Lawyers Grapple with Substance Abuse More than Other Professionals: Study

Feb. 8, 2016, 5:53 PM

Joan Williams has seen up close how many attorneys struggle with depression, alcohol abuse and anxiety.

Williams, director of the Center for Worklife Law at the UC Hastings College of Law, said that there are many components contributing to the problems.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm of lots of factors leading to a high level of problems among lawyers,” she said.

The issue is timely because the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs recently released a study that found that 28 percent of licensed, employed attorneys struggle with depression, 20.6 percent qualify as problem drinkers and another 19 percent suffer from anxiety — all at a higher rate than other professionals. It marks the first time there’s been a study focused on the legal profession’s behavioral and substance abuse since 1990. In that study, researchers found 18 percent of the study’s 1,200 attorneys in Washington State were problem drinkers.

“Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations,” the new study concluded. “Mental health stress is also significant. These data underscore the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs, and also the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.”

Titled “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” the study also found that younger attorneys — who are in the first 10 years of their practice — show the highest incidence of these issues.

The Journal of Addiction Medicine has published the study on its website and will publish it later this month in its print edition. It drew its conclusions from a sample of 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys in 19 states. They completed surveys that assessed alcohol use, drug use, and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs funded the study. While the study lists potential conflicts of interest — two of its three authors, Ryan Johnson and lead author Patrick Krill, work for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which offers treatment for people struggling with alcohol and drug addiction; and Linda Albert, the third author, runs a program at the State Bar of Wisconsin that helps attorneys cope with substance abuse and mental health challenges — its main findings ring true with people who study the profession.

Williams said the difficulty of making partner and increased time pressures are two main culprits for unhappiness among big law attorneys, whom she argues are less happy than other attorneys. Nearly 63 percent of the study’s respondents reported working 41 hours or more a week.

“Sometimes associates feel they’re working endless hours with no light at the end of the tunnel,” Williams said.

Williams cited several other factors contributing to unhappiness such as imbalanced schedules that require constant availablity and creates work-family pressures; also, crushing law school debt. Both have exacerbated stress levels.

A key thing law firms can do is offer more workplace flexibility. “Not everybody’s miserable, we’re talking about a minority. But it’s pervasive enough that it’s troubling,” she said.

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