Since its release last month, a groundbreaking study into attorneys’ mental health and substance abuse has had little trouble making itself known throughout the legal profession.
Still the effects of the study — the first to examine attorneys’ mental health in 25 years and the only national survey of its kind ever undertaken in the legal community — are just starting to be felt.
“My hope is that it’s a call for action,” said Linda Albert, program manager for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lawyer Assistance Program, who helped write the study. “That people read this study and go, ‘Wow, we need to think about doing something differently,’ that it increases the awareness that this isn’t just anecdotal.
“But when you look at the stories connected to the study, this is really concrete valid scientific data that says, ‘There’s a part of the legal profession that is suffering and that can affect the public and that can affect the public trust in the legal profession. So it’s important as a profession that we go at this.’”
The study, a collaboration between the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, collected information from nearly 15,000 licensed lawyers who were employed in 19 states. It is the first national effort to get data of this sort concerning the legal profession.
It offered an eye-opening glimpse into lawyers’ personal struggles, Albert said.
According to the study, 19 percent of the respondents reported troubles with anxiety, 21 percent qualified as problem drinkers and 28 percent reported some level of depression.
In fact, the frequency of depression among lawyers was nearly four times that found in the general population, and abusive drinking was nearly three times as common, said Albert, a licensed clinical social worker who represented the American Bar Association for the survey.
A separate analysis of a subset of the data, done using a different method, found that attorneys were also more than twice as likely as doctors to be problematic drinkers, Albert said. Among lawyers, the study found, the rate of abusive drinking was 36 percent; among doctors, it was 15 percent, Albert said.
Substance abuse and mental-health troubles were found to be most common for those who work at small firms and bar associations. And younger attorneys, those in the first 10 years of practice, were more likely to have trouble with mental health and substance abuse.
Behind The Numbers
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs recently concluded a survey of 12,825 people employed in the legal profession. Here’s the demographics used to measure results in the survey:
53 percent of the respondents were men; 47 percent were women.
34.8 percent reported having 10 years or less in the legal profession;
22.7 percent, 11 to 20 years;
20.5 percent 21 to 30 years
40.9 percent worked for private firms.
Among them, the most common positions were senior partner (25 percent), junior associate (20.5 percent) and senior associate (20.3 percent.
Age was measured in six categories, starting with 30 or younger, and increasing in 10-year increments to 71 years or older. The most commonly reported age group was 31 to 40 years old.
91.3 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Caucasian/White More than two-thirds (67.2 percent) reported working more than 41 hours a week.
Source: The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, Journal of Addiction Medicine, February 2016
“It’s the first time that’s been seen,” Albert said.
The findings about younger lawyers proved surprising to many — the long-held assumption being it was lawyers who had been around longer who were more likely to face these troubles. Yet, if one remembers what newcomers to the profession often must go through, it is also very understandable, Albert said.
“We see young lawyers who are graduating with high debt loads and difficulty finding jobs that will pay them enough to pay off their student loans or finding jobs in the legal field at all,” Albert said. “They’re having to put off developmental activities, such as getting married, having children, buying homes, because they can’t fund those things because of their higher debt load.
“So you can see this confluence of factors with younger lawyers that could be contributing to higher levels of anxiety, depression and substance use.”
The study also explored barriers to getting help.
“Lawyers were very limited in their help-seeking behavior because their attitude was, ‘If I get help, someone will find out and it will impact my license or my practice,’” Albert said. “So very few of them were seeking help for an alcohol problem or for depression or anxiety. The very thing that can help decrease these levels is something they don’t feel comfortable pursuing. That is a critical error in their thinking. The reality is the lawyers in our (WisLAP) program, who have sought help, have sought help confidentially and often gotten much better and improved their health and wellness and improved their practice.”
The findings, Albert said, will most likely be discussed for years.
“It was the first time ever that on a national basis data was collected on both substance use and mental health problems,” Albert said.
The last time similar studies were done was nearly 25 years ago.
One took place in Washington, where about 1,200 attorneys discussed their experiences concerning mental health and substance abuse. The other was conducted at Johns Hopkins University, where researchers looked at national rates of depression and their correlation to various occupations but did not collect data on substance use.
Acknowledging the omissions, the Washington study called more for research. Nothing was attempted for years, though, largely because of a lack of money and the general difficulty of corralling such a wide data pool, Albert said.
“That’s what’s made this a landmark study,” Albert said. “We gathered data on both mental health and substance use on a national level.”
Her hope now is that bar associations and other attorney organizations around the country will use the study’s insights to develop programs that will help reduce the rates of depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.
Call your local bar association or the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program, part of the State Bar of Wisconsin, at 1-800-543-2625. The helpline is free, confidential and accepts calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to state that the study found substance abuse and mental-health troubles to be more common for lawyers who work at small firms and bar associations, not small bar associations. The story was also corrected to state that a separate analysis of the data used in the first survey found that 36 percent of lawyers could be considered problematic drinkers.