LCLMA Staff Clinician Jeff Fortgang, PhD, LADC-I discusses findings from the recently published study on lawyer well-being in Massachusetts conducted in collaboration with NORC at the University of Chicago.
Hot off the press is the report of results of a survey commissioned by LCL Massachusetts in collaboration with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being and conducted by a research group at the University of Chicago called NORC. This study found alarming rates of heavy/hazardous drinking among Massachusetts lawyers, especially young, higher-earning white lawyers, and especially higher than expected among women (a reversal of generations of studies showing higher incidence of alcohol problems in men). The study also showed high rates of reported depression, anxiety, and burnout among Massachusetts lawyers (particularly among marginalized groups), which is not the focus of this post.
These findings are specific to Massachusetts, but were not a big surprise, since they are consistent with previous studies, most notably the large-scale ABA/Hazelden survey in 2016. That study, which surveyed almost 13,000 lawyers in 19 states (averaging to 684 per state), also found rates of alcohol problems and anxiety, especially in younger lawyers, exceeding those of the general population and of other professionals.
Although you might quibble with these findings (some reasons why):
- While the survey was sent to all licensed Massachusetts lawyers, only 7.6% participated. This group may well have skewed toward those who have experienced problems, so that the survey caught their attention.
- The drinking measure asked about amount of alcohol consumed but not about negative consequences, “loss of control” (inability to regulate consumption), and other considerations that might distinguish binging from what we have traditionally referred to as “the disease of alcoholism.” It thus ignores the distinction between those whose drinking will likely decline with age (as reflected in the data for middle-aged lawyers) and those who have developed alcoholism (or what the latest diagnostic manual calls moderate or severe Alcohol Use Disorder).
- Those in the first group, for the most part, are not troubled by their considerable alcohol consumption, which is not to say that it is not causing some level of harm, such as hangovers, decreased focus/function the morning after, increased irritability at home, and cumulative effect on organ systems, but these concerns do not yet outweigh whatever rewards they find in drinking. For those in the second group, who meet the diagnostic criteria for the disease (many of whom will have genetic family history), sustained abstinence is likely to be the only route toward a stable life and career.
These findings are nonetheless worth taking very seriously (some reasons why):
- We know that, historically, lawyer habitats have accepted and enabled heavy drinking. Law firm parties, gatherings catering to potential sought-after associates, celebrations of litigation victories, and of course socializing among law students (a population not surveyed in the NORC study) are some examples. Early in my psychologist career, I heard tales of routine lunchtime cocktails among lawyers, even those who would return to the courtroom after lunch – so, yes, the culture has improved since then.
- For many lawyers and law students, heavy drinking starts as a (risky) way to cope with the often-unreasonable pressures and expectations embedded in their working conditions. The conditions, as far as we can tell, have not substantially changed, nor, as this study suggests, have the responses to those conditions.
- Almost any level of drinking is now known to be a risk factor for earlier mortality by way of heart disease, liver disease, and cancer. This eye-opening information came our way in 2018 by way of a study in the British medical journal Lancet, and other more recent studies were summarized in a New York Times article last month. Most drinkers won’t develop severe alcoholism, but anything more than the lightest alcohol consumption is a risk factor for a shorter life.
- Given this combination of findings, we find ourselves in a moment to re-think how we regard and deal with the place of drinking in the worlds inhabited by lawyers. For those who have developed Alcohol Use Disorder as an addictive illness, this overview calls upon us to intervene in a way that is compassionate yet does not turn a blind eye. (LCL can assist with that endeavor.) And for that larger number of lawyers and law students who use far too much of the drug alcohol to cope with the significant stresses of their professional roles (and limited opportunities for social connection/personal life), this is a good time to reconsider ways to (1) reduce their stresses to humane levels and (2) lower the prominence of alcohol at gatherings where lawyers and law students congregate.
Changing the well-entrenched culture of acceptance of alcohol consumption in lawyer habitats (and in the general population) won’t happen quickly, but we have more reason than ever to make the effort, among law students, big firm lawyers, and other lawyers, in hopes that they may live longer and healthier lives.
Jeff Fortgang, Ph.D.
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