Read the first in a series of articles and presentations by attorneys, Thomas J. D'Amato and Christopher Whang of D'Amato Law, about attorney wellbeing, competency and legal culture.
Competency and Wellbeing: A Conversation Starter for a Legal Culture Free from Alcohol and Substance Abuse
Every year, thousands of enthusiastic and ambitious students enter law school with the prospect of becoming practicing lawyers. They enter with purpose and excitement as to what they want to accomplish. School begins to consume every aspect of law students’ life. Everything from the Socratic method, the competitive grading, the workload, internships, journals, networking and even socializing with peers will cause students to lose sleep and consume enormous amounts of caffeine. In time, most, if not all, of these students experience a large amount of stress, and doubt themselves and what they really want to do with their legal education, if they finish at all.
Most practicing attorneys likely believe that the rigorous nature of law school shapes great attorneys and is a rite of passage every member of the bar must go through to enter this prestigious field. Such is the nature of law school and law practice. Unfortunately, for most students they will experience some level of anxiety and depression. And for too many, the path toward alcohol and substance abuse, and a career long struggle with professional competence, is paved during these formative years.
In a 2014 survey by the American Bar Association of 15 law schools around the country, 89.6 % of students stated they have had a drink of alcohol in the last 30 days. 21.6 % reported binge drinking at least twice in the past two weeks. See Substance Abuse and Mental Health Toolkit for Law Students and Those Who Care About Them, ABA and CoLAP.
Law students Adam Wheeler and Aidan Campbell, in a 2016 article, stated that alcohol use is “ubiquitous within the legal profession.” See Wheeler, Adam; Campbell, Aidan, Alcohol and Law School, in Our Own Words, Ultravires, The Independent Student Newspaper of the University of Toronoto, Faculty of Law, http://ultravires.ca/2016/03/alcohol-law-school-words/. The excessive use, they stated, seemed to be their welcoming into the legal profession culture. As they continued in their legal education, they found that alcohol seemed almost a requirement to network, socialize, and ultimately obtain jobs. It is perceived that to succeed at law firms, it is expected that students consume alcohol. Wheeler’s and Campbell’s testimony is corroborated by Business Insider, who labeled Big Law networking and summary associate programs as “one long fraternity party for entertaining law school recruits.” See Polantz, Katelyn, Alcoholism is a Serious Problem for Law Firms, Business Insider, July 29, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/alcoholism-is-a-serious-problem-for-law-firms-2017-7.
In early November 2017, Florida State University Law School instituted a new policy banning alcohol on all school-sponsored events. An FSU law student “bemoaned the new policy, writing, “The legal job market is tough and now our parent institution is making it even harder for us to connect with the legal community throughout our state. Hopefully this does not affect job placement.” See Zaretzky, Staci, Law Students Think Alcohol Ban Will Affect Job Placement, Law School Ranking, AbovetheLaw, Nov. 13, 2017, https://abovethelaw.com/2017/11/law-students-think-alcohol-ban-will-affect-job-placement-law-school-ranking/?rf=1..
As law students become accustomed to this culture, alcoholism often progresses as law students become practicing attorneys. Nearly 70 % of practicing lawyers are likely to have an alcohol problem at some time during their career. Approximately 21 % of employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers. Approximately 20 % of lawyers suffer substance abuse. See 2014 Comprehensive Survey of Lawyer Assistance Programs, ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. Still, firms embrace and welcome this alcohol culture. Some firms still celebrate happy hours, on and off premises, as time-honored traditions. See Polantz, Katelyn, Alcoholism is a Serious Problem for Law Firms, Business Insider, July 29, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/alcoholism-is-a-serious-problem-for-law-firms-2017-7.
Alcohol in moderation and in the right context such as after-work happy hour or the celebratory drink, can be acceptable and harmless. However, the legal profession often neglects mental health and consequences of the attorneys that do struggle with alcoholism and this culture. Lawyers are generally estimated at being twice as likely to commit suicide than the general-public. Practicing lawyers rank the highest in depression when compared to 104 other highly educated professionals. The most frightening statistic: less than 0.1% of lawyers admit their depression and substance abuse.
It is not simply chance and “stress” that causes attorneys to struggle with mental health issues. It is caused by the culture surrounding the legal profession. Law school causes enormous stress, anxiety, and depression by itself. The legal culture, some argue, forces these struggling future attorneys to consume alcohol in copious quantities and in high frequency. Failing to do so may lead to lost networking opportunities, potential internships and associate positions. Alcohol soon becomes the primary coping method for students. As law students, Wheeler and Campbell state, it seems that law students begin consuming more alcohol and are justified in doing so because alcohol is “ubiquitous within the legal profession.” See Wheeler & Campbell, supra. As law students continue to develop into attorneys, they further embrace the culture of alcohol. They perceive that abstaining from alcohol prevents attorneys from appealing to partners, reaching potential promotions, and being involved in sought-after cases.
While it may be impossible to change the nature of law schools, although some are trying, we cannot accept status quo of the alcohol culture; and those already in the profession need to lead the way. Not all networking events should involve alcohol. Alternative forms of networking events are not only possible, but arguably better at finding talented and ambitious law students. At one California law school, a Civil Procedure professor held early morning pickup basketball at the school’s gym. The professor invited not only students but associates and partners at his firm or other firms. No alcohol was involved. Students met attorneys, phone numbers and email were exchanged, and relationships were built.
Challenge yourself, your team and your firm. Make time for networking and relationship building, with aspiring and new lawyers, in ways that are less dependent on alcohol. For the sake of our profession and the safety of our fellow attorneys, now and in the future, we must direct focused attention to this culture change.
Thomas J. D’Amato
D’Amato Law Corporation
25 Orinda Way, Suite 308,
Orinda, CA 94563