Even in normal times, alcohol and substance abuse are major risk factors for legal malpractice. During quarantine, those risks can become amplified.
By Aaron H. Wallace, Esq.
Lawyers have long grappled with the problems of alcoholism and addiction within our profession.
Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to interrupt daily life and reshape our world, lawyers may find themselves renegotiating the role that alcohol plays in their lives as they spend long hours at home, under stress, and in some cases, alone.
In 2016, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance partnered with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation to survey 12,825 attorneys in the U.S., all of them actively licensed and employed.
The study, published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, found “substantial rates of behavioral health problems… with 26% screening positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.”
Moreover, of those lawyers participating in the study who admitted to struggling with alcoholism, 44% reported that their problematic drinking began during their first 15 years of practice or while in law school. By their second decade of practice, 21% of attorneys still suffered from an alcohol use disorder.
In other words, even after 20 years of legal experience, 1 out of 5 lawyers have a drinking problem according to the ABA — more than double the rate among any other doctoral-level profession.
Addiction therapists working in recovery centers report that lawyers also have higher-than-average rates of abuse for illicit substances and prescription drugs, with one study estimating that 9% of lawyers struggle with prescription addiction.
Given their prevalence in the profession, the excessive use of alcohol and other addictive substances may pose a substantial risk for legal malpractice or violations of Florida’s rules of professional conduct.
This article explores the link between problematic drinking and professional liability, the enhanced threat of alcohol abuse during COVID-19, and tips for maintaining a healthy relationship with alcohol during this difficult moment in history.
Even in Normal Times, Alcohol & Substance Abuse Are Major Malpractice Risk Factors
A 1997 study published in the Creighton Law Review concluded that “a majority of [attorney] discipline cases involve alcoholism or chemical dependency.”
That echoed an earlier ABA study in California and New York that found “50 to 70 percent of all disciplinary cases involved alcoholism.” The authors concluded that the true rates are almost unquestionably higher, given the secrecy that often shrouds such abuse, as well as the lack of uniform record keeping from state to state.
More recently, a report authored by the Legal Profession Assistance Conference and published by The Benchmark Institute showed that:
- 60% of attorney discipline prosecutions in the U.S. and Canada involve alcoholism.
- More than 60% of all legal malpractice claims involve alcohol abuse.
- 90% of serious lawyer disciplinary matters involve alcohol abuse.
Indeed, even professional liability issues that appear to result from a different cause — depression, anxiety, disorganization, lack of sleep, careless communication, and so on — may ultimately be traced back to an alcohol or substance abuse issue at the root.
Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Could Become a “Trigger Storm” for Some Florida Lawyers
According to Florida’s WFLA, Nielson data shows that alcohol sales are up by 55% across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Americans spend more time shut up inside their homes under the weight of uncertainty.
Behavioral health experts worry that the surge is an economic indicator of a private crisis: rising rates of alcohol abuse behind closed doors.
Naturally, given the high rate of alcoholism in the profession pre-pandemic, a nationwide uptick in problematic drinking during COVID-19 is likely to echo within the legal community, and that could mean professional liability concerns are amplified during a time that is already rife with legal malpractice danger zones.
Even before they started working from home, many lawyers had difficulty separating their home life from their work life. Now that those identities are playing out in the same space, the temptation to let problematic drinking bleed over into business hours could lead to troublesome deviations from the standard of care.
The pandemic’s economic woes may also amplify the struggle for those who have used alcohol as a coping mechanism in the past.
Even Moderate Use Can Pose a Problem in Certain Circumstances
Often, problematic drinking is the end result of seemingly acceptable drinking. Lawyers who believe their use is moderate and in control may end up consuming more than they had planned — or bending work/life boundaries without realizing it.
Even moderate drinking can lead to poor judgment, lack of mental clarity, lack of sleep, and unprofessionalism.
Lawyers who do indeed keep their drinking well within control should still be mindful that the mere perception of consumption of alcohol in a way that intersects or interferes with their professional duties can undermine their reputation and their ability to serve their clients.
Ultimately, decisions about how to engage with alcohol as a legal professional should be informed by the lawyer’s duty to each client as defined by Florida law.
Alcohol During COVID-19: Risk Management Tips
Here are some tips for avoiding problematic drinking during COVID-19, based on expert advice from mental health professionals:
- Boundaries — While working from home, carve out a designated working space that is used exclusively for the practice of law. Keep alcohol off-limits and out of sight while within this space. Treat it as you would your regular place of business, complete with office hours.
- Relationships — “Social distancing” is something of a misnomer. It’s physical distance that the CDC is championing. You don’t have to give your social relationships a break. On the contrary, fostering interpersonal relationships is more important now than ever. Plan a lengthy phone call, Zoom chat, or 6-foot-distanced outdoor visit with friends or family nearly every night. Commit to consuming no more than two drinks in any given evening, and on no more than a few nights a week. (Those who have had alcohol dependency issues in the past should commit to socializing without alcohol.)
- Frequent review of ethical duties — When is the last time you read through Florida’s rules of professional conduct? It’s one thing to know the rules, it’s another to have them on the top of your mind. We could all use reminders from time to time.
- Manage triggers — Mental health professionals use the acronym HALT to describe the most common triggers for problematic drinking: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Be aware of how you’re feeling and look for constructive ways to address these issues. Remember: alcohol is often a problem disguised as a solution.
- Support — Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups are offering online services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as are many doctors, counselors, and therapists.
Resources to Help Florida Lawyers Struggling with Addiction, Alcoholism, and Substance Abuse During COVID-19
- Florida Bar Mental Health and Wellness Center
- Florida Lawyers Assistance Program
- The Florida Bar’s new Florida Lawyers Helpline: 833-FL1-WELL
- Alcoholics Anonymous in Florida
- SAMHSA National Helpline
- Rational Recovery
- Florida Bar COVID-19 Resource Center
- The Addicted Lawyer blog
- FLMIC’s Coronavirus Ethics Tips for Florida Lawyers
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
FLMIC Is Here for You
Florida Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company (FLMIC) is a legal malpractice insurance company created for Florida lawyers, by Florida lawyers. We’re here to help attorneys like you avoid the pitfalls of the profession with high-quality insurance policies and risk management guidance. We encourage you to visit our website, Facebook, and Twitter channels on a regular basis to discover our latest risk management resources.
Having dependable legal malpractice insurance is more important now than ever. If you would like to learn more about our coverage options — or why we are recommended by more bar associations in Florida than any other provider — we invite you to apply for coverage or contact our Underwriting department today.