Combatting alcohol problems in the legal industry

by NZ Lawyer15 Jul 2016
by Mark Abernethy

One in three lawyers have a drinking problem, according to a new report in the American media this week, but lawyers drinking too much is also prevalent in this part of the world.

The University of NSW’s 2014 report, Lawyering Stress and Work Culture: An Australian Study, found 32 per cent of the surveyed lawyers were problem drinkers. The study also linked regular alcohol consumption to more serious depression, anxiety and stress symptoms.

The New Zealand Law Society acknowledges that the mix of high stress and long hours contributes to an environment where lawyers might drink to excess, and the Society promotes programs to combat it, including drinking diaries, life skills suggestions, psychological services and self-identifying tests for lawyers who think they might have a problem.

“We don’t have statistics on how much New Zealand lawyers drink,” says media spokesperson for the NZ Law Society, Geoff Adlam. “However we accept our lawyers probably have problem drinking rates similar to Australia’s and we make available resources to our members.”

Adlam says the apparent prevalence of problem drinking in the legal profession is more a function of overwork and stress, not as a result of being a lawyer. “We think references to lawyers and drinking is probably stress-related, as it is in other professions with similar stresses and work-loads.”

In Australia the NSW Law Society promotes Lifeline for Lawyers, LawCare and support services such as Senior Lawyers, mentoring schemes and the Lawyers Assistance Program. It also links to the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, an independent organisation that aims to decrease distress and the causes of depression and anxiety in the legal profession.

The 2014 UNSW report was the first to investigate the extent to which stress, anxiety and depression among lawyers are associated with the conditions and culture of legal practice.

The UNSW report found that there was a culture of alcohol in law firms and that lawyers working in larger firms were at a higher risk of alcohol use than those in smaller firms or working in chambers.
The culture of over-work was raised in the report, because Australian lawyers spend at least 12 hours at work each day – almost double the national average for actual hours worked.