How Anxiety, Depression, Stress, Drinking Impact Lawyers

By Douglas S. Querin, April 10, 2023

The following is Part I of a two-part inSight series reporting on the findings of a recent national study focusing on depression, anxiety, stress, and risky/hazardous drinking patterns among American lawyers, workplace factors predictive of these patterns, and gender disparities revealed by the findings. Part I will generally discuss the study’s findings; Part II will discuss some of the lawyer well-being implications of the findings and present considerations and suggestions about ways to address those implications.  

Stress, drink, leave: An examination of gender-specific risk factors for mental health problems and attrition among licensed attorneys (May 12, 2021) (“The Study”) is effectively a natural sequel to a 2016 study of American lawyers and the national, state, and local attention, concern, and recommendations generated by that study’s findings. The earlier study, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” revealed what for many was a generally recognized but seldom critically studied reality within the profession: American lawyers suffer from significantly elevated rates of depression, anxiety, stress, and substance misuse; 28% reported symptoms of depression; 19% reported unhealthy levels of anxiety; 23% reported mild to severe stress; and nearly 21% reported problematic drinking. 

The Study was conducted in collaboration with the California Lawyers Association and the District of Columbia Bar. Its findings were based on anonymous responses to surveys sent to randomly selected practicing lawyers within these organizations. Participating lawyers totaled 2,863. The surveys included completion of questionnaires asking about demographic and work-related variables, as well as the completion of professionally recognized mental health, substance use, and related assessments. The number of male and female participants was approximately equal. (Participants’ gender-election options appear to have been limited to the gender binary.)

The Study was conducted during COVID-19. It attempted in various ways to methodologically work around this reality, seeking to maximize the ultimate accuracy of its findings so they would be as minimally impacted by the pandemic as possible. The Study’s goal was to examine the empirical evidence supporting “the nature, scope, and causes of the mental health and substance use challenges lawyers face, as well as the gender disparities associated with each.” (p.2) In particular, it sought to identify the following work-related factors considered predictive of these challenges:

1. Overcommitment to work
2. Imbalance between effort and reward
3. Work-family conflict
4. Workplace permissiveness toward alcohol
5. Prospects for career growth/promotion

The Study provides insight into some of the primary factors associated with depression, anxiety, stress, risky drinking, and attrition issues within the American legal profession. Among the more significant findings are the following:

•  Approximately 67% of both male and female respondents reported working more than 40 hours per week on average, with nearly 25% working more than 51 hours per week on average.

•  Women reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms, as well as higher levels of risky and hazardous alcohol use.

     -  Depression symptoms were more common and generally more significant among female respondents, compared with their male counterparts.
     -  Anxiety symptoms were higher among female respondents, compared with men.
     -  Stress symptoms were higher among female respondents, compared with men.

Generally speaking, moderate and severe stress levels among men and women were, albeit with some gender variations, related to such reported workplace factors as effort/reward imbalances,work overcommitment, and promotion prospects; predictably, the more problematic the workplace, the more problematic the well-being outcomes of those in the workplace.

      -  Women reported higher levels of risky drinking. (Definition: for men, consuming more than 14 drinks/week or more than 4 during one occasion; for women, consuming more than 7 drinks/week or more than 3 during one occasion.)
      -  Women also reported higher levels of hazardous drinking. (Definition: for men, consuming more than 21 drinks/week; for women, consuming more than 14 drinks/week.) 

•  Nearly 25% of the responding women, compared with 17% of the men, reported they had contemplated leaving the legal profession due to mental health, stress, or burnout concerns.

•  High work/family conflict was a strong predictor for contemplating leaving the profession; more so for women than for men.

      -  High work overcommitment was also a strong predictor for contemplating leaving the profession; somewhat more so for men than women.
      -  Perceived likelihood of promotion was associated with lower likelihood of leaving or contemplating leaving the profession for mental health among men; there was no similar relationship between these items for women.

•  Approximately 30% of the participants screened positive for high-risk hazardous drinking, that is, reporting alcohol use considered to be within the range of alcohol abuse or dependence.

      -  Despite the high prevalence of problematic drinking among study participants, only 2% reported ever having received an alcohol use disorder diagnosis.
      -  A significantly greater proportion of women, compared with men, reported engaging in risky and high-risk/ hazardous drinking.
      -  Workplace permissiveness toward alcohol use and COVID-19 impact were identified as primary predictors of risky drinking among both men and women.
      -  Overcommitment to work was a predictor of risky drinking among men but not women.
      -  Of those surveyed, approximately 35% of the women and 29% of the men reported that their drinking increased during the pandemic.

The Study’s findings provide valuable insights into some of the primary factors associated with well-recognized challenges for American lawyers: depression, anxiety, stress, risky and hazardous drinking, and attrition issues within our legal profession. In Part II of this inSight series, we will discuss some of the lawyer wellbeing implications of these findings and present considerations and suggestions about ways to address those implications.
Senior Attorney Counselor, OAAP

Other Works by Doug Querin:

Thriving Today
Procrastination: A Story and Some Resources for Solutions (February 5, 2021)
Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze? (December 16, 2020)
Telling Time (September 15, 2020)
A Day in the Life (June 30, 2020)
The Best 12 Minutes of My Day (May 20, 2020)
THRIVING…Despite Challenge: A Brief Roadmap for Lawyers (May 26, 2020)

Money Talk: Fostering Effective Financial Conversations (June 2020)
Perspectives: Lawyers and Marijuana (March 2020) (co-authored with OAAP Attorney Counselor Bryan Welch)
Procrastination and the Allure of Tomorrow (June 2019)
Perspectives: Life in Early Recovery (June 2019)
Perspectives on Retirement (March 2019)
Helping a Colleague in Recovery (December 2018)
National Task Force Report on Lawyer WellBeing (March 2018)

View Full Issue