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Competitive nature, stress mix to produce drinking, behavioral health problems among lawyers

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Competitive nature, stress mix to produce drinking, behavioral health problems among lawyers

By John Glynn

The lead author of a landmark study on levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems in the U.S. legal profession said Saturday it is difficult to determine why lawyers outpace other professions and the general public with these personal issues.

Patrick Krill discusses the high incidence of alcohol abuse among lawyers at a Midyear Meeting session sponsored by the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs


“I don’t think there is one clear, clean factor. I think it is a variety of factors,” Patrick Krill of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation said, adding he attributes these problems, in part, to the fact that “people drawn to law are competitive, hard-working people” and that the stress level of the profession is high.

On Wednesday, Hazelden and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs released the study that showed 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. It found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems. The findings were posted online this week in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, with the print edition available in mid-February.

Krill outlined the findings, the most comprehensive study of its kind for lawyers, at a public briefing at the ABA Midyear Meeting in San Diego. The study, co-authored by Linda Albert of Wisconsin, asked 10 questions of a group of about 15,000, which was then trimmed to a final 12,825 good respondents. Of these, 53.4 percent were male and 46.5 percent female.

When focusing on three of the 10 questions that measured only volume and frequency of drinking, the authors arrived at the conclusion that more than 1 in 3 practicing attorneys are problem drinkers even though the attorneys themselves might not characterize themselves as that.

Krill, an attorney and clinician and Hazelden’s architect of the project, theorized this discrepancy might occur because lawyers often have the “ability to power through” what otherwise might be impairment conditions left after drinking. He also said that these findings contrast to smaller, prior studies that show that the drinking problem grows as a lawyer’s career lengthens.

“Individuals in earlier stages of their career were of a higher risk, particularly in the first 10 years of their practice,” he said.

Krill offered personal suggestions on how to tackle the problem, including asking law schools to offer mandatory classes on the importance of health and well being, providing bar examiners training to flag drinking and behavioral problems and having state and local bar groups partner with local health agencies to make it easier for lawyers to seek treatment.

Linda Albert, the representative of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs for the study, could not attend the briefing. But Terry Harrell, executive director of the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program in Indiana and chair of the sponsoring ABA commission, said she hoped bar associations, law schools and others would take notice of the study and its results.

“The data itself doesn’t surprise anyone,” she said, praising the 2½-year project. “But the thing of it is that we finally have good data.”

In the question-and-answer session, intellectual property lawyer Francine D. Ward of the San Francisco Bay area suggested the problem of drinking starts before a young lawyer joins the bar. “We need to step up work at the law school level,” she said, adding those on a law-career path should be “encouraged from the very beginning” to come to grips with their problems.