Lawyers struggle with substance abuse, particularly drinking, and with depression and anxiety more commonly than some other professionals, according to a new study conducted by the American Bar Association together with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
One in three practicing lawyers are problem drinkers, based on the volume and frequency of alcohol consumed, 28 percent suffer from depression, and 19 percent show symptoms of anxiety, according to the study, which involved 12,825 licensed, employed lawyers in 19 states around the country.
The study’s conclusions were based on the lawyers’ anonymous responses to a questionnaire, in which they were asked to characterize their alcohol use and mental health. Problem drinking was defined as “hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.”
The lawyers represented a small sampling of the more than one million lawyers estimated to be practicing in the United States.
The study, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” appears in the February edition of the Journal of Addiction Medicine.
Problem drinking by lawyers was notably higher than the 15 percent of surgeons who were categorized as abusing alcohol, as reported in a 2012 study of nearly 7,200 surgeons by the American College of Surgeons.
Over all, a study in 2014 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that 6.8 percent of Americans over 18 had alcohol use disorders.
Lawyers working in law firms had the highest rates of alcohol abuse, according to the study’s findings. Junior associates reported the highest rate of problem drinking. Senior associates and junior partners followed.
“That might point to the cultural nature of problem drinking,” said Patrick R. Krill, a co-author of the study and a lawyer who runs Hazelden’s substance-abuse treatment program for lawyers and judges.
“When you’re at a law firm, you’re inculcated into that culture, with these coping mechanisms. Problem drinking is normalized within many law firms,” he noted. In addition, firm lawyers are encouraged to socialize with clients, which can often involve alcohol, he added.
The study is the first wide-ranging look at lawyer substance abuse issues in approximately 25 years. In 1990, researchers interviewed about 1,200 lawyers in Washington State, where they found nearly 18 percent of lawyers were problem drinkers and about the same percentage suffered from depression.
“Any way you look at it, this data is very alarming, and paints a picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people,” Mr. Krill said.
Among the findings is that lawyers with 10 or fewer years of experience had much higher rates of alcohol abuse than their more senior colleagues. This contrasts with the 1990 study’s findings that substance abuse increased with years spent in the profession.
According to the latest study, almost 29 percent in their first decade of practice were found to be problem drinkers. In the next decade, between 11 and 20 years, the percentage dropped to 21 percent.
For many, frequent drinking began in law school, but a far greater number - 44 percent - said problem drinking began during their first 15 years of practice, leading the report to conclude that “being in the early stages of one’s legal career is strongly correlated with a high risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.”
The report does not trace the origins of the problem, but young lawyers are under serious stress as they face weighty student debt, often over $100,000, and the difficulty of finding a job in the shrinking entry-level job market.
“This new research demonstrates how the pressures felt by many lawyers manifest in health risks,” said Paulette Brown, the president of the American Bar Association. She said the findings “provide an important guide” for the association’s lawyer assistance programs to help practitioners address the mental health risks.
Based on the study’s findings, that assistance should come in the first decade of the lawyer’s career, said Mr. Krill.
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