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International research highlights the issues of substance abuse and mental health issues in the legal profession. But more research is needed in Australia in order to support lawyers’ wellbeing.

Throughout the pandemic, mental health issues and substance abuse were in the spotlight as major wellbeing concerns, both in Australia and internationally. Yet in Australia there’s a very notable absence of research on the use of alcohol and illicit substances, and the abuse of prescription pharmaceuticals. Similarly, there’s a lack of investment by Australia’s legal and medical professions in research of this kind.

As much as conversation has opened up around the contribution of workplaces and lifestyles to mental illness, and to substance abuse and dependence, there is a limit to how secure individuals feel in acknowledging their problems and seeking help.

In the legal profession, as in the medical profession, there is stigma attached to admitting to substance abuse or dependence. Law is a highly competitive field, and one in which reputation reigns.

Considering that research on the general population indicates there is a high level of illicit drug use in Australia, the lack of research that would lead to structured preventative or support systems for lawyers battling with mental health and drug use seems a major blind spot for the profession.

In the legal profession, there is stigma attached to admitting to substance abuse or dependence. Law is a highly competitive field, and one in which reputation reigns.

US research has uncovered some useful themes that could apply to the Australian legal profession. “One of the more difficult issues that lawyers grapple with is identifying and acting upon substance abuse and mental health issues in other lawyers,” Trisha M. Rich and Lisa M. Kor wrote in 2017 in their study, “Shattering the Silence, Overcoming the Stigma”, for the Chicago Board Association Record.

A collaborative study supported by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association in 2016 (Hazelden study) revealed that lawyers in the US have proportionally higher rates of alcoholism, depression and suicidality. The cause? The workplace culture that places relentless pressure on young lawyers, particularly throughout the academic period and in the early years of their careers.

Nora Chlap is a provisionally registered psychologist currently undertaking her Master’s degree in clinical psychology. Following two decades of working in major international law firms in Sydney, London, New York and Hong Kong, she is now a consultant at Herbert Smith Freehills in Sydney. Her role involves working with lawyers and their clients on mental wellbeing practices at work, and mental health as it pertains to the lawyer–client relationship.

Chlap’s Honours research focused on the interplay between lawyer empathy, work practices in the legal industry, and the factors involved in depression, anxiety, stress and burnout. She claims not to have witnessed or known of any illicit substance within the profession throughout her decades-long career, but is aware that use of alcohol has been a constant.

“Alcohol use is missing from research into lawyer wellbeing,” she concedes. “In the last five to ten years, there’s been a lot of discussion about depression and research into that, but not nearly as much focus [on research] into alcohol abuse.”

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“Alcohol use is missing from research into lawyer wellbeing.” Nora Chlap, psychologist

Chlap adds, “The 2009 study ‘Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and lawyers’ didn’t measure alcohol abuse, though it did refer to alcohol as a way of coping with depression and stress. I think there’s a reluctance from the industry to face this head on. I think people are afraid of what they might find.”

Australia’s 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey revealed that approximately 9 million people aged 14 and over in Australia (43 per cent) had illicitly used a drug at some point (including the non-medical use of pharmaceuticals), and nearly 3.4 million (16.4 per cent) had used an illicit drug in the previous 12 months. The most popular drugs were cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.

In the US, the Hazelden study, involving 12, 825 lawyers, found that nearly one in three had problematic drinking habits or dependencies. Close to the same number (28 per cent) reported mild to severe levels of depression, nearly 20 per cent reported mild to severe anxiety and 11.5 per cent reported suicidal thoughts at some point in their career.

Similar evidence indicates that Australia mirrors the US in terms of the pressures and consequences of working in the legal industry. In a 2014 study, “Australian Lawyer Well-being”, 37 per cent of participants displayed moderate to extremely severe depressive symptoms, and 35 per cent were screened positively for hazardous or harmful drinking. In the same year, international charitable organisation Minds Count, which promotes workplace psychological health and safety, produced guidelines aiming to lessen the incidence of depression in the legal industry. Eight years later, there is little to indicate that depression, alcoholism or substance abuse are being acknowledged, studied or addressed in a systematic, substantial approach.

There is little to indicate that depression, alcoholism or substance abuse are being acknowledged, studied or addressed in a systematic, substantial approach.

Without research and evidence as a catalyst for developing targeted support services, or for addressing the workplace culture that may exacerbate alcohol and substance use and dependency, there remains a lost opportunity to ensure the profession is looking after its young members and those who are vulnerable.

In 2007, following the death of Melbourne barrister Peter Hayes QC from a cocaine and heroin overdose, Peter Faris QC caused ripples in the Victorian Bar by publicly asserting that drug abuse was rife in the profession. The Bar described these comments as “nonsense” and prematurely dropped a 2008 investigation into drug use.Faris quit the Victorian Bar in protest at the investigation into whether he had brought the legal profession into “disrepute”.

In July 2015, Lisa Munro, a former lawyer at the DPP, was caught with a bag containing 0.65g of cocaine in Potts Point, Sydney. She subsequently pleaded guilty to possession.

The US report ultimately proposed that state bars provide assistance programs enabling confidential treatment that is specifically tailored to lawyers’ health. Australia ought to take note if we genuinely want a sustainable legal industry which is inclusive and where professionals can prioritise their clients without risk to their own physical and mental health.

For lawyers who are experiencing symptoms of depression and stress, including a lack of enjoyment of activities that once elicited pleasure or a sense of irritability and cognitive fogginess, Chlap says: “I would encourage them to speak to other people in their life about it, people who can support them and enable them to make changes to make their life more sustainable – partners, family, supervisors at work … psychological assistance or the Employee Assistance Program.”

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Find out more

About National Drug and Alcohol Support Services

Read more about:

  • the Shattering the Silence, Overcoming the Stigma study here
  • the Courting the Blues study here
  • the Hazelden research study here
  • the Australian Lawyer Well-being study here
  • the Minds Count Guidelines here
  • the Lisa Munro story here