Lawyers in the Twin Cities and across the United States cope with depression and anxiety at troubling levels and turn to alcohol far more often than the population as a whole.
Those are among the results of a study released Wednesday that found 21 percent of practicing attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some degree of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.
The collaborative research project, conducted by the Minnesota- and California-based Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association (ABA), marks the first nationwide attempt to capture such data about the legal profession.
“As a lawyer, it’s not just an 8-to-5 job,” said Kelly Olmstead, a prosecutor at the Ramsey County attorney’s office and president of the Ramsey County Bar Association. “You take people’s problems and fears and worries and their freedom home with you at night, and when you win or lose a case, you know that that’s somebody’s life.”
Another factor is that in the law profession there is a culture where clients and peers network over drinks at happy hours and other social engagements, said Kim Lowe, president of the Hennepin County Bar Association and a shareholder at Minneapolis-based law firm Fredrikson & Byron.
In the past, the Hennepin County Bar Association has tried to host nonalcoholic, “family-friendly” events, Lowe said, but they were not popular.
About 15,000 attorneys from Minnesota and 18 other states participated in the study. Minnesota’s data came from attorneys in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
The rate of problem drinking is roughly three times higher in the U.S. among lawyers than the adult population as a whole, said attorney and clinician Patrick R. Krill, Hazelden’s architect of the project and the study’s lead author. Lawyers also have alcohol problems at a rate higher than doctors and other professions.
Krill added in an interview that “we found rates of depression are also significantly higher than the general population,” while lawyers also were coping with anxiety at a higher rate than the country as a whole.
“Any way you look at it,” Krill said, “this data is very alarming, and paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people.”
Dealing with trauma
Olmstead said the underlying issue she sees lawyers struggling with is their regular exposure to trauma.
“There’s this extraordinary responsibility to the community depending on what job you are doing,” she said, “and [lawyers] are intimately engaged in other people’s sensitive and challenging events in their lives.”
Lawyers have also had to deal with the stress of a changing industry with fewer jobs and more competition with lawyer alternatives such as online legal service provider LegalZoom. It can be an especially tough environment for young attorneys who are saddled with school debt, Lowe said.
“You go to school. You prove you’re smart, then you have a license and then work comes. It’s not that way anymore,” Lowe said. “I think a lot of lawyers are feeling just that angst about that.”
The study found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems compared with their older counterparts.
A national problem
The study found little difference in its findings from state to state or when comparing regions. The same was true for attorneys’ particular specialty, Krill said, except that members of private firms showed the most difficulty with alcohol.
He said he hopes these results prompt the profession to address the scope of the problem “with full-scale honesty.”
“They need to step up to the plate and devote their resources,” he said. “No more ignoring or minimizing the problem.”
Just like in any part of society, he said, there are family members and others around problem drinkers who pay a price. For attorneys, that includes their clients.
“We are handling people’s important matters,” he said. “It’s an obligation to be in good shape.”
St. Paul nonprofit Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) provides free and confidential assistance to those in the local legal field, including lawyers, judges, students and their families who are affected by alcohol, depression and other addictions and mental health problems.
LCL Executive Director Joan Bibelhausen said lawyers may not seek help and resources because they don’t want others to know about their problems and they are concerned about the confidentiality of their discussions.
“Lawyers are people who give advice,” she said. “They don’t necessary take advice, and they don’t want to be seen as being weak.”