3 Questions Lawyers Should Ask Themselves Now Regarding Alcohol

Attorneys have stressful jobs and many turn to alcohol as a form of self-medication to relax.   Problem drinking is much higher for attorneys than the general public.   Attorneys with a drinking problem are more prone to malpractice complaints and ethical violations.   This article discusses why drinking by lawyers is a big concern and how you might address it.

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Drinking too much is difficult to define because it is socially acceptable.   Meeting clients and colleagues for a drink after work is a part of the law firm culture.   Lawyers are expected to drink, especially if the client has a drink.

There also is no bright line test for the appropriate amount of alcohol to consume.   It depends on the person and the lapse of time between drinks.

Yet, alcohol can be a crutch and a convenient way to quickly escape the stresses of work when you get home.   See my article on the stresses faced by lawyers, 3 Essential Questions for Lawyers to Conquer Their Fears.  I had a colleague once tell me that her husband who was a lawyer at a big firm had a martini every night as soon as he got home.   I never asked if he had more than one.

Drinking may be fine as long as it’s moderate.   This depends on the person and the circumstances.   Some people cannot handle alcohol and that is okay.

A drink is fine as long as you don’t drink to excess and have other means to deal with stress, such as exercise or meditation.   See my article on how to deal with burnout and have a more balanced life, Combatting Lawyer Burnout and Recharging Your Career.  Drinking just masks the stress until you really need to deal with the underlying cause.

Drinking can also ruin a career in an instant.   I once attended a firm holiday party where a young lawyer had a lot to drink.   The party was held in the atrium of a new office building.   The attorney took one of the support staff to the area directly above the atrium ceiling.  All was fine until the staff person’s legs started to fall through the ceiling and showing to the party below.   Quite a show!!

Both the attorney and the support staff person exercised poor judgment.   All from too many drinks and the resulting lapse in judgment.   See my article on how strong core values and emotional intelligence skills help with sound ethical decision-making, 6 Core Values and 5 Emotional Intelligence Skills Leading to Sound Ethical Decisions.

Let’s take a look at some of the research on attorneys and drinking.

Problem Drinking Is High for Attorneys

The research is alarming.   It suggests that 70% of lawyers are likely to have a drinking problem at some point during their careers.   Connie J.A. Beck, Bruce D. Sales & G. Andrew H. Benjamin, Lawyer Distress: Alcohol-Related Problems and Other Psychological Concerns Among a Sample of Practicing Lawyers, 10 J.L. & Health 1,3 (1995-1996).   This applies to men and women.   Id. at 29.

The rate of problem drinking is 10% for the general population compared to 18% for attorneys.  Id. at 5.  So, attorneys have a problem drinking rate that is almost twice that of the general population.   The research also suggests that attorneys experience drinking problems early in their careers and that it gets worse over time. See Attorneys and Substance Abuse, Hazelden Research Update (2012).

Among a sample of Wisconsin lawyers, 32.5% reported using alcohol on a regular basis to reduce stress and 46.5% reported that they sometimes used alcohol to reduce stress.   Beck, et al. at 10.   Lawyers are in careers that are stressful for a number of reasons, as discussed in my article 3 Essential Questions for Lawyers to Conquer Their Fears   It is not surprising that lawyers would turn to alcohol since it is socially acceptable, readily available and a common theme for after-work get togethers.

Problem Drinking May Cause Malpractice Claims and Ethical Violations

So why should anyone care?   It’s simple.   People who drink a lot are going to have reduced productivity over those who drink in moderation or not at all.   It’s difficult to work with a hangover.

Also, people who abuse alcohol make poor decisions.   In one study 60% of the attorneys who had a malpractice claim filed against them were suffering from substance abuse.  Hazelden Research Update (2012).   An American Bar Association report indicated that 27% of disciplinary cases involved alcohol abuse.   Id.

Simply put, drinking too much results in poor decision making.  When you drink excessively, your judgment is impaired and your emotional intelligence is greatly reduced.  See my article on the importance of emotional intelligence,  9 Reasons Why Lawyers Need Emotional Intelligence Skills.

Drinking Too Much
I have worked with an executive who often invited me to dinner.   She typically drank more than two cocktails a night followed by wine at dinner.   She was busy socially and very well connected professionally.   Her drinking also took place at professional networking events where alcohol is plentiful.   A drink or two may help to “take the edge off,” and make socializing seem easier.  When I went to these events, others would frequently comment on her drinking and laugh it off.

Everyone else knew she had a drinking problem, but she failed to consciously recognize it.   Her drinking caused her to say things to others that were not appropriate.   The problem is that it is difficult and very awkward to tell a business acquaintance that they drink too much.

This is a downward spiral, often without a good ending.   People started to dislike her because she was so inappropriate and also, they did not trust her.  People were concerned that she would be unable to hold confidences.   Eventually she was fired from her position but never saw alcohol as an issue.

Unlike other problems a person may have, it is sometimes difficult for people to forgive alcohol or drug abuse.   This is especially true in a professional setting where you are expected to know the consequences of your actions.

One DUI is enough to ruin a career.   It is important to figure out now what you and your law firm can do to help.

Lawyers Can Reduce Drinking with These Steps

Since the problem is so prevalent and has such negative consequences, steps should be taken now to prevent alcohol abuse.   Here are some steps that you can take:

  • Education and Awareness.    Every organization should have training sessions or meetings where the topic of alcohol abuse is discussed.   The negative consequences also should be discussed along with some avenues for lawyers to get help anonymously.   This should be required training for any law firm, corporate legal department or government legal department.
  • Invest in Your Relationships.  Social support is crucial.  Attorneys need a more balanced life in order to cope with stress.   Support from other lawyers at the firm, friends and family is helpful.  Studies suggest that increased social support, including a positive relationship with a partner, has a buffering effect on stress and other co-existing psychological issues.  Beck, et al. at 7-9.   You cannot create and nurture supportive relationships if you always are at work.
  • Start a Wellness Program.   Start working out at a gym, get a good counselor with proper training to help you identify stress triggers and productive coping mechanisms, learn meditation, go for a walk outside or learn a new hobby.  If all you are is your work, you will not be very good at it.  Diversify yourself just like you do with your financial portfolio.

Honestly Assess Your Alcohol Consumption

Today, look at yourself and ask, am I drinking too much?   How much is too much depends.   This is the very reason why an alcohol problem is hard for us to spot.

Here are some questions that you might consider asking yourself:

  • Have you ever thought you should cut down your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt annoyed when people have commented on your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt guilty or badly about your drinking?

These questions are not an assessment, but only questions that you might consider.   Ewing, J.A., Detecting Alcoholism. The CAGE questionnaire. JAMA, 1984. 252(14): p. 1905-7.   If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might take a look at your alcohol consumption and determine whether it might be cause for concern.

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