In the United States there is a non-profit association called The Other Bar which describes its work like this:
“The Other Bar is a network of recovering lawyers and judges throughout the state, dedicated to assisting others within the profession who are suffering from alcohol and substance abuse problems. We are a private, non-profit corporation. Our organization is founded on the principle of anonymity and provides services in strict confidentiality. The program is voluntary and open to all California lawyers, judges and law students.”
On The Other Bar’s website there are also links to further organisations and associations across the US including:
International Lawyers in Alcoholics Anonymous
Lawyers in Recovery
The Commission of Lawyers Assistance Programs of the American Bar Association (COLAP)
The very fact that these places exist indicate that there’s a serious problem in the legal profession. It’s not just the odd lawyer who has a drinking problem. Statistics are available but let’s leave them aside for now. If you have even the flimsiest grasp of supply and demand, you’d be able to see that there must be a helluva lot of broken legal professionals in the US if there’s a demand for lawyers-only AA and NA meetings and sobriety retreats.
To turn to South Africa, which is where my efforts are based, I want to share this. I was recently told that one of South Africa’s largest law firms has a relationship with a private psychiatric clinic where they check in their broken lawyers whether it’s as a result of substance abuse, depression or failed relationships. I wouldn’t have believed it had the source of this news not come from someone I trust absolutely. A few days later I met a young candidate attorney and asked her if she thought this were true. Without hesitation she said “Yes, my friend from that firm was there last year, she spent time in that clinic. Shame, she’s really struggling”.
Weirdly, that same day I ran into a lawyer who was once a friend’s boss while this friend was completing her articles at the same large firm in question. I remember her sharing with me how she was subjected to a particularly harrowing performance appraisal that left her quite shattered. It was only two years later that I discovered (via the Cape Town grapevine) that her boss had had a major drug problem at the time. I have no doubt that a significant part of what my friend experienced was her boss’s projections of his own self-doubt and incompetence at that time. So what now? He cleaned up his act and as far as I know is still sober, which is great. And my friend? Well, she’s not a lawyer anymore. It’s sad because she’s super smart and very funny and was a good lawyer. She could have made a significant contribution to the profession had she stayed. But from the occasional news I hear of her, these days she’s really happy.
If substance abuse is a significant problem in the legal profession, why isn’t there more information on it? If you Google Search terms like “South African lawyers & alcoholism” you’ll just find a few links to the laws on drunken driving or attorneys that will help you divorce an alcoholic partner. Nothing about the lawyers themselves. Likewise if you Google “South African lawyers & recovery”. Here you’ll see links to various lawyers involved in fraud recovery etc. Why aren’t we seeing anything about lawyers and substance abuse? (Police and substance abuse receives a lot more attention).
Here is my thinking:
- South Africa has ridiculously high levels of substance abuse overall. Basically unless every second lawyer was wasted on a daily basis I’m not sure anyone would notice the problem as being worse in the legal profession than it is in the general population!
- Drug consumption in South Africa is twice the world norm (CDA-2009)
- 15% of South Africa’s population have a drug problem (CDA).
- South Africa is amongst the top 10 nations in alcohol consumption.
- Over 30% of our population have an alcohol problem or are at risk of having one.
- I think South Africa is still behind culturally in terms of its attitudes towards addiction. There is far more shame and stigma attached towards substance abuse issues than there is in many states in the US. For example, in Hollywood it’s a joke that NA meetings are the best place to rub shoulders with big shot producers, screenplay writers and actors.
- Our population size simply doesn’t warrant the creation of specialist organisations (lawyers with substance abuse problems) like those I listed above. According to the American Bar Association there are currently 1,116,967 lawyers practicing in the United States. I recall some LSSA figures of approximately 20 000 attorneys in South Africa and another 10 000 in the justice department, making a total of 30 000. Let’s add another 10 000 for advocates and non-practising attorneys bringing it to 40 000. So if 25% of US lawyers had a problem that would mean there’s a market of 280 000, if half seek treatment that is 140 000 people. Enough to fill a few retreats and regular meetings. In SA, even if 40% of our legal population had a problem it would only amount to 16 000, if half sought treatment, that’s only 8000.
I’m trying to show that even if a significant percentage of the legal community has substance abuse problems in SA, we simply don’t have the numbers that would warrant the type of attention this gets in the US.
In most major SA law firms there is a bar. If you value your career in the firm it’s unspoken that one should be rubbing shoulders with partners in the bar every Friday afternoon. The drinking culture is pretty firmly entrenched. But I’ll leave a full analysis of law firm bars for another time.
Substance abuse issues aside, there is a wealth of information that lawyers globally are unhappy.
There is work being done in the US to address these issues: Professor Susan Daicoff (author of Lawyer, Know Thyself, 2004) describes a “tripartite crisis” facing the legal profession:
1) low levels of job satisfaction and mental well-being among lawyers. Lawyers experience depression at least twice as frequently as it occurs in the general population (almost 18% of lawyers are depressed.) Lawyers also suffer higher than normal levels of anxiety, paranoia, obsessive-compulsiveness, insecurity, hostility, stress, anger and marital dissatisfaction. And 18% of lawyers, again about twice the general population, are alcoholics;
2) a lack of professionalism on the part of both lawyers and judges, as demonstrated by frequent complaints of incivility and discourtesy, inappropriately aggressive litigation, and behavior verging on the unethical; and
3) low public opinion of lawyers and the legal profession
It’s time we got serious in South Africa about addressing lawyer unhappiness. There is a wealth of resources from abroad and in this country that can help lawyers whether this is in the form of books like Susan Daicoff’s Lawyer, Know Thyself; Kim Wright’s Lawyers as Peacemakers, continuing education workshops, retreats, changing the way we educate lawyers, support by the LSSA and Bar Association for lawyers’ emotional well-being. The Integrative Law Centre soon to be established in South Africa will help make these resources available to those who need them.
But the first step is admitting we have a problem.