Portrait of an Alcoholic

Where can a lawyer turn to when managing drink, work and life proves hard? LawCare explains how it is here to help.

When you think of an alcoholic, do you think of a shambling, slurring, dishevelled individual, living rough and existing from drink to drink, or do you think of a well-respected partner in a successful law firm or a barrister winning cases? It may be because the first portrait is the popular public perception that only around 7% of calls to LawCare’s free and confidential helpline are from, or about, alcoholic lawyers.


The majority of people cannot believe that someone who is still smartly dressed and holding down a good job could possibly be an alcoholic - and this view is shared by the alcoholics themselves. Judith* is a good example. A medical negligence barrister in a leading set of chambers, she admitted that she had already consumed most of a bottle of wine that day before phoning us (it was 11 a.m.) and would probably drink another before bedtime that evening. She had continued this pattern for a couple of years and didn’t think anyone at chambers had noticed, although she admitted that other barristers seemed to be given more complex and interesting cases, and many more of them. What had finally prompted her to call LawCare was that her seventeen-year-old son had said that he would go to live with his father if she didn’t cut down on her drinking.

“Why should I cut down?” she asked the LawCare staff member. “I enjoy wine, and it’s not affecting my work or harming my family.” Later in the conversation she was able to see that the evidence suggested she was wrong in both these assumptions.

A 2007 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) concluded that about 20% of alcoholics are “functional” and that only 9% are of the “chronic severe subtype,” fitting the stereotype of the street-drinking, shambolic alcoholic. Other addiction experts estimate that between 75% and 90% of alcoholics are high-functioning - that is, their illness progresses slowly enough that they can maintain their careers, families and social ties, albeit with considerable compromise and confusion on the part of those around them.

When an alcoholic doesn’t fit the stereotypical image it can help to reinforce their denial of the issue. Not only do they justify their drinking by blaming it on their stress or success, or referring to it as part of their social life, but they don’t even see alcohol as a problem because they have managed to continue with their careers despite craving drink after drink.

An international study showed that 18% of lawyers who have practiced for between 2 and 20 years are drinking alcoholically (i.e. to such an extent that it interferes with their ability to lead their day to day life), rising to 30% of lawyers who have been in practice for more than 20 years. This is considerably higher than the rate for the population as a whole - around 10% - which suggests that lawyers are in fact more likely to be abusing alcohol than those in other careers.

So how do those lawyers do it? How do they remain successful and work effectively while drinking hugely unsafe amounts? Often it is by binge drinking at weekends or, like Judith, by drinking smaller amounts throughout the day so that they remain “topped up”, constantly above the drink-drive limit but never so drunk that they are incapable of giving the impression that they are doing their job.

It can’t last, however. Alcoholism is a chronic progressive disease and, if left untreated, it will become much worse. It may take many years, but the alcoholic lawyer will progress from coping with work - albeit not as well as he/she once did - to becoming a liability to chambers and an embarrassment to those around them. Outwardly, the lawyer may appear capable and successful, but if the level of drinking is ignored the situation will deteriorate. Alcohol-impaired lawyers are putting their lives and those of their families at risk, as well as sacrificing the quality of service they are providing. Those around them, both in their profession and amongst their friends and family, are enabling the continued drinking and decline if they refuse to face up to the issue and deal with it.

LawCare has details of a range of affordable and discreet addiction treatment programmes, both in the UK and abroad, designed specifically for professionals, and can offer advice not only to the alcoholic him/herself, but to those they work with (see our document, An Alcoholic in our Workplace) or to the family (see Caring for a Problem Drinker). Information and advice is available from our free and confidential Bar helpline on 0800 018 4299 or via our website, www.lawcare.org.uk.

* Name and identifying details have been changed.

With acknowledgements and thanks to Sarah Allen Benton, and The Complete Lawyer.

www.lawcare.org.uk 0800 018 4299

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