Sloshed not sick?

The profession has certain stories it tells itself which are probably not true. One such is exposed by an interesting piece of US research by Listokin and Noonan (published here and available without a paywall, I think, here. That story is that, “lawyers are uniquely unhappy”, in particular that they suffer higher levels of mental health problems due to poor working conditions than other people in general, or other professionals in particular. Big firms are often singled out as a cause of this misery (billing targets being one of several , ahem, questionable practices).

Poor quality research, the researchers tell us, lead us up this avenue of mild delusion. As an aside here I would add, the profession has a bit of an addiction to research that tells it what it wants to hear; if it’s cheap and it suits our prejudices, what’s not to like? A useful lobbying tool in terms of rallying the troops, it plays less effectively with proper policy-makers. But I digress.

Listokin and Noonan tackle the problem of lawyer-well being using national health data to collect a sample that resembles, “the true population of U.S. lawyers.” The nature of the survey, and its response rate, reduces the likelihood of response biases of the kind averted to above. The results…?

“When we examine the NHIS data, we find that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, lawyers are not particularly unhappy. Indeed, they suffer rates of mental illness much lower than the general population. Lawyer mental health is not significantly different than the mental health of similarly educated professionals, such as doctors and dentists.”

Of course, they rightly emphasise that ‘being no worse’ does not mean things are okay with lawyer mental health. And there is one area where lawyers really do seem to be worse (in the US):

“Rates of problematic alcohol use among lawyers, however, are high, even when compared to the general population. Moreover, problematic use of alcohol among lawyers has grown increasingly common over the last 15 years.”

…compared to their educational peers, lawyers consume alcohol at extraordinary
rates.

Now I confess that, as someone brought up in a pub, I was tempted here to high-five all my drinking buddies with the immaturity characteristic of our (okay, my) attitude to alcohol. But let me sober myself up…

Lawyers exhibit excess alcohol consumption twice as frequently as others with advanced professional degrees. Moreover, alcohol abuse in the legal profession has been getting worse—increasing dramatically over the last 15 years. This trend seems especially prevalent among lawyers under 40.

…more than three times as many young lawyers drink alcohol at problematic rates compared to their older peers

More interestingly still they suggest these differences are not explained by age alone. Private practice lawyers are more likely to have drink problems than in-house and government lawyers. Men are, of course, in deeper trouble here than women. And there is some suggestion (although here the data is less clear) that problem drinking is more prevalent at large and very large firms.

Given sexual misconduct is commonly accompanied by heavy drinking, and given the toll that drinking can take on one’s physical and mental health, perhaps the time has come for a reset on the legal profession’s relationship with booze. At least if the US data is reflective of experiences here. Perhaps someone should not do a survey on it though.

And lest anyone take false comfort from lawyers not being exceptionally bad in stress terms, it is still likely to be pretty bad. I looked for some general level data on occupations and the one thing I could find that was helpful was this. It shows the occupational group most likely to suffer from stress is ‘professionals’ and the bigger the size of the organisation the more likely it is to be a problem.

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