New Zealand Law Society - How can we help our colleagues

How can we help our colleagues

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Lawyers experience alcohol-use disorders, depression and anxiety at a far greater rate than other professions, a United Stated study published last month shows.

Yet that was not the big news in the study.

The big news was that lawyers in the first 10 years of practice were now experiencing the highest rates of problematic alcohol use – a direct reversal of previous research.

Past research in the United States had shown that the longer lawyers had been in practice, the greater the incidence of problem alcohol use.

The turnaround is significant too. Lawyers in their first 10 years of practice had a 28.9% rate of problem alcohol use. That’s almost three out of every 10 young lawyers.

Lawyers who have practised between 11 and 20 years had a 20.6% rate of problem alcohol use and this figure continued to decrease from 21 years or more.

While we do not have figures on what is happening in the profession in New Zealand, anecdotal evidence suggests that depression and other health issues such as alcohol use disorders are an issue for the profession in this country. Indeed that was a major driver behind the launch of the Law Society’s Practising Well initiative in 2009.

Significant issues

“Levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among attorneys reported here are significant, with 28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing mild or higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively,” the study says.

“In terms of career prevalence, 61% reported concerns with anxiety at some point in their career and 46% reported concerns with depression. Mental health concerns often co-occur with alcohol use disorders … and our study reveals significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among those screening positive for problematic alcohol use.”

Conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the study is at

The finding that lawyers in the earlier stages of their careers were at higher risk for problem drinking was surprising, according to one of the study authors, Patrick Krill. Mr Krill is director of the Legal Professionals Program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

It was surprising “largely because it was such a direct reversal of the previous data,” Mr Krill says.

“The bottom line, however, is that we now have an entire generation of new lawyers who are likely facing shortened, less productive, less satisfying and more troubled careers as a result of their substance abuse and mental health issues.

“That should be deeply concerning to anyone with a vested interest in the long-term health and sustainability of our profession, and its institutions. “

In an article on the ABA website providing commentary on the new study, Mr Krill looks at the question: How can lawyers recognise when a colleague needs help and when they do, what should they do about it?

“When approaching a colleague about an issue like this, steps should be taken to maximise an environment of dignity, respect, confidentiality, support and empathy,” Mr Krill says.

“Accusations, threats and public confrontations are not the appropriate starting point for such a conversation. The situation could very well escalate to the point where it is necessary for a firm or lawyer to exercise the leverage that they have to compel a colleague to seek help, but you shouldn’t begin the dialogue with an ultimatum.

“If you are unsure or uncomfortable with how to approach these issues, reach out and get some advice from a professional. It will be well worth your time,” he says.

What, then, is an appropriate starting point for a conversation that will help a person – whether their issue is alcohol or drug use, depression, or some other issue? And, once begun, how should the conversation continue?

One could no doubt write a book on this topic, especially given the fact that we are all so different, and so one approach will not work for everyone. There are, however, five areas to think about:

Get advice

As Mr Krill suggests, it will be well worth your time to get advice. If you know any professionals, such as clinical psychologists, counsellors or those who run programmes to help people, try contacting them and asking.

Lifeline Aotearoa and the New Zealand Law Society have established a relationship where lawyers can access services at a discounted rate. Lifeline can provide advice on how to help a colleague, via its 24/7 telephone helpline 522 2999 within Auckland and 0800 543 354 outside Auckland.

Encourage the person to talk

A very useful strategy can be to come up with ways that encourage the person you feel may need help to talk about the issues they are facing.

In many cases, people who have a problem such as alcohol abuse will not be prepared to admit, even to themselves, that they have a problem. So getting them to talk may involve you starting by talking about something quite different from their diminishing work performance, for example. It may rather be getting them to talk about an interest they have, to get the communication relationship under way.

Thinking of good, open-ended questions to ask can be a very useful strategy. These questions need to be tailored to the person you are asking, making it difficult to give examples.


Once the person is talking, it’s very important to listen. It can be tempting to talk yourself, but listening is the key to giving people the space to start opening up and to continue using you as a resource.

This is about active listening. It is, therefore, important that you demonstrate that you really are listening. A really good way to do this is to ask open ended questions. For example, you can ask a question such as “how did that make you feel?” or “what was your reaction to that?”

These questions need to be relevant to where the person is coming from, so it is important that they reflect the quality of your listening.

It can be very tempting to say something and, in so doing, stop listening to the person you are trying to help. That is frequently unhelpful. When you do say something, it should be to encourage the person to talk.

One thing that can be particularly tempting can be to give the person advice. If you do that while the person is actually “working” on an issue while they are talking to you, it will almost certainly be counter-productive. The time will come when we can point them in a useful direction. It’s about exercising patience, and avoiding following our role models, about following the “parent” mode.

Don’t judge

One very quick way to move into a space where we can quite rapidly turn people off is to say something judgemental.

We don’t need to judge someone we are trying to help, despite the fact that they may have made some ethical misjudgement or that they have may have got or done something wrong.

The time will come when they will need to address this issue for themselves. By saying something to them, we may stop the process of them getting to this point.

It’s also important not to jump to conclusions as to what the real issue is. You may, for example, have gained an impression that the person has a substance abuse issue, but it turns out to be something else – such as bipolar disorder or post traumatic stress disorder.

Be prepared

The time may well come when you can assist by pointing the person you are helping to agencies that can help.

Starting with the most dramatic scenario, if you are helping someone and there is some evidence that suicide may be a possibility, rapid action can be needed.

A person who is thinking about suicide might not ask for help, but that doesn’t mean that help isn’t wanted.

Lifeline Aotearoa has a dedicated suicide helpline: 0508 TAUTOKO [828 865].If you think you, or someone you know, may be thinking about suicide, call 0508 TAUTOKO for support. TAUTOKO is Lifeline Aotearoa’s suicide crisis helpline. It’s a free, nationwide service available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, operated by highly trained and experienced telephone counsellors who have undergone advanced suicide prevention training.

If you believe either you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, please call emergency services immediately on 111.

For other issues, Lifeline Aotearoa also offers a 24/7 telephone helpline – 522 2999 within Auckland and 0800 543 354 outside Auckland. This helpline offers free, anonymous and confidential support. Volunteers manning the helplines undergo counselling training and supervision, providing a caring and professional service to a wide range of people in need.

They deal with many kinds of issues including psychological and emotional distress, financial and work issues, relationship and family problems and with callers who are lonely, ill, depressed or the victims of violence or abuse. “Whenever you need to talk, we’re here to listen,” Lifeline Aotearoa says.

Other useful contacts are:

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