Lawyers, alcohol abuse, and depression: Why we need a healthier legal profession and more humane legal systems

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Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post reports on a major study by the American Society of Addiction Medicine documenting high levels of alcohol abuse and depression among lawyers:

America’s lawyers have a serious drinking problem, according to a new report from the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

More than 20 percent of licensed attorneys drink at levels that are considered “hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent.” That’s three times higher than the rate of problem drinking among the general public.

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The study also found a shockingly high rate of depression — 28 percent — among American lawyers. Among the general public, only 8 percent experience a bout of depression in a given year, according to the CDC.

Ingraham quotes the study’s lead author, Patrick Krill, on the possible reasons behind these high rates of alcohol abuse. According to Krill, law school teaches budding lawyers “to work harder, play harder, and assume the role of a tough, capable and aggressive professional without personal weaknesses or deficiencies.” They then enter a field where “(h)eavy drinking, lack of balance and poor self-care are entirely normalized . . . .”

Of course, concerns about excessive alcohol consumption by lawyers are nothing new. Some professions have become associated with the term “hard drinking,” and the legal profession is among them. The tag is sometimes worn as a twisted badge of pride and becomes reflected in our popular culture. For example, Paul Newman was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “The Verdict,” a 1982 drama that pitted an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck Boston lawyer against the Forces That Be in a major medical malpractice case. Unfortunately, the reality of this state of affairs is much sadder for lawyers and clients alike.

The underplayed findings

The ASAM study has been getting a lot of press, with headlines centered on the excessive alcohol use. However, often buried under the lede are the data concerning high levels of depression. In a piece on alcohol and depression, WebMD discusses the connections between the two. While alcohol abuse can lead to depression, oftentimes depression can fuel excessive drinking: “Nearly one-third of people with major depression also have an alcohol problem. Often, the depression comes first.”

Regardless of whether depression triggers alcohol abuse or the other way around, the high prevalence rates of depression cited in the study carry major implications for lawyers, legal systems, clients, and parties to legal disputes, encompassing the wellness of the legal profession and the quality of legal work provided to clients and shaping the law.

Therapeutic jurisprudence: Part of the solution

Obviously a problem crisis this significant calls for multifaceted responses. May I suggest that therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), the school of legal thought and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic qualities of legal systems, legal practice, and law and policy, is part of the solution. TJ favors psychologically healthy outcomes for legal transactions and disputes, with laws and legal processes designed — at least in part — to foster such results.

In too many settings, the practice of law has become psychologically unhealthy, a stark contrast to the ideals that drew many to law school in the first place. The economic downturn has had a lot to do with this, but the core problems existed well before the Great Recession. Add to that the deeply adversarial nature of negotiation and litigation and you’ve got a pretty toxic brew.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is not a panacea, but it offers a hopeful alternative to the dominant status quo. I’ve written a lot about TJ for this blog, and here are some representative posts:

Can a quirky band of law professors, lawyers, and judges transform the law and legal profession? (2015)

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge (2015)

A view from Vienna: New wine and new bottles for the practice and substance of law (2015)

One response

  1. It is saddening to read how people who become lawyers in America end up becoming alcoholics because of the pressure they are continuously under. They end up sacrificing their own happiness in order to stay “tough and aggressive” in this field. It is strange to learn how the “hard drinking” tag is almost worn as a way of pride. Depression causes people to become alcoholics, meaning that these lawyers are not only alcoholics but also depressed. Hopefully, this kind of lifestyle can one day change because it appears that this really affects lawyers well being and level of happiness.

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