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Young lawyer problem drinking on the rise

Senior Editor Regular News

Young lawyer problem drinking on the rise

‘The traditional thinking was exactly the opposite’

Senior Editor

Young lawyers have a bigger drinking problem than experts thought.

The most comprehensive national survey of 12,825 attorneys done in more than two decades shows that more than 20 percent of licensed lawyers drink at levels considered “hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent” — three times higher than the rate of alcohol abuse among the general public.

That one out of five lawyers has a substance abuse or drinking problem is in keeping with Florida statistics, said Michael J. Cohen, executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., that receives about 600 calls to the hotline every year
from lawyers with substance abuse, drinking, and mental health problems and opens about 300 new cases a year.

What jumped out at Cohen was that the highest problem drinking rate overall was among lawyers under age 30 (31.9 percent) and junior associates at law firms (31.1 percent).

“The statistics that surprised everybody in the field are that drinking problems seemed to affect younger lawyers more than older lawyers,” Cohen said. “The traditional thinking was exactly the opposite.”

FLA Assistant Director Judy Rushlow added: “We’ve always felt that 18 to 20 percent of attorneys had the problem. We felt it would be more of a problem with older lawyers, because the disease progresses.”

“This study seems to turn that 180 degrees,” Cohen said.

“What we are seeing is a validation of Larry Krieger’s work (See “What makes lawyers happy?” July 1, 2014, Bar News), that lawyers are coming out of law school with a high degree of stress and they are abusing substances to deal with stress.”

This latest survey, funded by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, did not include Florida lawyers. But Cohen said it is a very important study because “it is really the first comprehensive study to be done in about 25 years.. . . This is really the first scientifically based hard data that we have.”

Patrick Krill, the study’s lead author, a former lawyer, and director of the Legal Professionals Program at Hazelden Betty Ford, told The Washington Post that lawyers tend to “prioritize success and accomplishment over things like balance, personal well-being, and health. You put them through a training (law school) where they are taught to work harder, play harder, and assume the role of a tough, capable, and aggressive professional without personal weaknesses or deficiencies.”

Therefore, Krill said, heavy drinking and lack of balance in lawyers’ professional and personal lives become normalized.

“That’s the behavior that young lawyers see being modeled all around them and throughout the profession.”

Among other findings in the study titled “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” and published in the February Journal of Addiction Medicine:

• Men had a higher proportion of positive screens compared to women;

• American lawyers have a high rate of depression — 28 percent — compared to about 8 percent of the general population experiencing depression in a given year, according to the Center for Disease Control;

• 19 percent experienced symptoms of anxiety; and 23 percent experienced symptoms of stress.

On one measure based solely on the quantity and frequency of alcohol use, lawyers had double the rate of problem drinking than doctors, another high-stress profession.

“Pervasive fears surrounding their reputation” keep many lawyers from receiving treatment, according to Krill.

“The (legal) profession has an obligation to take better care of its members, even if that means sacrificing some billable hours to do it,” Krill said.

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