Overworked women lawyers experience more mental health problems and engage in high-risk drinking at a greater rate than male colleagues, a survey of nearly 3,000 attorneys in California and the District of Columbia found.
The study released Wednesday by the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar found more women screening positive for hazardous drinking than in the past. About a third, or 34%, reported high-risk or hazardous drinking compared with 25.4% of men. It’s a snapshot showing a reversal of trends generally finding men engaging more frequently in substance abuse.
More women are in a “materially worse place across the board,” said study co-author Patrick Krill, an expert on attorney addiction and mental health.
The study follows an American Bar Association report in April saying that the pandemic has caused more women to consider leaving the profession, in part due to the stresses of work-life balance.
The California and D.C. Bar study conducted from June to August found pandemic fallout wasn’t specific to the findings. The conclusions did suggest, however, that underlying work-life stressors that have long been part of the legal profession have more to do with the worsening picture for women attorneys.
The burden of the attorney workload “is having a clear toll on mental health,” Krill said.
The study found levels of mental health problems and problematic drinking to be quite high among practicing lawyers in general, a stubborn and well documented problem in the profession.
Over half of the 2,863 practicing lawyers surveyed screened positive for risky drinking, and 30% screened for high-risk hazardous drinking.
Risky drinking is consuming more than prescribed guidelines, while high-risk drinking equates with consumption that’s harmful to physical and mental health, Krill said. Nearly 56% of women reported risky drinking, compared to 46.4% of men.
One in four women considered leaving the legal profession because of mental health concerns, compared with 17% of men.
The higher levels of stress experienced by women attorneys was surprising, said Krill. A 2016 study on lawyer mental health and substance use concerns found that men experienced more depression than women. The same study found that 39.5% of women compared to 33.7% of men reported problematic alcohol use.
Younger attorneys experience more stress, which is similar to findings in other high-stress professions, the study found. Law schools should play a role in helping students prepare for the road ahead, it said.
The legal profession, which has long emphasized work over quality of life, has only recently taken steps to address burnout and mental health issues.
Krill said there has been anecdotal evidence of women leaving the profession earlier, but the study found that work-family conflict is “clearly predictive” of that trend.
“For women, work-family conflict had the highest odds ratio with regard to association with contemplating leaving the legal profession due to mental health, stress, or burnout,” the study found.
For men, work over-commitment was “a significant predictor of leaving the profession due to mental health, burnout, or stress among men,” the study said. Men with high work over-commitment “were more than twice as likely to contemplate leaving the profession due to mental health.”
However, men who perceived a possibility of promotion were less likely to leave because of burnout, the study said. But this doesn’t hold true for women, it noted.
“One could speculate that women frequently anticipate less opportunity or chance for promotion, thereby rendering that possibility less relevant to their calculation about whether to leave the profession due to mental health,” the study said.
Promotion disparity has been cited in studies as a factor influencing women to leave the profession.
While the legal profession is “on the road to progress” to improving lawyer well-being, the seeds have only been planted, Krill said. Change needs to happen, including making the legal profession more female and family friendly, he said.