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Should lawyers take a break from alcohol?

I was a lawyer for 20 years. Things got difficult when I entered my 40s. I was drinking too much. This is more common than you think, writes Isabella Ferguson.

user iconIsabella Ferguson 17 February 2023 Careers
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Editor’s note: Any legal professional suffering from addiction, problem drinking, or self-medication should contact their state or territory law society for free, independent and confidential support, or non-lawyer support services such as Lifeline or Beyond Blue. 

As has been borne out by research, lawyers in midlife are drinking at risky rates and are more likely than other professions to use alcohol to deal with stress and depression.

Pumping out advice is not so bad if you have a glass of red to accompany it, right? You can forget that you are not spending time with your family, that you are bone-tired or that you really dislike this part of the job. Drinking can become your main form of self-care. Read on if this is you or someone you know.


(Disclaimer: If you are a consistent moderate drinker, you may be physically addicted to alcohol, and it is important that you consult a medical professional about the management of your alcohol use and how to safely reduce your alcohol consumption. Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening.)

Legal drinking culture: From uni to workplace to all the time

Alcohol use disorder occurs on a spectrum and breeds in environments where there is persistent, overwhelming stress, late hours and fatigue, where the culture encourages and rewards competition and perfectionism, where alcohol use is prevalent in every celebration and consumed in excess from the top down and where there is fear of reputational damage and reprisal associated with reaching out for help. Law firms tick all boxes.

Firms can be a melting pot of emotional stress and mental health issues, and as the statistics bare out, men and, increasingly, women are struggling. Specifically, female lawyers in the age bracket of 40 to 60 are drinking at increasingly risky rates.

Drinking with your team demonstrates loyalty and camaraderie, staying power, that you can keep up with senior ranks, that you choose “the work” before other life goals; it’s part of sharing client/case stories and debriefing with colleagues who “get it” to escape from the combative day — so many reasons.

All of this is incredibly exciting in your 20s and 30s. Then, not so much in your 40s. Eventually, you are asking, “why am I doing this?”, “what am I gaining here?” and “how do I want to live the second half of my life?”

Alcohol temporarily masks feelings of anxiety, nerves and doubt but becomes problematic when you start using it to make you feel “normal” in stressful, traumatic and emotionally uncomfortable moments. You’ll start believing that alcohol helps you feel better, and when this happens, the habit and belief are formed, and this is reinforced over time. 

5 red flags to consider

  • Are you regularly waking up at 3am after drinking the night before? Alcohol provides 20 minutes of relief, but your brain then releases stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) to counteract the depressive effects to stimulate and maintain homeostasis. These hormones stay in your system much longer than dopamine. Hello, 3am wake-up! Feelings of unease, restlessness and anxiety last for days.
  • Self-medication: Your alcohol use can quickly escalate if you are using alcohol to self-medicate anxiety or depression. Plus, alcohol exacerbates these symptoms. Drinking alcohol is like pouring fuel on anxiety and stress.
  • Moderation fails: Do you often fail to moderate your drinking? You go out to have two or three and end up having a lot more? It’s common, and it’s not your fault. Alcohol is physically and emotionally addictive, but perhaps it’s time to try differently, not harder.
  • Are you no longer enjoying activities without alcohol? After years of drinking, alcohol lowers your normal dopamine release and increases your stress hormones even when you are not drinking. Frightening right? Alcohol takes away your ability to experience pleasure and joy in the small things. Think of those activities you used to enjoy, perhaps with your kids? This encourages you to drink more to feel “normal”.
  • General risks to be aware of: Did you start drinking quite young? Is there a “problem drinker” in your extended family? Did your drinking increase after a traumatic event? Do you find you charge up and get more energy during a night of heavy drinking while others fade away? Keep these factors in mind as these things elevate your risks of developing an alcohol use disorder.
The way out

We have so many more options now to help us drink less. Read a quit-lit book or listen to an alcohol-related podcast and learn what alcohol does to your brain and why you drink it. Join a 30-day online alcohol course designed to support you to drink less. In my experience, the best ones are those that help you to reframe your beliefs around alcohol, so you no longer desire it. Also, find a counsellor or coach with alcohol qualifications to get one-on-one support.

Firms can also change their drinking culture via alcohol wellness presentations, serving alcohol-free drinks, subsidising alcohol reframing courses and reducing the stigma of people that develop alcohol issues in their firm by acknowledging that it does exist and facilitating support.

Consult your doctor as soon as possible if you are worried you are physically addicted. About 10 per cent of the drinking population falls into this category. Handy to know: there are medically supervised options to confidentially detox safely at home under supervision.


Alcohol use can sneak up on you, and you can find yourself stuck in an overwhelming drinking cycle. Alcohol is addictive and is marketed to appeal to your vulnerabilities to “help you” feel relaxed, confident and successful. It is not your fault, but perhaps it’s time to turn the trajectory around. Drinking less will profoundly improve your life. There is support for you out there if this is something you would like to achieve.

Isabella Ferguson is a lawyer-turned-counsellor and coach.

[1] 2019 Australian & New Zealand Meritas Wellness Survey; ABC News, August 2019, “Lawyers experience high rates of anxiety and depression, survey finds; Beyond Blue and Beaton Consulting, 2007 report, ‘Opening Our Eyes to Depression Among Australian Professionals’.

[2] 2021 study, published by the Public Library of Science, conducted by Justin Anker, assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s department of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, and Patrick Krill, lawyer and licensed and certified alcohol and drug counsellor.

[3] Australian Guidelines relating to alcohol released by the National Health & Medical Research Council states that although there is no safe level of drinking, to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day.

[4] University of NSW 2014 report, Lawyering Stress and Work Culture.

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