Charles Elly, the president of the Law Society, has suggested recently that the dangers of alcohol should be stressed to young lawyers at the training stage. for young lawyers. He said that the culture and lifestyle of solicitors, and the pressures they face 'positively encourage drinking'.
Alcohol is a factor in a small but significant number of cases before the solicitors disciplinary tribunal, Mr Elly said. He was speaking to the Lawyers Support Group (LSG), a body formed in 1983 with half a dozen six members. Now 180 lawyers are on its books, with around 100 having joined joining in the last two years.
The recession has undoubtedly had an effect, according to Barry Pritchard, one of the group's officers. 'It has produced pressures people don't know how to handle, and they've turned to alcohol to relieve the stress,' he says.
Alcohol abuse is a wide-ranging problem that affects so many people, not only just the drinker, he says. 'The idea of being drunk in charge of a client is very worrying. But I can't criticise too much as I had the same problem myself.'
He joined the LSG as a client in 1984. Now fully sober, he was made redundant a year ago. 'I was a sole practitioner for a number of years. I went the same way as so many.' he says. He relates a tale of lunches to drum up business, the pressures of running and developing a practice, and actually doing the work as it came in. 'I was putting a tremendous amount of pressure on myself,' he says.
His practice was absorbed into a local partnership, but his drinking continued and after three years his partners asked him to resign. He returned to sole practice, which allowed him more privacy for drinking binges. 'I reached the stage of drinking three bottles of vodka a day,' he says. 'I would even go into the office at weekends to have a quiet drink.'
In 1977 he began to take money from client accounts to pay for his habit.
'Looking back it was obvious that I'd get caught, but alcohol convinces you that you can get away with it,' he says.
He repaid the money he had taken, but an investigation by the Solicitors Complaints Bureau led to restrictions on his practising certificate - he had to reapply each year for the certificate and provide statements signed by two solicitors vouching for his competence. - which were removed in 1991.
These restrictions were removed in 1991. At the time of his heaviest drinking, he left his wife and two children.
No statistics are available on the numbers of lawyers with alcohol-related problems, although LSG is conducting a survey to collect information on their incidence in the profession. The only currently available figures are from the US, and these are horrifying, Mr Pritchard says.
'Most states reckon that of the cases before disciplinary tribunals, some 70 per cent are related to 'substance misuse'. They also reckon that 10 to 20 per cent of Bar members have an alcohol problem. They are not necessarily alcoholic, but they drink too much to do their jobs properly.
'Here, my guess is that 10 per cent of the profession have a problem. Of those, probably one per cent of that 10 per cent are full-blown alcholics,' he says.
So far as he knows, drug abuse among lawyers has not taken the upturn here that it has in the US. 'But unless people are honest with us, we won't know,' he says. 'If we find it is a problem, we would look at our terms of reference and get expert help.'
What Charles Elly has done, Mr Pritchard says, is raise the profile of the problem. 'In the mid-Eighties80s, the Law Society's attitude was that there was no problem,' he says. 'It is only in the past three years that we have made any real progress.
'Also The society is now much more concerned now with the cost of misconduct, which is substantial. There is a correlation between that and people drinking and doing things they wouldn't do if they were sober. The majority of alcoholics are as honest as anyone else, but your ability to think goes, inhibitions go and you end up emptying the clients' account to pay your booze bill.'
The LSG is hoping to set up a system whereby it is warned of problems, and can then offer an 'assistance programme' to the individual concerned. 'We will be open to anyone ringing to say that X has a problem,' Mr Pritchard says.
'We have had approaches from one or two firms, asking us for advise advice on handling a problem with an employee. It is better to get him or her back into active employment. If the price is a couple of months' treatment, it is probably still far more cost-effective than starting again with a new employee.'
Another call concerned an employer who proposed to take on a woman lawyer, aware that she had once had a drink problem. 'I could tell them what to look out for, signals that she had started drinking again,' Mr Pritchard says.
She served a probationary period, was contracted permanently and 'seems to be OK'.
The LSG sees the drink problem from all angles and in all its aspects, from some who may be drinking too much to others who can't stop and are on the verge of intervention in their practice, bankruptcy, or criminal charges.
The problems are not exclusive to sole practitioners, Mr Pritchard says. 'I would think it is roughly equally balanced between them and partners,' he says. 'We do define lawyers fairly widely to include costs draftsmen, legal executives, barristers, and university professors. We have had a couple of judges in the past.'
Unfortunately, neither judge was a success story. Generally, however, the group's success rate is high - 70 per cent - 'bloody brilliant,' says Mr Pritchard.