Lawyer Wellness

Conventional wisdom is wrong about lawyers’ mental health, but comparative drinking rate is 'extraordinary,' study says

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Lawyers consume alcohol “at extraordinary rates” compared to their educational peers, according to a study based on multiyear data. But lawyers don’t have significantly higher rates of mental illness than others, including doctors, veterinarians and dentists, the study found.

“Contrary to the conventional wisdom, lawyers are not particularly unhappy,” the study said. “Indeed, they suffer rates of mental illness much lower than the general population. Rates of problematic alcohol use among lawyers, however, are high, even when compared to the general population.”

Yair Listokin, a Yale Law School professor, and Raymond Noonan, a Yale law student, published those findings in an article available at SSRN.

The researchers used information from the National Health Interview Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey is based on data from a randomly selected group of 35,000 households, producing annual data from about 90,000 people of all ages.

The study found that only 0.7% of the surveyed lawyers suffered from serious mental illness, compared to 4.9% of those without a college degree and 1.3% of those with only a bachelor’s degree. And lawyers fare no worse than those with a master’s degree, a PhD or a medical degree.

The study used a Kessler 6 screening scale that is based on a series of six questions about mental health. A K6 score equal to or above 13 indicates severe mental illness. The higher the K6 score, the more serious the mental illness. The maximum score is 24.

Lawyers’ average K6 score of 1.98 is higher than the scores of other medical professionals (at 1.63), the study found. But it is significantly lower than that of the general population (at 2.60) and those without bachelor’s degrees (at 2.95). The lawyer average is not significantly different than the K6 scores of those with bachelor’s or master’s degrees or PhDs.

When the incidence of moderate and severe mental illness is combined, the percentage is 6% for lawyers; 16% for those with no college degree; 8% for those with only a bachelor’s degree; 7% for those with a master’s degree or PhD; and 5% for medical doctors, veterinarians and dentists.

The findings on alcohol consumption are more problematic.

Eleven percent of lawyers in the study reported excess alcohol consumption, which was defined as having five or more drinks on 12 or more days in a year. That’s higher than the percentage of excess drinking reported by all the respondents (10%), by those with master’s degrees or PhDs (6.7%) and those with a medical degree (5.4%).

“Compared to their educational peers, lawyers consume alcohol at extraordinary rates,” the study said. “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.”

Today’s rates of problematic drinking among lawyers are more than 50% above the rates reported in the mid-2000s, the study found.

The study also noted that problematic drinking is especially prevalent among lawyers younger than age 40.

The study found that more than three times as many young lawyers drink alcohol at problematic rates compared to their older peers. Age alone does not explain the differences because differences in drinking rates by young and older nonlaywers are about a third as large as between young and old lawyers.

The study also found differences in problem drinking between lawyers at private law firms and lawyers working for government or in-house. The law firm lawyers had problematic drinking rates that were 50% greater than the other lawyers.

Listokin and Noonan used data from the National Health Interview Survey from 2010 through 2017, which included information from 1,000 lawyers. The study defined a lawyer as a lawyer, judge or related worker with a doctoral or professional degree.

The conventional wisdom on mental health and alcohol use is partly based on a 2016 study of about 13,000 lawyers and judges jointly conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

The ABA study found that alcohol use disorders and mental health problems are happening in the legal profession at higher rates than in other professions and the general population. That study found that 28% of the responding lawyers experienced depression, 19% experienced anxiety and 23% experienced stress.

The ABA study also found that 20.6% of the lawyers reported problematic alcohol use.

The ABA mental health and alcohol figures are higher than in the study of the National Health Interview Survey’s data. Listokin and Noonan note that the ABA study used volunteer respondents, who may not be representative of lawyers who are in a random survey.

Listokin and Noonan’s study is called Measuring Lawyer Well-Being Systematically: Evidence from the National Health Interview Survey.

Hat tip to Reuters, which had coverage of the study here.

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