Pressure, performance and stress: a perfect storm
By Rebecca Ward
Rebecca Ward and Rick Green examine vicarious trauma and other reasons why lawyers are vulnerable to self-medication with alcohol
There is inherently a horrific level of trauma and vicarious trauma in the legal profession. It matters not whether you work in civil or criminal jurisdictions. Modern technology has rendered easy access to images depicting shocking scenes, which ultimately become part of the factual matrix in any legal problem. These scenes must be viewed and processed by legal practitioners and the judiciary.
Solicitors, barristers and judges are frequently required to read pages of terrible crimes, the worst of human behaviour and all of the components of tragic accidents. Many practitioners and judges, in response, self medicate with alcohol. Comparatively, the American Bar Association reports that over 20 per cent of practising US attorneys show signs of problematic drinking. Covid-19 only served to exacerbate such concerns. Detailed increases in alcohol consumption by Australians during lockdowns have been reported continuously. A perfect storm occurs due to high-pressure, high performance demands and high stress. It is readily seen that an easy way to navigate this perfect storm is with the assistance of a substance, which is substance abuse. Trauma or vicarious trauma is vital in correctly understanding the context of problematic substance use behaviour.
Stress and anxiety
Some have said that they need alcohol to deal with the stress and anxiety that comes part and parcel with the work and the demands of practice. Many regulatory and practitioner based demands impose obligations on how one practises or conducts oneself as a lawyer. It is not easy when you have an environment where everyone around you is drinking and you want to fit in rather than stick out. Professional practice usually demands that you stick out and it takes a lot of energy to stand against the stream. An easy solution to the feelings that flow from the stress and anxiety of doing so can leave as an attractive proposition submitting to a master that is a simple and easy fix; alcohol serves this master well.
Avoidance of the situation where a person sticks out has other impacts; people commonly surround themselves with others like them. We look for people whose views of the world are analogous to ours. This approach tends to normalise behaviour because it fits comfortably within a shared or common assertion. So, if you have a bottle of wine every night and so does everybody else, it seems normal. The idea of problematic behaviour is lost in the malaise of commonality when you let a particular worldview take on a hegemony that leaves one bereft of the ability to see that behaviour in context or perspective. Being part of a social framework with appropriate challenges to any particular worldview or behaviour is an important consideration.
Alcohol in the practice of law
Even in professional services, liquid lunches are typical and partners are typically encouraged to network and socialise with barristers to develop deeper relationships and regularise briefing patterns. This is a twoway street in terms of the benefits that flow. But, of course, it doesn’t help that frequently, at social events, hosts fund the bar tab, be they a top-tier firm or a counsel of repute. There is a genuine connection between this approach and the observation that one in three Australian lawyers are problem drinkers. John Mortimer’s wine loving Rumpole of the Bailey continues to propagandise the perceptions of how barristers do and should live. Alcohol is too often the thing that marks an occasion where the end of the day is noted. It is a celebration that says ‘we have done what was expected and is a way we bond with one another’. There is an element, therefore, about the way practice happens that unavoidably revolves around the consumption of alcohol as a communal experience.
Alcohol and higher education
An interesting study (‘Level of education and alcohol abuse and dependence in adulthood: a further inquiry’, RM Crum, JE Helzer and JC Anthony, (1993) 83 (6) Am J Public Health 830-7) demonstrated the positive correlation between higher education and alcohol consumption. It also showed that the prevalence is higher among unmarried men, which includes being single, divorced or separated. Relationship status strongly predicted hazardous or higher alcohol consumption, as did similarly higher education. There could be many reasons for this, and my role as a therapist is to ensure that such issues are adequately understood and referenced. The image of a lawyer who enjoys a drink is commonplace.
The catchphrases ‘I work hard, so I play hard’ and ‘I burn the candle at both ends’ are often reiterated in debriefing. Unfortunately, the legal profession has an alarming rate of alcoholism, and partaking in libations with thy fellow counsel or practitioner is commonplace for debriefing and networking. Many barristers and solicitors are incredibly driven. They set higher standards and struggle with perfectionism and black-and-white thinking. There is undoubtedly a link between that type of organised obsessional person with the one who ends up experiencing high levels of depression. Methodical people like to be in control, and substances often give an impression of being in control but erode the capacity to exercise those traits that endorse control. Epidemiologically, there are several essential elements typical of legal professionals indicating a vulnerability to the harmful use of substances that needs to be factored into any understanding of their role in managing our lives.
Many say they have felt hopeless or isolated being a barrister. Barristers didn’t know they were afflicted with such matters until the covid-19 emergency response referred to ‘social isolation’ as a practical approach. This significantly changed how most of the world’s population worked and operated. However, when this didn’t change many things in barristers’ practices, it became evident that they had always been socially isolated. It is – and at times has to be – a lonely job. Unhealthy drinking can adversely impact a barrister’s practice. It can leave them unable to attend court, mediation, or conference – and it can even prevent them from turning up in chambers. This professional conflict has a knock-on effect, mirrored by trouble in their personal life, such as marital discord, debt and taxation issues.
These matters are important because a barrister’s suitability to practise is year on year, now defined by suitability which necessarily incorporates an ability to navigate this range of financial issues successfully. In addition, it is challenging to practise without a certificate. When we feel stressed or isolated, consuming alcohol or other substances is a quick, easy and effective way of dealing with the uncomfortable feelings associated with such situations. Stress and isolation are readily sensed as part of a barrister’s experience and it is easy to drink the feelings away. This is, however, not an effective means of dealing with such feelings.
Alcoholism is a loaded word and is too often associated with brown paper bags and homelessness, or meetings of disclosure and promises of abstinence. However, social alcohol consumption can be deleterious and remains an important issue to address. When we think of an alcoholic, we don’t picture a barrister sitting in an expensive suit donning a wig, dropping Latin words ‘like it’s hot’. We must refrain from relying on stereotypical images to ascertain the actual dynamics of what is going on in a person’s life to understand the perspective that creates the vulnerability to substance misuse and the context in which problematic behaviour exists. These are potent images and dynamics enchanting the heart of our deepest motivations.
While not all behaviours concerning the use or consumption of alcohol are destructive, if there is a harmful approach, it is important to address it. One of the first steps is to admit that the work is highly stressful and that this needs to be counterbalanced. It is not suggested here that we should all trundle off with our yoga mats or daily meditation garb at the end of a tough day. The point is to acknowledge that a lot is asked of us and unless that is adequately balanced healthily, alcohol is often seen as a quick and easy fix for the comfort we often seek.
When we examine aberrant rates of depression, we look at higher rates of medication which typically takes the form of antidepressants and antipsychotics, sometimes used concomitantly in monotherapy. There is a very traditional way of looking at things falling within the nomenclature of medication. The notions rarely reference behaviours that properly include drinking or other substances that equally have the potential to deleteriously affect our capacity but fly under the radar. Mindfulness in your daily routine is the management of work-related stress and anxiety. It means being aware of how much coffee you have, how much alcohol you have, how much exercise you have done and how much water you’re drinking. It’s checking in with yourself concerning straightforward metrics. Keeping a timesheet is one of the first things I will always ask my clients to do to manage their time effectively. One can also keep a timesheet of the alcohol consumed and then have quantitative data to answer questions about one’s alcohol consumption.
Do you have anxiety or feel anxious? What are you doing to manage this? Do you feel you are suffering from depression? What are you doing to address this? Are you taking something to help you sleep? Why are you not sleeping well? Are you using an antidepressant? These are all important questions to cut through the myths that veil a proper perception of our reliance on and use of substances. It is essential to take stock of all the pharmacokinetic interactions that are part of your life and lifestyle to understand how substances impact your wellbeing and ability to practise.
The Bar, as it is ironically named, is part of the workplace – and, being a professional, you have access to money to buy a lifestyle that makes the use or consumption of substances normal. The capacity to activate financial resources for the wrong things is enormous. Working with counsel, I have found that many in the legal profession have an unhealthy approach to alcohol consumption. Still, we don’t look at this as substance abuse or in the context of severe depression. Both can contribute to failed marriages, time in psychiatric care or hospital, suicidal ideations and suicide attempts.
We need to avoid approaches that kick the can down the road. Some clients have even joked by throwing around the term ‘high-functioning alcoholic’. Every client is different and there is never any straightforward fix. However, developing a relationship based on trust and continued positive regard for the client is vital to help them from a therapeutic perspective.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. LawCare provides a free, confidential support service on 0800 279 6888 (Monday- Friday, 9am-5pm), or email email@example.com or access live online chat and other resources at lawcare.org.uk. If you urgently need to speak to someone outside of LawCare helpline hours, call the Samaritans on 116 123.
Rebecca Ward MBA is the CEO of Barristers’ Health, focusing on sustainable careers for the legal profession: linkedin.com/in/berekaward (Rebecca); and: linkedin.com/company/74750883 (Barristers’ Health) Rick Green is a practising barrister at the Queensland Bar of 26 years’ standing, working predominantly in areas including or related to personal injury: linkedin.com/in/rick-green-9234b013