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Bar News - February 17, 2016

Study: Lawyer Drinking Rates Staggering

NH Lawyers Assistance Program
Independent and Confidential

Lawyers drink two to three times more than physicians, and nearly three times as much as the general population, according to the results of a new national study.

A collaboration of the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the study, published this month in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, marked the first time in 25 years that researchers have comprehensively examined the behavioral health of lawyers. In addition to staggering rates and levels of alcohol consumption among the 12,825 licensed, practicing attorneys surveyed across 19 states, including 372 in New Hampshire, the results revealed some subtleties about how lawyers view their drinking habits.

Survey results as reported in the Journal of Addition Medicine, Jan/Feb issue, 2016

Lead study author Patrick Krill is an attorney in long-term recovery, with a master’s degree in addiction counseling. He’s also the director of a national treatment program for lawyers and law students based at Hazelden Betty Ford headquarters in Minnesota. “I always felt a little bit handicapped in my efforts to improve these problems in the profession,” he says. “The available data on attorney addiction, depression and anxiety was really, in my view, quite lame. It was outdated – from 1990 – and it really just wasn’t persuasive or really even credible anymore.”

The recent study showed that the high levels of attorney drinking reported in the past are still of concern today. Among survey respondents, 20.6 percent screened positive for problematic drinking, compared with 18 percent reported in the 1990 study.

But Krill says the team of researchers who analyzed the survey results found a significant disparity when they examined responses about how much and how often attorneys drink (36 percent reported levels of drinking consistent with alcohol use disorders), as compared with questions about whether drinking has caused problems in their lives or whether they have sought help for their drinking. When those broader dimensions are taken into account, Krill says, the proportion of attorneys screening positive for problematic drinking is significantly lower (20.6 percent).

“You could argue that they are perhaps just higher functioning problem drinkers, or that they are in denial, or just that no one is intervening… or they’re just not acknowledging the effects,” Krill says. “It’s probably not just one thing, but heavy drinking is so normalized within the legal profession, maybe their level of consumption does not strike them as something that is out of the ordinary or that could be causing them problems.”

Another factor, borne out by the survey results, is that lawyers, even those who realize they might be drinking too much, are so protective of their professional and personal reputations that they are more concerned that someone might find out about their problem than about getting help for it.

Not the Classic Problem Drinker

James, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was working long hours on tough cases at a prestigious New Hampshire law firm. He only drank on the weekends, admittedly to excess, as a way to cope with the stress.

“I didn’t even realize it was a problem,” he says. “I had the classic idea of what a person with a drinking problem was – people who have to drink every day and are getting in fights, or their marriage is falling apart.”

James didn’t confront his problem drinking until circumstances forced him to do so. It had never occurred to him to ask for help. “I’m the kind of person who’s everyone’s rock, and I think that’s true of the profession; we help other people, so it’s hard for us to ask for help.”

Mix the high standards attorneys set for themselves with the value placed on one’s reputation in the legal community, a professional culture that embraces alcohol, and the stigma that still surrounds substance abuse problems. What you get is a potent, profession-wide cocktail of silence and ignoring the issue.

“What it comes down to is that having an issue with alcohol or other substances needs to be de-stigmatized,” says James. “We all care so much about our reputations, that if we think there’s a stigma associated with getting help for something, we’re less likely to seek help.”

Survey results as reported in the Journal of Addition Medicine, Jan/Feb issue, 2016

High Rates of Anxiety and Depression

The national survey by the ABA and Hazelden Betty Ford also showed that attorneys struggle with extremely high rates of anxiety and depression that range from double to quadruple the rates among the general population, depending on the scale used, says Krill.

“What we found was a picture of a very unhealthy profession, and a population that is really struggling with some pretty profound behavioral health issues,” he said.

Among those attorneys who responded to the ABA/Betty Ford survey, the levels of depression, anxiety and stress were significant, at 28 percent, 19 percent and 23 percent, respectively, according to the study.

Survey results as reported in the Journal of Addition Medicine, Jan/Feb issue, 2016

Discrete, Confidential Support

Recognizing that New Hampshire was not immune to the problems experienced in larger jurisdictions, the New Hampshire Supreme Court in 2008 set up a an independent, confidential support program specifically for New Hampshire attorneys, judges and law students. The program is discrete from the Court, Bar and the attorney discipline office. Attorneys fund the NH Lawyers Assistance Program (NHLAP) through mandatory annual court assessments, which means payment for NHLAP services isn’t funneled through insurance companies or employee assistance plans.

“When I speak to a client, the first thing I talk about is confidentiality,” says Cecie Hartigan, a lawyer in recovery and the executive director of NHLAP. “The only two people who know that telephone call took place are me and that lawyer, and no one will ever know about the existence of that call, except for me and that lawyer, without the express written permission of that lawyer.”

James is one of the 360 attorneys who have received support from NHLAP since its inception. Manchester lawyer Cristin Hepp is another. Hepp was connected with Hartigan through the University of New Hampshire School of Law, even though she was already sober when she entered law school. After a period of hospitalization, she had quit drinking a few years earlier, but the stress of her courses was taking a toll.

“I was incredibly stressed out, and I didn’t know how to deal,” Hepp recalls. “I basically broke down, and I started crying in class in front of everyone, which was really embarrassing.”

Hepp remembers that first frightened call she made to Hartigan years ago, but these days, that all seems far away, now that she has a strong support system and a good job at the Nixon Vogelman Barry Slawsky Simoneau Law Firm in Manchester. “She’s one of the easiest people to talk to,” Hepp says of Hartigan. “I just trust her.”

Krill, like Hartigan, is passionate about helping attorneys overcome substance abuse issues. He says legal employers should consider seizing the release of the survey results as an opportunity to be proactive about these issues. “I think the first thing to do is start talking about it and stop overlooking the issue and avoiding it,” he says. “Firms often know there’s an issue, but don’t do anything until it starts impacting performance or billing.”

“Form a task force within firm management,” Krill suggests. “If you put five people on it, chances are one of them is having an issue with alcohol or drug use, because those are the statistics we’re dealing with.”

Without broad buy-in within the profession that the problem exists and should be addressed, the numbers are unlikely to change, and that affects colleagues who are struggling, as well as the public. “I can’t imagine a scenario in which you can have these striking levels of behavioral health concerns, and have it not translate into a negative effect on the quality of services people are receiving,” Krill says.

The study authors plan to use the new statistics to raise awareness about the problem at the national level. “My focus now,” says Krill, “is going to be on greater outreach, education, advocacy and making sure there is greater awareness, and hopefully change within the profession. We live in a data-driven world, and we have hard numbers now, and that’s going to be useful.”

Read the complete study.

Survey results as reported in the Journal of Addition Medicine, Jan/Feb issue, 2016

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