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Alcoholism in Legal Profession: Prevalence, Signs, and Treatment

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Alcoholism in the legal profession may be more common than you think. In 2016, a study of over 12,000 licensed, employed attorneys found that more than 20% of study participants exhibited harmful, problematic drinking. Conversely, less than 6% of the general population has an alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder.1,2,3

Why Do Legal Professionals Use Alcohol?

Many factors may contribute to the high prevalence of alcoholism in legal profession. These include:1,2,3,4

  • High incidence of depression: About 28% of attorneys reported currently experiencing depression, and 46% reported concerns with depression at some point in their legal career. Depression and alcohol addiction are the most common co-occurring psychiatric disorders. Many people with depression may turn to alcohol as a means to cope. On the other hand, alcohol misuse may lead to symptoms of depression.
  • High incidence of anxiety: Approximately 19% of surveyed lawyers reported currently experiencing anxiety, and 61% reported struggles with anxiety at some point in their legal career. Lawyers struggling with anxiety may self-medicate with alcohol, having a drink to help them relax, which may lead to problematic drinking over time.
  • High levels of stress: The legal industry can be a stressful environment; 23% of lawyers surveyed reported feeling stress. Attorneys may choose alcohol as a means of coping with stress and taking the edge off.
  • Social culture: Compared with other work environments, attorneys working in private firms experience some of the highest levels of problematic drinking. While exact causation is not clear, it is speculated this may be due to a relationship between professional culture and drinking. Because alcohol use is socially acceptable, many people engage in drinking to socialize and connect with peers.
  • Heavy workloads: Lawyers often work long hours and take on heavy workloads. This leaves little time for self-care. Attorneys may drink to cope with the stress or start drinking in the evenings to help them wind down and fall asleep.
  • Poor work-life balance: Work-life balance can be a challenge for many attorneys. The notoriously long workday leaves little time for family and personal pursuits. This may lead to feeling overworked, overwhelmed, stressed, lonely, or isolated, which are all feelings that may lead someone to reach for an alcoholic drink.
  • Pressure: An attorney’s job is filled with pressure. The pressure starts in school when studying for the BAR exam and competing with other students to get into law school. It doesn’t stop after graduation. A law career continues to be stressful, with the consistent pressure of winning the case for a client. The constant pressure can take a toll on anyone’s mental health and may contribute to the high levels of alcoholism in legal professions.

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Is Alcohol Misuse Interfering With Your Professional Life?

While all the participants in the 2016 study were employed lawyers, alcohol misuse can still negatively impact your career. Some signs that your alcohol misuse is interfering with your professional life include:

  • Missed deadlines: Not getting your work done in time because of your drinking.
  • Missed shifts or court dates: Being unable to show up to work because you are under the influence of alcohol or experiencing a hangover or withdrawal symptoms as a result of your alcohol use.
  • Negative performance reviews: Receiving negative performance reviews from your management team is a direct result of your drinking behaviors and the effects alcohol has on your ability to do your job.
  • Concerned questions from coworkers: If coworkers are starting to show concerns or ask questions about your alcohol use, you may have a problem with alcohol that you need to address.
  • Drinking on the job: If you are drinking alcohol during the workday, this is a sign that you have lost control over your alcohol use and may need help regaining control.

Signs a Legal Professional May Have Alcohol Use Disorder

If alcohol misuse is negatively impacting your career, you may qualify for a clinical diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD). While you may hear many people call it alcoholism, the clinical term is alcohol use disorder. AUD is a medical condition characterized by being unable to stop or reduce drinking despite negative personal, social, professional, and health consequences.

Alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe. If you answer yes to more than two of the questions below, you meet the criteria for a diagnosis of AUD:3

In the past year, have you:

  • Wanted an alcoholic drink so badly that you couldn’t think about anything else?
  • Spent a significant amount of time drinking or being ill from the after-effects?
  • Experienced times where you drank more or for a longer period than intended?
  • Wanted to cut down or stop drinking completely on more than one occasion but failed to do so?
  • Realized that drinking alcohol—or being sick from it—interfered with taking care of your family or keeping up with work or school responsibilities?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing problems with your friends and family?
  • Gotten into risky situations more than once during or after your drinking (driving or swimming under the influence, having unprotected sex, or walking in dangerous areas)?
  • Given up or cut down on activities that you enjoy or that are important to you because you prioritized drinking?
  • Had to drink more alcohol to get the effect you were looking for? Or noticed that your usual number of drinks had less effect than previously?
  • Experienced withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, restlessness, nausea and vomiting, shaking, seizures, insomnia, or a racing heart when alcohol is wearing off?
  • Continued to drink alcohol even though it was causing anxiety or depression or making another health problem worse? Or after having a memory blackout from alcohol?

If you are concerned that you may have an alcohol use disorder, help is available. Seek out a professional assessment from a medical or mental health provider who can then refer you to an appropriate treatment program. You can also call our 24/7 helpline at 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers to learn more about your rehab options.

Alcoholism in Legal Profession: Addressing Alcohol Misuse and Seeking Treatment

Alcohol misuse can lead to many adverse consequences to your personal and professional life. If you are a legal professional with symptoms of an alcohol use disorder, you can take steps to stop or reduce your drinking.

Admitting the Problem

The first step to addressing alcohol misuse is to recognize that there is a problem. Start by giving yourself credit for having an awareness of the issue and a willingness to seek solutions. You are not alone in your struggle with alcohol, and there are plenty of treatment options available, should you choose to seek it.

Addressing Work-Life Balance

Once you have admitted that your drinking has become uncontrollable, you can start evaluating the factors that contribute to your alcohol use. Work-life balance is a common struggle for attorneys. If you are feeling overworked and overwhelmed and aren’t taking enough time out for self-care, it may be time to make some changes. You may want to consider reducing your hours at work, even if it is just temporarily, while you pursue recovery.

Finding Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress

Stress often comes with the territory in the legal industry and contributes to alcoholism in legal profession. Identify which stressors are most difficult for you and establish healthy ways to cope as an alternative to drinking alcohol. Some examples of healthy coping skills include:

  • Exercise
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Creative expression
  • Spending time in nature
  • Talking with a friend

Addressing Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

If you also have a co-occurring mental health disorder like depression or anxiety, you will want to find appropriate treatment for both, such as a dual diagnosis treatment center. This is because alcohol use disorder and psychiatric conditions influence one another in a cycle that can be difficult to end without professional support. You may find that treating your anxiety or depression with medication or psychotherapy not only helps you feel better mentally and emotionally but also reduces your desire to drink alcohol.

Seeking Support

Start by looking around at the circle of support you already have. Who can you talk to about your alcohol use? You may benefit from talking to a supportive friend, co-worker, or family member. Support groups are another option for those struggling with alcohol misuse. It can be helpful to sit down with peers who can relate to what you are going through. Alcoholics Anonymous is a popular 12-step support group for people with alcohol use disorder (AUD). However, there are non-12-step alternatives as well, such as SMART Recovery, which has a different philosophy and uses evidence-based practices.

Seeking Professional Treatment

If you are struggling to cut back or quit drinking and it is continuing to cause problems in your life, you may wish to seek professional help. For many lawyers, reputation may be a significant barrier to treatment. Attorneys may fear that people will find out about their alcohol addiction and see them as less reliable or professional, even though this is not necessarily the case. You risk much more to your reputation by continuing to consume alcohol, which can impair your ability to make good decisions.5

You have a variety of treatment options available, including behavioral counseling, medications, and inpatient and outpatient rehab programs. Outpatient rehab is often a good option for attorneys as it allows them to continue to work during treatment. However, for people with more severe cases of alcohol use disorder or co-occurring mental health disorders, inpatient treatment may be a better option. Inpatient rehab provides people the opportunity to focus exclusively on their recovery without the stressors of the outside world. Many attorneys may choose to take medical leave in order to attend inpatient treatment programs.

If you’re struggling with alcohol misuse and would like information on treatment options, call 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers to speak with an addiction treatment specialist today.


  1. Krill, P., Johnson, R., & Albert, L. (2016). The Prevalence of Substance Use And Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 10(1): 46-52
  2. American Bar Association. (January 2019). Study on Lawyer Impairment.
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (April 2021). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.
  4. Mchugh, R. & Weiss, R. (2019) Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorder. Alcohol Research Current Reviews,40(1).
  5. Brevers, D., Bechara, A., Cleeremans, A., Kornreich, C., Verbanck, P., & Noel, X. (July 2014). Impaired decision-making under risk in individuals with alcohol dependence. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 38(7): 1924-1931.
  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (August 2021). Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) Treatment.
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