Attorneys and alcohol: Problems and solutions

Experts recommend collegial support, confidentiality when confronting problem

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Responding to a survey conducted in 2015 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 6 percent of adults said they have what the institute calls Alcohol Use Disorder.

That’s defined as drinking more than they intended, being made sick by drinking or having drinking cause problems at work, among other criteria.

If you work in the legal profession, the percentage is about 20 percent, according to a study funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. It was published in the February 2016 edition of the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

Nearly 13,000 licensed, employed attorneys and other legal professionals participated in the survey. Questions covered alcohol use, drug use and symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress.

The study found what was deemed “substantial rates of behavioral health problems” with 20.6 percent screening positive for hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.

In addition, men, younger participants and those working in the field for a shorter duration had higher proportions of positive screens (see charts).

The study also determined that the occurrence of depression, anxiety and stress among attorneys is significant, with 28 percent, 19 percent and 23 percent reporting those issues, respectively.

The legal profession is as much about solutions as it is knowing an issue exists, so, concurrent with the release of the study, the ABA followed up with the authors to discuss moving forward.

Asked what an attorney should do when they realize a colleague needs help, Patrick Krill, former director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Legal Professionals Program, said the process should mirror the ethical foundations of the profession.

“When approaching a colleague about an issue like this, steps should be taken to maximize an environment of dignity, respect, confidentiality, support and empathy,” he said. “Accusations, threats and public confrontations are not the appropriate starting place for such a conversation.”

Linda Albert, a licensed clinical social worker, certified alcohol and drug counselor and a member of the ABA’s lawyer assistance program commission, said one of the issues that could hinder a lawyer from getting help for a substance abuse problem is concern over privacy.

“Law offices that have concerns about their employees or colleagues can always utilize the lawyer assistance program, which typically has confidentiality via statute or Supreme Court rule. This allows LAP personnel and volunteers to contact the person in question and work under the rule of confidentiality,” she said.

With the prevalence of substance abuse identified by the study, Krill said it’s important to get ahead of the problem.

“Many law firms do not have adequate or thoughtfully designed policies and procedures in place for dealing with attorney impairment issues,” he said. “All firms should examine their protocols around these issues and update them to reflect a policy of early detection and intervention, support, confidentiality and workplace reintegration.”

Krill said local Bar associations can support the effort by partnering with health and wellness organizations to educate their members on preventive strategies.

He also recommends that Bar associations change an aspect of programming for members.

“They could start by making greater and sustained efforts to decouple or deemphasize alcohol from networking and socializing, especially at Bar association events,” Krill said.

He added that some Bar associations that implemented the policy “found themselves struggling with poorly attended events” as a result.

However, “It is irresponsible for Bar associations to continue on with a ‘business as usual’ approach in light of the completely unacceptable levels of problem drinking that our study confirmed,” said Krill.

“Failure to change is tantamount to enabling.”


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