Alcoholics and the Profession of Law

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Posted in: Law Practice

Doctors tell us that alcoholism is a disease, not a character flaw. As one doctor has explained in ASAM Magazine, “Drugs, alcohol, and illicit substances activate reward systems in the brain, which cause people to feel pleasure and create memories. Each individual has a unique tolerance to drugs and alcohol; the effects of drugs and/or alcohol are individually specific. Individuals may have genetic predispositions and different brain inhibitory circuits. Addiction is a disease, just like asthma, diabetes and heart disease.” (ASAM stands for the American Society of Addiction Medicine.)

Some ethnic groups have a higher incidence of alcoholism, but it is easier to find a statistical correlation than to determine cause — whether it is culture, genetics, something else, or a combination of all three. In the course of invalidating an Oklahoma law that allowed women to drink at age 18, while men had to wait until age 21, the U.S. Supreme Court in Craig v. Boren noted some of the unusual statistics. The Court told us in the United States, “available studies regularly demonstrate that [Jews and Italian Catholics] exhibit the lowest rates of problem drinking.” Moreover, “Whites and American Indians have the lowest proportions of abstainers and the highest proportions of moderate/heavy and heavy drinkers.” The “percentage of moderate/heavy and heavy adolescent drinkers by race: black 15.2%; Asian-American 18.3%; Spanish-American 22.7%; white 25.3%; American Indian 28.1%.” Women between 18 and 21 were also less likely to drink and drive than men in that same age bracket.   An Oklahoma study showed, “blood alcohol concentration greater than .01% was discovered in 14.6% of the males compared to 11.5% of the females.” Perhaps the difference reflected that younger women were more mature than the younger men were. Still, these statistical correlations were not strong enough to justify Oklahoma’s sexual discrimination. Yet, greater than any of these statistical differences is another: the legal profession’s special problem with alcohol.

When people are alcoholics, they must fight the temptation to drink or else ruin their lives and the lives of their loved ones. When lawyers are alcoholics, they can also harm their clients and their law partners. Lawyers are members of an employment group with a very high rate of alcoholism. The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation recently conducted a very extensive study of lawyers and judges—12,825 lawyers. You can read the full study at the Journal of Addiction Medicine. All the lawyers were licensed and employed, so one cannot say that the fear of the bar examination or current unemployment led to drinking (although a fear of future employment may be the catalyst for some). Over 20 percent of the lawyers and judges surveyed reported problematic alcohol use. That figure is three times higher than the general population (6.8%).

If we solely looked at the frequency of alcohol consumption rather than relying on self-reporting, we find an even greater problem: over 36 percent of the respondents qualified as problem drinkers based on how much they said they drank. That means 16 percent have a problem and don’t know it.

Younger lawyers—those under 30—have the highest rate at 31.9 percent, a rate almost matched by junior associates at law firms (31.1 percent). Perhaps the junior lawyers were worried that their law firms may soon sack them. Male lawyers have higher rates of problem drinking than women: 25.1 percent for men and 15.5 percent for women.

Lawyers also have a “shockingly high rate of depression.” Twenty-eight percent of American lawyers suffer from a bout of depression in any given year, compared to eight percent for the general public.

Lawyers have even more problems than medical doctors, another high-tension profession. Indeed, physicians experience substance use disorders at a rate similar to the general population: six to eight percent of physicians have substance use disorders, and up to 14 percent have alcohol use disorder—all figures that are similar to the general population. Moreover, recovery rates for impaired healthcare professionals seem higher compared with other groups. [Laura Rothstein, Law Students and Lawyers with Mental Health and Substance Abuse Problems: Protecting the Public and the Individual, 69 U. Pitt. L. Rev. 531, 566 n.7 (2008)]

When the ABA Journal asked its readers whether they had drinking problems, the results were quite interesting. Of course, this is not a scientific survey, and the sampling was self-selecting, but the results are still amazing. Nearly 40 percent said they sought help for these issues; over 22 percent “have struggled with these issues but not sought help.” Fewer than 28 percent did not have a problem.

Unemployment may drive one to drink, but some jobs also do that. Think of “heavy drinkers,” that is, drinking five or more alcoholic drinks at the same time or within a couple of hours of each other and doing that on five or more days in the past 30 days. Eighteen percent of miners are heavy drinkers; construction workers clock in at 17 percent, with hotel and restaurant workers at 12 percent. Lawyers clock in at a higher drinking rate than any of these occupations.

Another study showed high elevations of the testosterone hormone in prisoners, cold-call salespeople, the unemployed, and—no surprise here—lawyers.   Ministers, priests, and farmers, by the way, were at the low end of the scale.   (The survey measured the testosterone level in spit because that is a non-invasive way of testing.)

We know there is a problem. What about a solution? There is no easy answer. Knowing the problem helps, a bit. Lawyers can keep drink journals. Write down, each evening, what you drank during the day and how many times you drank it. After a week or two of that, stop drinking for a few days. Can you stop?

Try to be physically fit and more active. Take up yoga, or run. Both reduce stress, and stress leads to addictive behavior.

Lawyers often have law partners or supervisors who may notice the alcohol problem. It is hard to talk to the lawyer with the problem, but when we fail to talk—or, worse yet, we affirmatively help the person cover up their addiction—we are helping to enable the problem. Judges may notice problems with the lawyers who appear before them. Rather than report the lawyer to the disciplinary authorities, the judge should seek out the lawyer as a friend, and urge the lawyer to enroll in the Lawyer Assistance Program, or LAP. The programs are confidential. The ABA publishes a list of states that offer Lawyer Assistance Programs. It seems like every jurisdiction has one, along with Canada, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, England, Scotland, and Wales. Some LAPs even have Twitter accounts. LAP programs have had very good success rates. Unless the lawyer is willing to make that first step, the other steps will not occur.

Posted in: Law Practice

Tags: Legal

  • Jessica Byczek

    Thank you for addressing such a significant social issue. I believe that compassion fatigue is also a major factor related to the systemic alcoholism found in the legal profession… Particularly with Judges. Continued exposure to disturbing facts and the cumulative effect of working with some messy issues trigger the feelings of powerlessness and alienation from others that get seduced by alcoholism