Stress at the Bar

Hilary Tilby discusses the dangers of using alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms for dealing with a stressful practice and highlights the help at hand

When you are subject to long-term stress, the result is that you feel grim – not sleeping well; unable to think clearly; losing your joie de vivre; losing confidence in your own judgement and abilities etc. Naturally, you want to feel better, so what do you do? If you are, as is likely to be the case, the normal legal personality (unable to delegate, driven, perfectionist, the A type personality) then you look for a quick fix, because, by definition, the legal personality is too busy to wait for anything to change. It must be immediate. And what has an immediate effect? Nicotine, sugar, and more potentially damaging, alcohol and drugs.    

 Under pressure

Stress is totally subjective so that the pressure that one person thrives on can destroy another. However, the reality is that in practice at the Bar, the pressures are enormous – to always perform to the highest standard; of worrying when the next case will come in; of having too many cases, but not being able to turn any away because of the risk of losing an instructing solicitor; of trying to manage fees coming in as against bills going out. Quite apart from the high expectation that we each have of ourselves and the high levels we expect to achieve, the public are now very aware of what they regard as a good service and if you cannot deliver, problems will follow.

The effects of stress should not be underestimated. Sometimes, we get calls on our free and confidential helpline, LawCare, from lawyers on their way to work who just cannot face going a step further because they dread going to work so much. People are afraid to ask for help within chambers because of the risk of becoming known as “weak” and “unreliable”, with damaging effects on their career progress.
In 2007, 59 per cent of our calls from the Bar related to stress/depression. The male/female split was exactly 50/50. In 2008, those figures rose to 70 per cent and two-thirds of the callers were women. To the end of October 2009, the figure was 65 per cent with, again, slightly more females contacting the helpline.


Alcohol abuse

It can become an easy habit to cope with the pressures of the day through drinking a glass of something. The problem is that, over time, the glasses become multiple and then become bottles. It takes at least 10 years for alcohol use to exhibit itself as alcohol abuse, and in women this tends to be in the mid 30s and in men in the mid 40s. Also, if there is excessive drinking over a long period, the body becomes saturated with/tolerant of the alcohol and even though organs may be being damaged, the individual can still function apparently reasonably well. You do not have to be lying drunk in the gutter in order to have an alcohol problem. Even if those around the drinker suspect what is going on, they will tend to shy away from confronting the issue. Even if challenged, the likely immediate reaction will be denial.
Alcohol is still something that lawyers are reluctant to admit to be a problem. This is for a variety of reasons: (i) it is still more socially acceptable to admit that you are stressed than that you are drinking too much. Therefore, whilst some callers to our helpline immediately say “I am drinking too much. Please help me stop”, many more will ring with a purported stress problem and it is only once they have been talking for some time that they will build up the confidence to admit how much they are drinking; (ii) even then, the general rule of thumb is that you multiply the admitted quantity by three to arrive at a reasonably accurate figure; (iii) chambers/colleagues can be very judgemental in their attitude to alcohol abuse; (iv) tackling the issue of possible alcohol abuse is very difficult; and (v) 80 per cent of those asking for help with an alcohol problem say that they started drinking due to stress at work.

In 2007, 27 per cent of the calls LawCare received from the Bar related to alcohol (60:40 male/female split). In 2008, the figure was 25 per cent and again, the majority of callers were men. To the end of October 2009, it was 20 per cent of calls, with again the callers mainly being men. Overall, men are more likely to call about alcohol issues.


Drug addiction

Only a small percentage of our case files relate to drugs, because this is seen as even less socially acceptable than alcohol. There is also a worry about the legal aspects and threat to career if a user is found out. Even though our helpline is completely confidential, reluctance to admit to using still remains. Where calls do occur, there is frequently a dual addiction, ie alcohol and drugs. Cocaine is the most commonly seen drug of choice. We suspect that there is a huge groundswell of drug addiction cases amongst members of the Bar, but that because the users are mostly young, the effects have not yet manifested themselves. But they will.


Seeking help

Life in practice can be tough, but it is not worth wrecking your health and personal relationships because of it.
If you need help, LawCare is there 365 days a year, with non-judgemental and confidential assistance and support. Any caller can speak, in total confidence, to someone who understands the problems of life in the law. They will be there to talk with the callers, not at them, and to help them to see their way forward a little more clearly. The website contains very useful self help articles, tests for stress and drinking too much, as well as a direct e-mail to LawCare. You can also access the Wellbeing Portal, which will enable you to carry out a total personal and confidential assessment of the levels of stress in your personal and professional life and will highlight your danger areas, helping you to create a plan for dealing with them.
No one needs to suffer alone. Just pick up the phone.

Hilary Tilby is the Chief Executive of LawCare