Addressing Problem Drinking By High Achievers

October 10, 2016


When a summer associate told me that she had started to view her nightly glass of wine as her “new best friend,” I knew that it was time to tackle this topic.

Binge drinking among lawyers made headlines earlier this year after the ABA released a report about alcohol dependency in the profession. Since then, I’ve worked with thousands of law students and new professionals. Virtually all of them are aware of the ABA’s main findings. Yet, when confronted with stress, many continue to turn to beer, wine, and spirits as a legally acceptable means of alleviating workplace and law school pressures.

Medical professionals tell us that a thin line separates the person who enjoys a nightly cocktail from the person who is alcohol dependent. Once that line is crossed, costs quickly accumulate. For the individual lawyer, alcohol dependency may lead to poor work performance, damaged personal relationships, and impaired health. Law firms and other organizations employing impaired lawyers face potential legal and ethical liability.

Following are five things that you should know about this subject:

Substance abuse among high-achieving lawyers is a growing concern

Earlier this year, the ABA in conjunction with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published “The Prevalence of Substance Abuse and Other Mental Concerns Among American Attorneys” (Journal of Addiction Medicine, February 2016). That study found that one in three practicing lawyers are “problem drinkers,” who drink great quantities of alcohol, drink often, or both.

The study’s conclusions were based on anonymous responses to a questionnaire, in which lawyers were asked to characterize their alcohol use and mental health. “Problem drinking” was defined as “hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.”

Separate reports indicate that problem drinking starts in law school and may increase with each year of study. The 2014 Survey of Law Student Well-Being found a high incidence of binge drinking among survey respondents. More than 50% of respondents reported drinking enough to get drunk at least once in the prior 30 days and 43% reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks. Nearly one in four reported binge drinking two or more times in the prior two weeks. An older study found that 8% of prelaw students, 15% of first-year law school students, and 24% of third-year law students reported concerns with alcohol problems.

Why do high-achieving lawyers appear to consume more alcohol than professionals in other occupations?

Law firm culture may contribute to the high incidence of problem drinking in the legal profession. Hazelden professional Patrick Krill notes that problem drinking is “normalized” in many law firms, with lawyers encouraged to socialize over wine and spirits whether meeting with summer associates or prospective clients. Several of my clients report that some practice groupmaintain “work hard play hard” environments, in which lawyers are expected to party just as hard as they bill hours.

Beyond culture, nearly everyone seems to agree that stress contributes to problem drinking. Within the legal profession, causes of stress include:

  • Excessive workloads and intense competition;
  • Expectations that lawyers will set aside their personal values to represent clients who may hold opposing positions and beliefs;
  • Reliance on success to build self-worth; and
  • Emphasis on image, status, and affluence to impress others.

(See M. Vivo, “Addicted Lawyers Start as Addicted Law Students.”)

One additional study indicates that people who work 50 or more hours per week are three times more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs than those who work fewer hours. Given that many lawyers regularly work in excess of 60 hours weekly, it’s possible that hourly work commitments may contribute to problem drinking among some high achievers.

Are high-achieving lawyers wired to drink?

Let me begin by emphasizing that the process by which someone becomes a problem drinker is extremely complex and varies dramatically from person to person. Twin studies tell us that genetics play a role. The in utero environment may contribute. We also know that children who were abused or neglected are far more likely to develop addictive behaviors.

David Linden, a Johns Hopkins neuroscience professor and author of The Compass of Pleasure, How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Great (2011), suggests an additional explanation: the brains of high achievers may predispose them to substance abuse.

Understanding Linden’s theory requires a more thorough explanation of neuroscience than I can accomplish here. Suffice it to say that Linden believes high achievers gain great pleasure from setting and attaining high goals, and the neural pathways that drive those behaviors are the same pathways that make substance abuse irresistible. What distinguishes problem drinkers, according to Linden, is their need to consume ever-increasing amounts of a substance to achieve the same pleasurable results.

What can be done to reduce problem drinking?

Just as the causes of problem drinking are wide and varied, so too are potential solutions. Some users require in-patient medical care while others can benefit greatly from cognitive behavioral approaches.

Since stress may lie at the heart of many cases of problem drinking among high achievers, the adoption of stress-coping strategies may be hugely helpful. Some former users tell me that they have become regular practitioners of yoga or tai chi, activities that improve mindfulness and help elicit a relaxation response. Still others choose to replace a habitual blowing-off-steam cocktail hour with a sobriety group meeting.

If Linden is right in believing that some high achievers rely upon alcohol or other addictive substances to help produce a pleasure response, users may benefit by: 1) identifying alternative pleasure-inducing activities; and then 2) consciously opting for health-supporting pleasure-inducing activities over problem drinking. I recently encountered one person who has rediscovered the joy he experienced from playing ball and has chosen to substitute regular ballgames for drinking binges.

The solution starts with a conversation

According to at least one report, much of the work that law firms have undertaken heretofore to address problem drinking has yielded few results. Why? Because high achievers—especially high achievers—tend to balk when it comes to admitting to an Employee Assistant Program representative that they might need help.

Similarly, many high achievers express zero interest in programs that require participants to admit that they have “no power” over a drinking habit. More than most, high achievers are quite proud of their ability to control themselves, their futures, and related events.

Rather than expecting problem drinkers to step forward and ask for help, schools, firms, and other organizations must encourage structured and ongoing conversations about problem drinking. These conversations should be a regular part of school orientation programs as well as summer and new associate orientation initiatives. Learning healthy coping skills should be emphasized as a key to success that is just as important as learning core technical skills.

New and established professionals should have access to life coaches or mentors who are prepared to address in a nonjudgmental manner the impact of stress on professionals and appropriate coping strategies. Because many cases of binge drinking can be attributed to a bad habit that is effectively operating on steroids, problem drinkers may be helped considerably by substituting new, health-promoting habits for their nightly beverage of choice. (For more information on how to develop a new habit, see Charles Duhigg’s best-selling book, The Power of Habit (2012) and several YouTube videos on the same subject.)

Finally, to be effective, organizations can’t just “talk the talk.” To the extent that the legal profession genuinely wishes to address this issue, then it must take affirmative steps to reduce workplace stress, reorient cultures to ensure that no professional feels he or she must imbibe in order to fit in, and encourage the development and maintenance of health-promoting lifestyles.

Thing You Need to Know

Be aware of using alcohol and/or other addictve substances to alleviate the stress associated with becoming a new professional. When you observe that you are starting to self-medicate, stop. Develop healthy coping skills and use them habitually.



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