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The alcoholic lawyer who boozes it up every day and night is a Hollywood trope. But seriously, there are plenty of hard-drinking lawyers who are basically high-functioning alcoholics. It's no different from any other high-achieving profession, like doctors. The question is how far is too far.

Normal drinking levels

"Normal" is debatable, but I can tell you that the guideline for men is no more than 14 drinks per week. FYI, health practitioners double whatever figure you tell them. So if you tell them you drink 10 drinks per week, they will assume you drink 20 drinks per week, and so on. I would say any more than 21 drinks per week (average of three per day) would really be a concern and the person should be evaluated by a professional. Additional risk factors/red flags include law enforcement interventions due to DUI's, injuries or self-harm due to intoxication, property damage, and similar concerns. Although I have not personally experienced any of those things, I know several lawyers who have. A DUI results in a basically automatic license suspension for six months, which puts any attorney who gets a DUI out of business and potentially ruins their career. So I am a big advocate of purchasing a voluntary breathalyzer to ensure you never get a DUI. I don't know why people think that is weird when it's the smartest thing you can do to restrict your alcohol consumption.

The CAGE questionnaire

I would modify the standard four-question CAGE questionnaire for lawyers to state the following:

  1. Have you ever felt that you needed to cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt guilty about drinking?
  4. Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?
  5. Have you ever experienced law enforcement intervention as a result of your drinking?
  6. Have you ever harmed yourself, lost a job or professional opportunity, or seriously damaged property as a result of your drinking?

Alcohol at the office

This is a tough one, because many lawyers have small bars or at least a couple of bottles of whiskey in their offices. I think having a small bar or a couple of bottles is useful as a conversation piece or even as a prop, but there need to be restrictions on drinking hours. Only after 5 p.m. is a good guideline. And of course, a non-owner employee of a law firm should not have alcohol in his or her office without clearing it first with the owners. I have a client who loves whiskey, so he appreciated the opportunity to try a new one that I had at my office, which was coincidentally after 5 p.m. on a Friday. You definitely don't want to smell like alcohol when meeting a client, especially a new client. But don't change your two-beer lunch because you are afraid of a client seeing you drink. The bottom line is: you need to be within an appropriate range rather than at an extreme level either way. Judging that is part of gaining additional life experience over a career-long period.

Mental health

The fact is, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and various other psychiatric issues are over-represented in the legal profession. No one seems to know why that is. Regardless of the reason, addiction correlates with mental health issues. So if someone is a high-functioning alcoholic who also has depression and anxiety, that's something to watch. I think Bipolar II is of low concern among lawyers because hypomania actually facilitates great job performance much of the time. Bipolar I is what to watch out for. A manic, psychotic attorney (I have worked for such a person) is a danger to the public and the profession, in addition to being a nightmare to work for or with. Basically, people with health concerns like these need to obtain suitable professional treatment in order to manage their conditions.

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Last updated: July 6, 2018

© 2018 Andrew G. Watters