, what can we do about the problem? Here are some of my ideas.

  • I think the most important thing we lawyers can do is try to get rid of the stigma behind seeking help for our problems. This goes for not only addiction, but stress reduction, depression and anxiety. It should be part of how we lawyers stay healthy. We brag about how we do spin class, cross-fit and boxing. Keeping the mind/brain healthy is even more important to attorneys.
  • Bring in attorneys in recovery to speak to lawyers. There are many out there who are not anonymous and are more than happy to speak to firms. Brian Cuban (the brother of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) is a good example.
  • Firms should have an in-house therapist/counselor. Don’t refer people to employee assistance or outside help. Make associates meet with the counselor on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, regardless of whether they have any issues. I’m not kidding. And I’m not just talking about addiction. Twenty-eight percent of the ABA/Hazelden respondents reported experiencing symptoms of depression, 19% of anxiety, and 23% of stress. People are sick with stress in the hallways of law firms. Have you watched the new show Billions on Showtime? Axe Capital has an in-house psychologist, and she counsels all the stressed out bankers. Why couldn’t that be done at law firms? It could easily.
  • Ease up on the boozy events. Instead of the wine tasting event, how about indoor rock climbing? Not every event needs to be centered on drinking.

Readers, what are your thoughts on the study and some solutions?


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