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Women Lawyers Are Being Driven to Drink

The highly competitive field is a breeding ground for addiction problems.

The morning before Lisa F. Smith, the author of Girl Walks Out of A Bar: A Memoir, checked herself into rehab, she says her breakfast consisted of a bottle of red wine and several lines of cocaine. It was her morning routine, and she needed the alcohol and drugs in her system in order to make it to her job at a law firm every day. When she finally decided she needed help, the last thing she wanted to do was let the firm know that she was struggling with addiction.


"When I checked myself into detox, I told [the law firm] I had a stomach issue and that I would be out for a week. I told them I'd be back the next week," Smith, 51, tells me over the phone from her office in New York City. "They [the detox] wanted me to go to a 20-day longer rehab. And I was like absolutely not, I can't tell my law firm I'm going to rehab. It's not happening."

So Smith went right back to work. She says she went into an intensive night rehab because she couldn't go during the days, and she started going to 12-step meetings. "It's a miracle I stayed sober because I wouldn't recommend the approach anyone," she says. "I went back [to work] and everyone was like, 'How's your stomach?'"

When we think about what kind of women struggle with alcoholism, high-powered lawyers like Smith are not the first that come to mind. But research from the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation shows that up to 20 percent of lawyers have a substance abuse problem, and more than 1 in 3 practicing attorneys are problem drinkers.

The highly competitive field is a breeding ground for addiction problems. Legal professionals have been aware of these issues for a long time, but they're just starting to get the attention they deserve from the field itself, says Patrick Krill, lead author of a recent study in Journal of Addiction Medicine and former director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's Legal Professionals Program.


When Krill's data is broken down by gender, women lawyers show rates of problematic drinking (which included abuse/dependence) that are significantly higher than male lawyers (39.5 percent vs. 33.7 percent). Overall, rates of abuse and dependence among lawyers are 10 percentage points higher than for female surgeons (36.4 percent for lawyers, 25.6 percent for female surgeons).

These figures also far exceed the 5.1 percent of women in the general population who struggle with alcoholism. And while lawyers show significantly higher rates of depression, which contributes to alcoholism in the field, the ABA and Betty Ford data shows that female attorneys are actually less depressed than males—a complete reversal of what you'd find in the general population. So what's causing women in the legal profession to drink so much?

One place we can begin to look is the demographic research. While alcoholism is traditionally associated with low-income, working class people, blue collar jobs seem to actually protect women from alcoholism. Higher income, education, and socioeconomic status, on the other hand, all correlate with higher rates of alcohol consumption.

In many ways, it's what Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, calls "the working women's steroid": It allows women to seemingly do it all in a world where the labor is still not evenly split, and it's the quickest way to decompress at the end of a demanding workday, not to mention potentially parenting kids. (It's also much easier to find time for a glass of wine than it is to make it to a yoga class).


But it's important to recognize that the majority—91 percent—of the people who participated in the study about rates of alcoholism in the legal profession were white, which could affect the research. Data shows over and over again that white women drink at much higher rates than women of any other racial group. This stat doesn't surprise Rashida Richardson, a 30-year-old lawyer in New York City. "If you're a privileged white woman and you're now being forced to deal with certain stressors [like sexism] that you've never had to deal with… then you don't necessarily have the skill set or ability to cope in healthy ways," Richardson says.

The systemic sexism that Richardson mentions is indeed one of the main culprits that's likely causing women in the legal profession to imbibe in more and greater numbers. While this may be obvious, the way it plays out in the law profession seems to be different from in other professions. Many people I spoke to cited the "old boys club" atmosphere of law offices and the profession itself, forcing women trying to enter to feel like they need to drink like the men in order to hang or keep up. "The field is pretty male-dominated," Smith says. (In 2016, 64 percent of lawyers were men). "When you look at numbers of women who have attained partnership in a law firm, it's still pretty low. There's been a lot more parity at the lower level, but women are having a hard time getting to the top in law firms."


Richardson says that the profession has all the same biases as society, like racism and sexism, but sometimes even more intense. "And when you have a job that's already hard and stressful, and it's compounded by the fact that you're not valued or you have to fight harder to just get the same amount of credit, pay, or whatever it is, that can bear on individuals—and specifically women—who have to carry a higher load in society," she says.

The alcohol-soaked culture—which begins in law school when people go out for after-class drinks, and continues into practice where colleagues may decompress after a long day or woo clients by taking them out for drinks—doesn't help. It creates an environment where women are consuming large amounts of alcohol just to feel like they can keep up with the men (who are often their bosses) in their field. This becomes challenging because women's bodies don't break down alcohol the same way as men's do, so they physically can't drink the same way men can.

But the law profession is highly competitive in the courtroom as well as the barroom. The competition is different than in other high-pressure fields because (to use the surgeons as an example), while there may be some element of arrogance and ego involved. In the operating room, everyone is working as a team to perform a successful surgery, and no one is in direct competition with each other. For lawyers, they're either in direct competition with other lawyers in the courtroom (and winning matters), or they're in competition with their colleagues for promotions, Krill explains.  And while the pressure of, say, tax law, isn't comparable to that of performing surgery, being a public defender could be. "That's a stressful job because, even though it's not literally life or death, it kind of is because of the possibility of a life sentence or of a very long sentence and the collateral consequences of that," Richardson says. That pressure can lead to people trying to find a quick means of escapism.


When it comes to helping lawyers seek the treatment they need, "the legal profession is pretty far behind the curve in terms of dealing with these issues," Krill says. And since many of the challenges that face people in the profession are quite unique, lawyers may require treatment specially tailored to the environment they work in. Programs like Hazelden Betty Ford's are specifically designed for, and run by, people who have experience in the law profession. There are also lawyers-only AA meetings offered all over the country.

"You're going to need to take some things off your schedule and replace them with recovery activities. Sometimes that's a hard pill to swallow, especially for someone still trying to make their way up the ladder," Krill says, and doubly so for women who may feel they're already at a disadvantage in their male-dominated field.

Smith says that, in early recovery, she would go to her hotel room during alcohol-related functions. "Instead of joining people for dinner and whatever came after, I showed up to the cocktail party late and left early, running for my room where I'd smoke cigarettes and eat three Hershey bars." It was a sacrifice she says she was willing to make, but acknowledges that she lost some of the camaraderie and bonding that came with sharing drinks with clients and colleagues after she got sober.

But Krill stresses that for women—who attend the program in about equal numbers as men — finding support among colleagues is imperative for their long-term sobriety. Making sure they're connected with other women in recovery, and hopefully women attorneys in recovery, is a big part of of their after-care plans, Krill says. There's a  level of peer support that can be helpful and encouraging, not only for recovery, but as a business networking tool.

And while the numbers show that women struggling with alcoholism are far from alone in the legal profession, many still suffer in silence. "I know women lawyers in this firm [in recovery] and they won't be public," Smith says. "But if push ever came to shove and I had to pick [writing] the book [about] this issue or my job, I would totally pick the book. That allowed me to be as honest as I wanted to be. It's okay, you can fire me if you want to."