Editor’s Note: The challenge of reporting on alcohol in law

The bulk of this issue is dedicated to the outsized role that alcohol plays in the legal profession. We know, after all, that lawyers are more likely to become problem drinkers than the general population. There is clear evidence, too, that the norms of the legal workplace bear some responsibility for this statistical reality. For a magazine for the legal community, investigating this topic is essential work.

But it also comes with a risk. To report on this subject could, inadvertently, reinforce the most negative stereotypes about the legal profession — namely, that it’s populated with miserable, work-addled alcoholics who rely on substances to cope with their brutal careers. Such statements are oversimplifications of a complex situation. Ronit Dinovitzer, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, is a well-respected researcher on the legal profession. Though her work is often critical of legal culture, she can’t help but balk at how the media typically covers lawyers.

“I’m always struck by how often the New York Times carries stories about how hard it is to work in the legal profession,” she says. “No one wants to believe me that most lawyers are satisfied with their careers, but there’s a nugget in my research that I always return to: 75 percent of lawyers say they are moderately to extremely satisfied with the decision to become lawyers.”

My hope is that, in this issue, we confront the truth without falling back on tired clichés, and that we bring nuance to a conversation that badly needs it. To that end, I’ve written a feature story that, in part, explores what makes lawyers uniquely vulnerable to alcohol abuse. I take direct aim at the unhealthiest facets of the profession, and this criticism is crucial. But in that same article, I also profile two working lawyers, now in recovery from alcohol abuse, who have successful careers that they truly enjoy. Their stories are a good reminder that the profession can be a rewarding one, even for those who face personal challenges. The practice of law, it turns out, is not as bleak as mainstream culture would want us to believe.

Daniel Fish signature

Daniel Fish
Senior Editor

We’re looking for great ideas

In our last issue, we launched the Precedent Innovation Awards. The first batch of winners — trendsetters who have found creative solutions to some of the profession’s thorniest problems — were inspiring.

So inspiring, in fact, that we’ve decided to make these awards an annual tradition. If you’ve implemented an original initiative that makes the profession better, we want to hear about it. To submit an application, head over to precedentmagazine.com/innovationawards. The deadline to apply is Thursday, April 16, 2020. We will feature the winners in our winter issue.

More from the Spring Issue

The Lawyers' Guide to Not DrinkingMaking time.David Yi breakdancing in a studio.





This story is from our Spring 2020 issue.

Photo courtesy of Francois Schnell under a Creative Commons license

How to Help: My colleague drinks too much. What should I do?

Michael Bryant

Michael Bryant
Executive director,
Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Drinking and the law can feel inseparable. According to a U.S. study, conducted in 2015, one-third of lawyers are problem drinkers — nearly five times the rate of the general population. There’s no clear diagnostic test that establishes how much is too much, but, in general, women should consume no more than eight drinks per week and men no more than 15. So if you see a colleague exceeding that limit, how do you bring it up?

“Don’t play Dr. Judge and tell people they’re drinking too much,” says Michael Bryant. “Try, ‘Your drinking means you’re not ever present after the sun goes down,’ or ‘I’m afraid when you’re out that something bad is going to happen.’”

Bryant should know. The former attorney general has been sober for the past 12 years, but he struggled with alcoholism for most of his adult life. Today, after practising as a criminal-defence lawyer for two years, he serves as the executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Most people seek help only after they see that drinking is the common variable in a slew of problems. “I think that’s the most useful test,” says Bryant. “If you’re having trouble in every area of your life and you’re telling yourself, ‘It’s the boss, it’s the spouse, it’s the world, it’s the election,’ maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s the drinking.”

If you do approach a colleague about his or her alcohol consumption, be prepared to damage that relationship for a period of time. “I had a colleague who, one day, told me he observed me drinking too much,” says Bryant. “He was right, and I was furious. But he helped me see the truth. Later on, I was able to thank him.”

Spring 2018 cover webThis story is part of the “How to Help” feature, from our Spring 2018 Issue.




Illustrations by Wenting Li