Combatting alcohol problems in the legal industry

Stress, overwork and isolation create the perfect storm for lawyers drinking too much, but more awareness is needed.

by Mark Abernethy

One in three lawyers have a drinking problem, according to a report in the American media this week, but lawyers in Australia suffer similar rates of problem drinking.

University of NSW’s 2014 report, Lawyering Stress and Work Culture: An Australian Study found 32 per cent of the 1,000 lawyers were problem drinkers. The study also linked regular alcohol consumption to more serious depression, anxiety and stress symptoms.

Alcoholics Anonymous Australia says it is common in high-stress professions such as law, that alcohol is used as a stress-relief.

“Tony”, a spokesman for AA Australia, told Australasian Lawyer there has been an AA ‘closed group’ for lawyers in Sydney for many years.

“There are barristers, solicitors and judges in AA,” he said. “But we don’t keep records – we’re anonymous.”

He said there was a difference between an alcoholic and a problem drinker.

“Overworked lawyers drinking to relieve stress doesn’t necessarily make them alcoholics,” said Tony. “But they may not be doing themselves any favours, mentally or physically.”

The profession recognises the risk factors. NSW Law Society, for instance, promotes Lifeline for Lawyers, LawCare and support services such as Senior Lawyers, mentoring schemes and the Lawyers Assistance Program. It also links to the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, an independent organisation that aims to decrease distress and the causes of depression and anxiety in the legal profession.

The UNSW study, while acknowledging the link between professional stress and alcohol, also cited a 2009 survey of over 2,000 Australian law students, solicitors and barristers, showing that nearly 60 per cent of the respondents reported moderate to very high levels of psychological distress. The authors concluded that legal educators, professional groups and law firms should raise awareness of mental health issues and offer support for the management of depression and psychological distress among students and practitioners.

The UNSW report was the first to investigate the extent to which stress, anxiety and depression among lawyers are associated with the conditions and culture of legal practice. The study showed high level of stress and negative emotional states among the lawyers, pervading across practice types and demographic groups.

Excessive job demands, minimal control over workload and spill-over of work commitments into personal life were just some of the work-related factors significantly correlating with poorer mental health.

The UNSW report found that there was a culture of alcohol in law firms and that lawyers working in larger firms were at a higher risk of alcohol use than those in smaller firms or those working in chambers.

The culture of over-work was raised in the report, because Australian lawyers spend at least 12 hours at work each day – almost double the national average for actual hours worked.

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