Law: Too much vodka puts lawyers on the rocks: How sober is your solicitor? Sean Webster reports on an increasing drinking problem in the profession

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Solicitors are becoming increasingly aware of the link between drinking problems and the incidence of fraud and negligence involving legal practitioners. Dishonesty cost the profession's compensation fund just under pounds 15m last year and it is predicted the figure will exceed pounds 20m this year, according to Chris Heaps, chairman of the Solicitors Complaints Bureau. Some solicitors argue that the profession must start addressing one of the causes of the crime - alcohol - rather than the symptoms.

The legal profession is a high- risk group for alcohol-related illnesses. Figures published by Alcohol Concern in 1991 show that judges, barristers and solicitors are 55 per cent above the national average for deaths from cirrhosis of the liver.

Connections between lawyers' drinking habits and fraud have not been monitored in England and Wales, but there is evidence from the United States of a link. A report by Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a Massachusetts group, found that in every year since 1975 three lawyers accounted for half or more of default cases, and in most years one of those three was substance addicted.

Mr Heaps believes that alcohol addiction has a close connection with negligence and dishonesty of solicitors. 'Alcohol is one of the external factors that is very relevant to default by solicitors,' he says.

Addiction to drugs such as cocaine and crack is a big problem among US lawyers, but in Britain, according to the Lawyers Support Group, solicitors are more likely to be dependent on prescription drugs as a secondary addiction stemming from alcoholism.

Anecdotal evidence in England and Wales suggests alcohol is connected to solictors' mismanagement or negligence. Barry Pritchard, a spokesman for the Lawyers Support Group, says many lawyers have problems with alcohol. 'Examination of the Law Society's disciplinary proceedings reveals indications that the connection definitely exists,' he says. 'I know of several solicitors who have drink problems. I always ring them in the morning rather than after lunch.'

David, a solicitor who practises in the south of England, is an example of drink leading a lawyer astray. He qualified in 1960 and worked in general practice until he set up as a sole practitioner nine years later.

His problems began with lunchtime drinking sessions to woo new clients. 'I believed that the way to expand business was to entertain. This took the form of liquid lunches that became longer and longer,' he says.

The pressure of building up a practice is particularly acute for lawyers, David says, as they are not well trained in business techniques. David's lunchtime drinking became heavier and more frequent as the business rolled in. Eventually he found he was getting more work than he could cope with and this increased the pressure on him, leading to more drinking.

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. 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. 'I would take money from one and repay it from another. Looking back it was obvious that I'd get caught, but alcohol convinces you that you can get away with it.'

He repaid the pounds 2,000 he had taken, but in 1980 accountants spotted irregularities during the annual audit. David was investigated by the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, which put restrictions on his practising certificate. This meant he had to reapply each year for the certificate and provide statements signed by two solicitors vouching for his competence. The restrictions were removed in 1991.

David stopped drinking in 1982 after his doctor told him that if he continued, he would be dead in six months. At the time of his heaviest drinking he left his wife and two children.

He says his problems could have been averted if there had been some system his partners could have used to help him confront his addiction. 'I believe that if there had been an informal alternative to asking me to resign, where they could have referred me to a support group, for instance, they would not have asked me to leave and I would not have returned to sole practice and dipped into client accounts.'

Mr Pritchard wants the profession to establish a support system similar to those for the US legal profession and British dentists and doctors. In the US, legal professional bodies and the judiciary have published guidelines for dealing with alcoholism. There are also lawyer assistance programmes, in which alcoholic lawyers are confronted about their addiction, usually by a colleague. The drinkers are persuaded to undergo a six-week residential treatment session and are introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous.

'The important aspect of this process is that it is done in a confidential, off-the-record manner and is aimed at helping the person early on, so forestalling any future dishonesty,' Mr Pritchard says.

He believes the main difficulty is persuading the profession to discuss the issue. 'It is still an unmentionable subject,' he says. 'People deny it's happening and feel very uncomfortable about it.'

At last year's Law Society conference, a solicitor raised the connection between alcoholism among lawyers and crime. According to a member of the Lawyers Support Group, the audience was clearly uneasy and the organisers quickly moved on to another topic.

David says it is vital that solicitors with drink problems face their addiction. 'They must realise that, just as they wouldn't attempt to drink and drive, they should not attempt to drink and then run the affairs of their office, which can do as much damage in the long run.'

The author writes for 'Solicitors Journal'.

(Photograph omitted)