Study: Alcohol Abuse, Depression Widespread Among Lawyers

A new study found lawyers face the challenges of alcohol abuse and mental health concerns more so than other professions, and that the problems are more prevalent among those in the first 10 years of practice.

A new study on mental and behavioral health among attorneys from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs found that attorneys are experiencing alcohol addiction and depression at much higher levels than the general public.

It’s a real problem for the profession, and it’s hard to imagine how the profession can chart a course forward without taking meaningful action to correct these problems.

The national study—which is the most comprehensive of its kind—found that 21 percent of attorneys struggle with alcohol abuse, 28 percent with depression, and 19 percent with anxiety. In addition, these problems are most prevalent among young lawyers in the first 10 years of their practice, a finding which reverses a 1990 study that said these problems become worse with time.

Comparatively, only about 7.2 percent of adults in the U.S. have an alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“It’s a real problem for the profession, and it’s hard to imagine how the profession can chart a course forward without taking meaningful action to correct these problems,” said Patrick Krill, lead author and director of legal professionals program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

“While the numbers themselves are disheartening, the instructive value of the information is enormous and tells us that the problem is best approached from a systems perspective,” Linda Albert, study coauthor and representative of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, said in a statement. “All sectors of the profession will benefit from reading, understanding, and utilizing this important study, and now we can better develop strategies for preventing and addressing substance use problems and mental health concerns in this population.”

Krill, who runs a treatment program for judges, attorneys, and law students, said these rates were not surprising given his observations at work and that the issues can be compounded by the pressure and competitiveness in the field. Attorneys are also unlikely to seek help or treatment because of their need to maintain their reputation.

“That is a mindset that takes hold in law school, and it continues then on into the profession: This idea that you’re not supposed to have weaknesses, you’re not supposed to have any sort of personal defects really that could deter your ability to be a good lawyer,” Krill said.

However, those suffering from these problems cannot get better if they refuse to receive help. To reduce these rates, Krill said the entire profession needs to undergo change by removing the stigma attached to the issues at hand, a push that must start in the law firms and schools.

These health concerns must also be addressed from a preventative angle. Upward mobility in the profession is usually associated with events and activities that include alcohol, which leads young attorneys who already have debt and work long hours into a drinking pattern, he said. “We need to somehow decouple drinking with the ability to move ahead in the profession.”

More so, Krill wants these new findings to spark the change needed in the profession. “I would hope that leaders within the profession don’t just see this as bad news, but they say, ‘This is unfortunate, but we’re really grateful to have this data because now we can do something about it.’”

ABA President Paulette Brown is also hopeful the results spur action. “These ground-breaking findings provide an important guide as the ABA commission works with lawyer assistance programs nationally to address the mental health risks and needs of lawyers,” she said.


Alex Beall

By Alex Beall

Alex Beall is an associate editor for Associations Now with a masters in journalism and a penchant for Instagram. MORE

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