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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Mar. 22, 201612:00 PM EST

Alcohol an issue for young lawyers

Statewide, local efforts available to help attorneys during struggles
by: David Chapman

There are plenty of reasons for young and aspiring attorneys to stress.

Student loans. Gradution. Finding a job. Keeping that job. Impressing the boss. Billable-hour pressures. Maybe even hanging your own shingle.

That’s not even considering the added layer of starting or taking care of a family for many.

It’s a weight more and more young attorneys are turning to alcohol to handle, according to a recent study.

The numbers show about one in five attorneys of the 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys surveyed screened positive for “hazardous” or “harmful” levels of drinking that can lead to dependence.

The numbers didn’t surprise Lindsay Tygart, an Edwards & Ragatz attorney and president of The Jacksonville Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section.

There are more attorneys vying for jobs and work than ever before. More law students pursuing the field.

“It’s an incredibly unfortunate reality that young lawyers are facing these days,” said Tygart.

Michael Cohen is not surprised — at least not by the overall numbers.

The executive director of the Florida Lawyers Assistance Program said the overall figures are in line with what’s been assumed for 20 years.

The shocking part to Cohen is the numbers reveal that close to one-third — 31.9 percent — of those with issues were attorneys who were 30 and younger.

“It was always thought that as lawyers go further and further in their career, the more problems they’d have with substances,” said Cohen. “It turned out to be 180 degrees.”

Numbers a ‘reversal’

Cohen said the study provides valuable insight and empirical evidence to issues that haven’t had a hard look in more than 20 years. The latest survey was funded by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Program and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

The data shows¬†20 percent of those surveyed scored at levels consistent with “problematic drinking”¬†— a level about 10 percent higher than other highly educated career paths, such as doctors.

Men faced the issue more than women. Attorneys who worked in private firms and Bar associations fared worse than others.

Further illustrating youth-related issues, 57.2 percent of early-stage associates have problems with alcohol.

Almost 3,000 felt their drinking was problematic at some point in their lives.

For those people, 43.7 percent said it started in their first 15 years of practicing, 27 percent before law school and more than 14 percent while in law school.

Despite the belief of longevity causing more problems, the study shows that wasn’t the case.

For those in the first 10 years, it was almost 29 percent. The next 10 years, almost 21 percent. Both represent the highest totals.

Although none of those surveyed were in Florida, the study is representative of the field, Cohen said.

He said he’s anecdotally seen issues starting younger and younger, but didn’t know the extent until the study.

His statewide organization is there to help. At one point, it helped him.

Assistance is available

The Florida Lawyers Assistance program is a nonprofit formed in 1986 after the state Supreme Court said an initiative needed to be in place to help Bar members who suffer from substance abuse, mental health and other maladies that impact their lives and careers.

The confidential program is independent from The Florida Bar, but does receive funding from the organization, according to its website.

Cohen became executive director in 1994, but was familiar with the organization years before that.

He sought help from the program in its first year after realizing he had issues with drugs and alcohol.

“I knew I had a problem,” said Cohen. “I just didn’t know what to do about it.”

The experience offered help and hope — Cohen said hearing from your peers that struggles “aren’t the end of the world and there is a way” offers inspiration.

He said the organization typically receives 500 to 600 calls a years and, of those, maybe 150 will have formal files opened. From there, those seeking help are connected to local attorneys and support groups in their area.

There are more than 30 weekly groups throughout the state for lawyers, judges and law students, according to the program’s website. In Jacksonville, there are two weekly groups.

Most cases come from the more heavily populated South Florida area, but calls come from across the state, he said.

Tygart said she believes such issues are “absolutely prevalent” when it comes to young attorneys.

However, it’s a struggle often dealt with in solitude.

“You don’t know it and they don’t want you to know it,” said Tygart.

She said while most of the assistance programs come at the state level, the JBA has made efforts through its new Health and Wellness Committee, part of its member services section.

Those efforts have mainly come through promoting a healthy work-life balance, said Tygart.

“I think the bottom line is these pressures aren’t going away,” she said. “You’re going to be burned out … It’s about taking baby steps toward that goal.”

Whether it’s yoga classes on the courthouse lawn or organizing casual lunches away from the office, Tygart said, every bit helps.

And the new committee will only continue to grow in importance in future years.

Cohen said with higher than normal cases being seen at younger ages, efforts also have been made to educate even before attorneys begin their careers.

Reaching out early

Cohen said it’s tough to get time in all of Florida’s 11 law schools, whether it be orientation or as part of the curriculum.

With the study showing the significant problem, he hopes it serves as an impetus for more attention.

Like Tygart, Lauren Levine said she wasn’t necessarily surprised by the study’s findings. As interim dean of student affairs at Florida Coastal School of Law, Levine has a firsthand look at those aspiring to enter the field. Her background includes being a mental health counselor.

Florida Coastal approaches the issue twofold, said Levine.

The first is an education piece through seminars in different classes.

“We educate them on the levels of anxiety, depression and stress so they can kind of get that basis,” she said. “It’s not a surprise to them … they feel it. So we try to educate them on what causes it.”

Levine said alcohol is a known way for students to cope with stress.

But abstinence isn’t realistic. Not when there are socials, happy hours and the industry is known for consumption at times.

She said the education effort covers how young attorneys should handle themselves in those social situations — learning alcoholic percentages in drinks, how much they should consume and how to manage their behavior.

The second part of Florida Coastal’s effort to address the issue comes on the back end, when students realize there is a problem impacting their lives. The school has a full-time mental health counselor on staff providing confidential assistance for those in need.

Levine said she sees some of the problems coming with newer students who still have tendencies left over from their college and high school days, which typically last until about 25.

For those who do have problems they’re encouraged to seek the help available.

“We just want them to get in front of the issue,” said Levine.

The numbers show more and more young attorneys are facing those issues — and it’s OK to reach out, said Tygart.

“I am sure there are local young lawyers fighting these battles right now,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but there is help.”

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