Putting the stress on support

Barry Pritchard reveals the extent of alcohol and stress-related problems of solicitors uncovered by Solcare in the past year. Barry Pritchard is co-ordinator of Solcare.

Stress, depression and addictive behavioural illnesses, including alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling and eating disorders, to name but a few – all thrive in the legal profession.

Chemical dependency, in particular, is known to be prevalent in the legal profession. In this country lawyers are dying from liver cirrhosis at a rate double the national average, and they come fourth in the league table for deaths from alcohol-related illnesses behind publicans, seafarers and doctors.

At least 5 per cent of lawyers and their staff will consult their doctor this year about stress-related illnesses. Research has also shown that lawyers suffer the highest rates of depression of any profession. In the US a random survey by the Washington State Bar revealed that 18 per cent of lawyers had an addiction of some kind and 12 per cent were clinically depressed.

There is no reason to think the figures in this country will be materially different, and the cost to the profession in claims on the Solicitors Indemnity Fund (SIF) and the compensation fund must be incalculable.

With this in mind Solcare, a registered charity, was launched a year ago. It is funded by the Law Society and SIF but is entirely independent of them. As full-time co-ordinator, I am supported by trustees and a network of volunteers.

The main purpose is to help solicitors and their staff whose ability to practise law has been impaired by health problems, and to prevent the family and professional problems which frequently stem from them. Confidentiality is paramount.

SolCare's secondary, but no less important, purpose is to tell members of the profession about the causes and consequences of such problems and how to seek help, not only for themselves but also for their colleagues.

The profession stands to gain substantially from SolCare's work. In the first 12 months it has helped 83 individuals, of whom 28 were partners and 19 sole practitioners.

Sixty-one cases related to alcohol alone, while the remainder involved stress and/or depression and cross-addiction to other disorders. More recently there has been an increase in calls about stress-related problems, although in most cases stress has proved to be a symptom of an addictive disorder rather than the primary problem.

Interestingly sole practitioners have formed only 23 per cent of the total number of cases. The perception in the profession has been that sole practitioners represent the greater risk. However, it may be that there is more scope for partnerships to cover up problems within a firm. While it is too early to draw firm conclusions, it may turn out that previous perceptions are flawed.

Another interesting fact is that all but two of the cases come from suburban London or provincial high street practices and not from City or provincial city firms. More than 40 per cent of practising solicitors (that is, about 30,000 solicitors) work for such firms and so, on a very conservative estimate, they have somewhere in the region of 3,000 solicitors with alcohol-related problems, not to mention stress, depression and addictive disorders. I think it is pertinent to ask what these firms are doing with such problem solicitors.

A few troubled solicitors are being moved sideways so they do not have “hands on” contact with client matters. That is all very well in terms of risk management, but what about the individuals concerned?

Are firms forcing people out, effectively “dumping” them on other unsuspecting firms? There is an issue here which the larger firms need to address. Doing nothing is a recipe for disaster.

Solcare has averted at least five interventions in its first 12 months by taking appropriate action to help solicitors deal with health problems and put their affairs in order.

The average cost of an intervention is £20,000. Avoided consequent claims on SIF and compensation funds cannot be calculated. However, it is interesting to note that in California the state Bar spends $1 per lawyer on welfare which includes the Lawyer Assistance Program, the equivalent of SolCare. In Oregon this figure has been increased to $40 per lawyer, the professional indemnity premium has fallen by 25 per cent and there has also been a reduction in disciplinary cases.

I am very conscious of the fact that the cases Solcare has handled in the past 12 months are the tip of the iceberg as far as addictive diseases are concerned and it is essential to continue efforts to inform the profession about the availability of advice and support for such problems.

Stress is another major area which the profession needs to tackle. In the past fortnight I have received reports of a solicitor in the City working 48 hours non-stop and another one working for almost 36 hours non-stop, while 14-hour days are apparently the norm in many firms.

The consequences for the solicitors concerned, their firms, the profession generally and their families in particular can be catastrophic. Working such hours hardly shows a sensible approach to risk management. Solcare therefore hopes to make available to the profession in the coming year appropriate courses on stress management, including such matters as time and practice management.

Solcare operates through a confidential 24-hour helpline on 01766 512222. If you would like advice either for yourself or about a colleague who you think may have a problem, please feel free to call the author. Alternatively, you can write to PO Box 6, Porthmadog, Gwynedd LL49 9ZE.