Maybe lawyers aren’t uniquely unhappy after all, study says

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  • Yale Law professor's study says rates of mental health problems among lawyers are in line with doctors, dentists, and veterinarians
  • But data shows that lawyers drink excessively at higher rates

(Reuters) - New research is challenging a notion commonly held in the legal field: lawyers are an especially miserable bunch with elevated rates of mental health problems.

The percentage of lawyers with moderate to severe mental health issues is in line with that of doctors, veterinarians and dentists, and is significantly lower than that of people without a college degree, the study found.

But the findings, slated to appear in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, do corroborate earlier research that says lawyers drink more than other professionals.

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Yale Law professor Yair Listokin and student Ray Noonan analyzed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s National Health Interview Survey—a large-scale, annual random sample of Americans.

They collected responses from 1,000 lawyers from 2010 to 2017 and compared their rates of mental health problems and heavy drinking to other highly educated professionals and the overall U.S. population.

The period of the analysis does not cover the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought its own mental health challenges for lawyers.

While rates of lawyer mental health problems weren’t unusually high, their alcohol use was, according to the study.

Lawyers reported excess alcohol consumption—defined as having five or more drinks 12 days or more a year—at a rate twice as high as others with advanced professional degrees.

Listokin's research said at least eight studies since 1990 have sought to gauge lawyer mental wellness and substance abuse, but nearly all of them relied on attorneys opting into surveys or interviews.

Lawyers who experience those issues may be more likely to participate, inflating the results, according to Listokin's study, which relies on randomly collected survey data.

The most influential recent study on lawyer mental health is a 2016 report by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation based off survey responses from 13,000 lawyers.

It found that between 21% and 36% of lawyers are problem drinkers, and that approximately 8% struggle with some level of depression.

Patrick Krill, co-author of the 2016 study, acknowledged on Thursday that survey bias is a possibility in his study.

But he said it’s also likely that lawyers with alcohol and mental health issues are especially reluctant to participate in such surveys. He said the pandemic has exacerbated lawyer wellness problems.

Listokin said his study should not be taken as evidence that attorneys don't struggle with mental health. But it questions the prevailing narrative that lawyers are worse off than their highly educated peers in other professions.

“It’s not as though we should say ‘OK, we don’t have to worry about it,’” he said. “But in terms of, 'Is there something uniquely wrong in the legal profession?’ Maybe not.’”

Read more:

Mental health, stress have one-in-four women lawyers mulling career change

Why lawyers in trouble shun treatment — at the risk of disbarment

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com