“STRESS, DRINK, LEAVE”: The True Consequences of a “Work Hard, Play Hard” Career
Contributing Author: Susan Broderick, Program Director, NDAA
Being a successful lawyer is not easy, and criminal law is arguably the toughest type of law to practice. In a profession committed to achieving justice, those on the front lines are often exposed to some of the most brutal and horrifying acts of violence that the rest of the world only sees as snippets on the evening news. The stress and anxiety that accompanies this work is often overlooked, and an overreliance on alcohol seems to be a common coping mechanism.
For years this work hard, play hard life was just accepted, even exalted. You had to be a warrior in the courtroom and could not show any signs of weakness or fatigue. Fortunately, over the past several years there has been an increasing consensus on the true toll that the stress and the substance misuse are taking. The catalyst was a 2016 survey conducted by the ABA which indicated the high rates of mental health and substance use issues within the legal profession.
Last month, another study was published which raises serious concerns about the impact of stress within the legal profession, especially regarding women. Based on a survey of almost 3,000 attorneys in the DC and California, researchers found that three key challenges facing the legal profession are stress, substance misuse, and attrition. Furthermore, these issues were significantly higher among women. “Female lawyers are more depressed, anxious, stressed and likely to drink heavily than male lawyers; they are also more likely to contemplate leaving the legal profession.
As someone who has spent over 30 years as an attorney and spent the last 20 in recovery from alcoholism, I was not surprised by these findings. In fact, once again I think that the problems may even be more pronounced than surveys reveal. For many, the consequences have not risen to the level of “bottom” and the fact that there has not been an arrest or dismissal from a job can fuel the denial. Given the stigma and shame that is involved in admitting to problems such as alcoholism, mental illness, or stress-related burnout, I imagine that the true numbers may be much higher than what has been reported.
Studies like these are of critical importance because they illuminate the fact that these are concerns that are widespread in the legal profession. More importantly, by shedding light on the unique stressors that make practicing law so prone to these problems, we can address the elephant in the room and work on meaningful and significant solutions. Some suggestions include professional training and interventions that have been utilized in addressing burnout with physicians, monthly meetings focusing on work-life and personal challenges, and stress reduction activities. A critical component of any office plan would also include a greater focus on Lawyer Assistance Programs.
A final recommendation put forward by the researchers in this study involves changing workplace attitudes towards alcohol. Given the widespread use of alcohol in office gatherings and parties, this is something that will take some time. But a solid first step would be looking at what is happening in your office and trying to replace the “happy hours” that are centered around drinking with a healthier alternative that will both relieve stress and advance camaraderie.
Obviously, these changes will take time, but as the researchers acknowledged, this can be done through sustained and incremental steps. A critical component involves raising awareness through educational efforts and the good news is that there are District Attorneys across the country who are very involved in promoting well-being as an office priority.
Over the past several years I have been invited to speak at state and local DA conferences about my own recovery. I think it is important that I share my story so people can understand that that you do not need to end up on the Bowery to admit there is an issue. Functional alcoholism is still alcoholism, no matter how you try to dress it up. I do not share my experiences to make people feel uncomfortable (although I know I have lost some “drinking” friends along the way). I share my story because I know that there are others who are suffering in silence. My goal is to convey a message of hope.
At NDAA, we are committed to addressing the serious concerns that currently exist around these issues. Through the Well-Being Task Force, we are working with to prosecutors nationwide to identify and incorporate concrete strategies and policies that address the challenges inherent in this stressful profession. If you are interested in learning more about how to advance this work in your office, please reach out to us.
Susan Broderick is a Program Director with the National District Attorneys Association, where she is also the staff liaison for the Well-being Task Force.