How to deal with alcohol abuse in the legal profession

The first step is admitting you might have a problem

How to deal with alcohol abuse in the legal profession
Lawyers are generally adept at hiding personal problems, including their drinking issues

In The Verdict, a 1982 American legal drama starring Paul Newman, a down-on-his-luck alcoholic lawyer accepts a medical malpractice case with the idea of seeing it settle out of court and getting him back on track financially. As it winds through the Hollywood-style intrigue, the question is whether Newman’s character does the right thing for his client and if he will get on the road back to sobriety.

Unfortunately, real life doesn’t always quite work out like a Hollywood movie, and lawyers will often have a hard time recognizing they are alcoholics that may need outside help, whether from family and friends, a support group, a 12-step program or other treatment options.

Read more: New drinking and driving rules bring mandatory alcohol screening to Canada

How common is alcohol abuse in the legal industry?

According to the Legal Profession Assistance Conference of Canada (LPAC), studies in numerous jurisdictions have pegged the rate of alcoholism in the legal profession at between 15 per cent and 24 per cent.

Doron Gold, a psychotherapist and former practicing lawyer based in Toronto, says that a 2016 American Bar Association-sponsored study of about 10,000 American lawyers on depression, anxiety and substance use suggests about 22 per cent had a substance abuse problem, "considerably higher than the general population."

That's a pretty striking number. It means potentially about one in five lawyers exhibit problematic drinking.

LPAC also notes that studies in Canada and the United States have shown that approximately 60 per cent of disciplinary prosecutions and malpractice claims involve alcoholism and 90 per cent of serious disciplinary prosecutions involve alcohol abuse.

Lawyers are generally very adept at hiding personal problems, including their drinking problems, and the onset of alcoholism can be very gradual. LPAC says that denial, combined with the fact that the progression to alcoholism can take 15 to 20 years or longer, means that many lawyers who have a problem do not face the issue until the addiction has become long engrained. LPAC states that lawyers aged 40 to 55 are at the greatest risk of becoming alcoholics.

And there are many lawyers out there who believe, and in fact can to a certain extent, function well at work and continue to produce even with their alcohol habit. A lawyer may feel that because they can drink alcohol and function at such a high level, then they are not addicted.

Signs you may have a drinking problem

So, what are the signs and risk factors that indicate that you, or a partner or associate, could be having problems with alcohol? Below is a list of several signs that might indicate a problem:

  • temporary memory loss and blackouts
  • drinking to “cheer up”
  • trying to quit drinking but can’t
  • drinking to be “normal” or “fit in”
  • withdrawal symptoms such as trembling hands
  • drinking in secret
  • lying about your alcohol intake
  • anxiety, insomnia or nausea when you try to stop drinking
  • drinking in the morning
  • having problems at work, such as being late or not going in at all
  • drinking in risky situations, such as before or while driving a car
  • getting hurt, or hurting someone when you are drinking
  • giving up other activities so you can drink
  • feeling guilty after drinking
  • trying to hide your drinking, for example, by buying alcohol at different stores
  • worrying that you won’t get enough alcohol for an evening or weekend
  • health problems and physical effects of alcohol, such as flushed skin/broken capillaries on your face.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction’s Low-Risk Alcohol guidelines suggest that women can safely have up to two drinks per day to a maximum of 10 per week. For men, it’s three per day to a maximum of 15 per week. A drink is defined as 5 oz of wine, 12 oz of regular beer or 1.5 oz of 80 proof spirits.

While some medically reviewed studies have shown the benefits of moderate drinking, regularly exceeding recommended guidelines can pose significant health, personal and professional risks and cause severe problems for you, your family and your legal career.

Read more: Supreme Court upholds law restricting interprovincial alcohol transport

Why lawyers are prone to alcohol abuse

Gold, who works as a psychotherapist and speaker with the Ontario legal profession’s Member Assistance Program in Ontario, and also runs a runs a psychotherapy and personal/executive coaching service called the The Lawyer Therapist, suggests that lawyers use alcohol or other substances as a "coping mechanism" for the stresses they face in their lives.

“Lawyers are carrying the same stressors as the general population – illness, depression, childhood or adult trauma, imposter syndrome – plus much more,” he says. They work long hours, are often removed from family and other things that might help them cope with the pressure, and the actual nature of the job can also take a toll.

Gold points out that in family law, for example, lawyers hear of painful situations in others’ households. In corporate law, there could be a lot of stress in completing a transaction under tight deadlines. Lawyers are also often "perfectionist" types who are self-critical and think they are the only ones not coping well with the stresses of the job – that everyone else is doing just fine.

Gold notes that, while not happening as much because of Covid-19, alcohol is very much part of the work culture in law, be it after-work drinks, closing dinners, hospitality suites at conferences, and even scotch tastings in the office.

How lawyers can cope with alcohol addiction

The first step is admitting that you might have a problem.

“Lawyers, like many others, will resist the idea that alcohol is a problem, because they don’t want alcohol to be a problem – it is what has been getting them through the day,” Gold says.

It can take a serious setback – a DUI charge, a spouse leaving the marriage and taking the children, or a censure from a judge for showing up late for court too often – to admit a problem exists.

Gold also suggests that those who recognize they have a problem not beat themselves up over failing on their first attempt at dealing with it.

“Part of alcohol recovery is the concept that relapse is not an end, it’s just a bump in the road,” Gold says.

Gold also wants to clarify that while there are the usual resources available to anyone who wants to deal with substance use challenges, there are unique resources set up specifically for lawyers. For example, each province or territory has a lawyer assistance program that will offer free and confidential services, and Gold emphasizes that these services are indeed confidential.

"Many of these programs are funded by law societies, so a lawyer in distress might be hesitant to get in touch for fear of being exposed,” Gold says. “That's definitely not how it works."

These programs can also be helpful because they can put a lawyer in touch with peers who know the issues related to alcohol and the legal profession.

While abstinence is often the best way for many suffering with alcohol abuse or dependence to deal with the problem, Gold also notes the concept of "harm reduction." This strategy might benefit those who may feel that they have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol but want to slow down consumption rather than go cold turkey. It might involve recording how much you are drinking, at what times, and with whom.

Consider a calendar and a colour-coded system for recording drinks. If it’s a drink taken alone, make it a red dot. If it’s a drink on a social occasion, make it a yellow dot. If you’re taking one drink right after another, put the dots close together.

After a week or two, stand back and take a look to see if there are patterns. For instance, do you drink more on the weekend? Do you drink more before or after stressful court appearances?

Then it is time to take back control. Take baby steps, such as trying not to drink alone or cutting back on how many drinks. Reward yourself if you keep these commitments (but not with something that can also become a bad habit.

The trick in dealing with the problem of alcoholism is honesty. Pretending there isn’t a problem when the evidence is there doesn’t work in a courtroom, and it won’t work in dealing with alcohol addiction.

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