Female Lawyers and Alcohol

Many women now in their mid-late 40s and 50s who, after decades of drinking as part of university and legal culture, are now finding themselves unhealthy and unhappy.

Alcohol plays a significant role in this. This is not an attack on law firms or in any way meant to be disparaging towards female lawyers. In fact, it is the opposite.

This is a shout out to female lawyers who may be struggling with escalating alcohol use (or their alcohol use – full stop), women who are worried about their consumption levels and friends and colleagues of women who may fall into this category.  This is an acknowledgment of the prevalence of this struggle and that, with compassion and a helping hand, there is a healthier and happier joyful life waiting on the other side.

Alcohol use disorder breeds in environments where there is persistent overwhelming stress, late hours and fatigue; where the culture encourages and rewards competition and perfectionism and attracts anxious, analytical, methodical and obsessive personalities with perfectionistic tendencies; where alcohol use is prevalent in every celebration and consumed in excess from the top down; in people with underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression[1], and where there is fear of reputational damage and reprisal associated with reaching out for help.  Every single one of these elements is present in law firms at levels that are higher than the general population.  It is a melting pot of emotional stress, mental health issues and, as the statistics bare out, woman are struggling.

A recent 2021 study of 2,863 American lawyers found that more female lawyers are engaging in both risky and hazardous drinking than their male counterparts[2]. Of those surveyed, 55.5% of woman were found to be engaging in risky drinking and 34% in hazardous drinking.  For woman, risky drinking (in this study)[3] is drinking more than 7 drinks per week or more than 3 during one occasion) and is defined as drinking at the level that puts you at risk for medical or social problems.  Hazardous drinking (in this study) is having more than 14 drinks per week and is considered to put you at risk for adverse health effects.  (Australian statistics relating to alcohol use among lawyers have previously been comparable with American studies[4].)

Sophie, a 48-year-old lawyer, who has asked to be anonymous, says she “would often frequently end up drinking two to two and half bottles of wine” to herself at night to get through an advice at home.  If work needed to be finished in the office, she would grab a wine or a beer from the fridge in the firm cafe area. “It just helped get me through a long arduous night… and when I got home I would have another glass of wine to tune-out work and relax before going to bed.”  This became a vicious cycle because “I would wake up feeling like crap needing to get to work super early and do it all again.” Sophie is now alcohol free and “truly believes that I had kept going down that path, I just would have broken.

Having been a lawyer for 15 years myself and participating in (and now witnessing) the aftermath that drinking culture has on senior legal corporate women, I know many women closely and from afar in similar situations to Sophie.

Drinking in law firms is rife and accompanies every celebration from attracting new clients, case wins to farewells.  For women, drinking with your smaller work group and larger sub-groups demonstrates loyalty and camaraderie, staying power, fierceness, that you can keep up with the men, to show you choose “the work” before other life goals, to share client/case stories, unload and debrief with colleagues who “get it”, to ensure you are in the running to get the ‘good’ cases, to escape from the combative day…so many reasons.

The work is combative and anxiety-ridden. You can feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel and the hours eat into your personal life.  Working days are long and there is an overlap between working and socialising.  Often these groups become your main social circle and can feel like family.

Sophie points out that “firms throw money at lavish lunches at the best restaurants where expensive alcohol is a major focus.  The more expensive, the more valued the client, and they can continue into dinner and beyond. Partners, barristers, the senior staff ask you to arrange these gatherings to market and impress clients and they foot the bill. It would be extremely hard to say no; you could, but no one does… I certainly didn’t because I was just so relieved to be away from the office and away from work.”  Also, why would she? Sophie believed that alcohol was her reward, helped her relax, allowed her to feel normal.

All of this is incredibly exciting in your 20s and 30s; then not so much in you 40s; then you start to wonder “why am I doing this?”, “what am I gaining here?”, and “how do I want to live the second half of my life?”.

Drinking becomes problematic when you start using it to make you feel “normal” in stressful, traumatic and emotionally uncomfortable moments.  Imposter syndrome, stress, gender discrimination, work-pressure creates many of these “moments”.  That dopamine / GABA hit that you temporarily receive when you do consume alcohol numbs these difficult feelings and you are relieved.  You’ll start believing that alcohol helps you feel better and when this happens the habit and belief is formed and this is reinforced over time.  Pumping out an advice is not so bad if you have a glass of red to accompany it, right?  You can forget that you are not spending time with your family, that you are bone-tired or that you actually really dislike this part of the job.

If you started drinking at a young age, you are even more susceptible to developing a problem with your alcohol use as you’ll likely already have a behavioural pattern of using alcohol to “help you” get through difficult moments and uncomfortable feelings.  This is what you’ll easily reach for when you are stressed, fatigued, socially anxious, lonely or unhappy.

Put simply, alcohol is an easy and available substance to numb the anxiety, the depression, the stress, the fatigue, the lot that comes with being a stressed lawyer and it is putting many lawyers – especially women – at risk to their physical and mental health.

As long-term indulgers well know, it is a vicious cycle.  Alcohol is a depressant and in order to maintain homeostasis to protect you, your brain releases stimulant chemicals, adrenalin and cortisol, which stay in your system much longer than dopamine.  Hello 3am wake-up!

Also Read: You Don’t Have to Hit “Rock-Bottom”

After long-term use alcohol also takes away your ability to experience pleasure and joy in the small things, the activities you previously found happiness in, such as spending time with your kids or socialising, known as the downward pleasure cycle (see Annie Grace, This Naked Mind).  At the very least, this leads to low mood, restlessness, lack of motivation and fatigue, increasing the desire to reach for alcohol again to get that short-term relief.

Many women know that alcohol no longer serves them once they’ve reached senior ranks.  What was once their crutch that enabled them to keep doing the hard yards, tasks and hours, that numbed them, has morphed into their company, their energy source and liquid confidence and courage and the thing that they are left with when they are working late hours alone.  Although these amazing women are experts in their professional fields, they can find themselves trapped and not living a meaningful or joyful life.

If you (or someone you know falls) into this category, it is not your fault! Becoming addicted to something that is, well, …addictive… and is marketed to appeal to your vulnerabilities to “make you” feel relaxed, happy or popular is not your fault.  The first step to turning the trajectory around is to be aware of what is happening and the next step is to explore your (often hidden) beliefs around what you think alcohol “gives” you and spend some time to shine the light on these beliefs and test them for accuracy.  Often, some time will be spent examining long-held beliefs associated with confidence, belonging, self-worth, but all of this is worth it, because it sets you free.  Reaching out is key!

Alcohol workplace coaching, presented in a shame-free, focussed yet fun environment, ought to be embraced by firms as part of their overall wellness drive and branding.  Serve champagne at these events if need be! It’s the perfect environment to facilitate a mindful drinking exercise, allowing participants to pause, sip slowly, reflecting throughout whether it is actually all that they believe it is (it is not!) while learning what alcohol actually does to our brains and bodies.  Alcohol use needs to be openly spoken about and people asked if they are ok without fear of reprisal. Sober curiosity should be applauded in these environments. Senior lawyers that have chosen to go alcohol-free or who choose to abstain at work-events should be applauded. A firm-funded counsellor should be available on the condition of anonymity.  Information about alcohol use should be on workplace web-site.

There are many, many steps that firms can take to support these women who have earned them so much money over the course of their lives and who are leading the next generation of lawyers.

Last word

For support on how you can change your relationship with alcohol, email me at [email protected] or schedule a breakthrough call on my web to discuss how we can make this mind-shift together.


[1] 2019 Australian & New Zealand Meritas Wellness Survey 2019; ABC News, August 2019, “Lawyers experience high rates of anxiety and depression, survey finds; Beyond Blue and Beaton Consulting, 2007 report, ‘Opening Our Eyes to Depression Among Australian Professionals’

[2] 2021 study, published by the Public Library of Science, conducted by Justin Anker, assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s department of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, and Patrick Krill, lawyer and licensed and certified alcohol and drug Counsellor

[3] Australian Guidelines relating to alcohol released by the National Health & Medical Research Council states that although there is no safe level of drinking, to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.

[4] University of NSW 2014 report, Lawyering Stress and Work Culture

Photo by Trevor Gerzen on Unsplash

You Don’t Have to Hit “Rock-Bottom”

Grey area drinking – what is it?

There is no rule stating that you need to have hit rock-bottom or had a momentous fall from grace to justify making behavioural improvements to your life.  It is ok if you simply feel curious about what it would be like if you cut back or go alcohol free for a period.

It may be that you just want to feel more energised, focussed, less anxious, healthier or happier and you are curious if alcohol is playing a part in stopping you achieving these goals.

It may be that you are uncomfortable with the fact that you cannot seem to stop at one or two glasses of champagne and that it often turns into three or four… Perhaps you do not drink every day and can in fact have many days without it but when you do you cannot stick to your moderation goals.  You think, “I’ll just have a glass when I make dinner” but it becomes the whole bottle.  There is an internal voice that says “this is not good for me…this has to stop”.

This is where the concept of “grey area drinking” (GAD) comes in.

Jolene Park, a functional nutritionist and founder of The Gray Area Drinking Resource Hub specialising in GAD, defines GAD as the space between the extremes of rock-bottom and every-now-and again area which can negatively impact lives[1].

GAD is in fact how most people drink.  Heading out to dinner with friends or opening a bottle after a stressful day with the intention of just having one or two and three hours later much more has been consumed is so common it is almost the norm.   So many people drink like this that it can seem like normal behaviour to binge drink when socialising or on the weekend, drinking well beyond the Australian guidelines relating to alcohol in the process[2].  We know this is unhealthy for us.

You are not a GAD if you do so every now and then at a wedding or weekend away for example.  You are also not a GAD if you are seeking treatment for alcohol use and withdrawals and if you have clear physical signs of alcohol abuse, such as yellow eyes and liver function problems.  Anything in between falls in shades of grey.

Park notes[3] the 10 characteristics of GADs include:

“1. Gray Area Drinkers drink frequently (most days) or they go periods of time without drinking and they often binge drink.
2. Gray Area Drinkers drink to drunkenness.
3. Gray area drinkers feel the physical effects of drinking – headaches, night sweats, disrupted sleep, fatigue, low energy, nausea, vomiting, blackouts, dehydration.
4. Gray Area Drinkers feel the emotional effects of drinking – self loathing, depression, anxiety, irritability, reactivity, silently berating themselves.
5. Gray Area Drinkers can and do stop drinking for extended periods of time. BUT, it’s hard to stay stopped.
6. Gray Area Drinkers struggle with the forever question.
7. Gray Area Drinkers drink at uncomfortable emotions or drink to soothe/calm past, current or future stress.
8. Gray Area Drinkers can spend a lot of time (often years) contemplating, questioning, worrying, wondering, researching/learning, justifying their drinking before they stop drinking for good.
9. Gray Area Drinkers worry about what people will say or think about them if they aren’t drinking.
10. Gray Area Drinkers wish they could be an every now and again drinker. Spoiler alert, they can’t.”

GADs commonly have a history of stopping drinking for significant periods of time, seven months here or five months there, and then restarting again before becoming uneasy as consumption levels creep up again when they do so, experiencing a “back and forth merry-go-round[4].  Maybe you have gone alcohol free for longer.

Although GADs may not have a physical dependency, they will likely have an emotional dependence and this can create internal angst and discomfort about the dissonance between their internal voice and their behaviours.

Anxiety can be a massive reason for GADs to drink the way they do.  Many “high-achieving” professionals function as GADs to combat stress.  Falling into the GAD category means that you continue to perform well at work and have not likely been tapped on the shoulder by friends or family to say they are concerned about your drinking.  So your concerns are privately held. Also, when you compare yourself to your friends, you cannot see anything overtly unusual in your drinking behaviour that would set you apart.

Falling into this category is largely subjective and self-diagnosed.  Although you are perceived as drinking “normally”, you personally feel uncomfortable with the amount of alcohol you are consuming.  You know that you are doing yourself and your health a disservice, and perhaps, if you continue, you may develop a “problem”.

GADs proposing to cut back can take invaluable action to nourish their nervous system and boost their neural-transmitters, GABA, serotonin and dopamine levels.  Increasing these transmitters improves overall anxiety, mood and motivation and our underlying reasons for seeking out alcohol in the first place.  This is precisely what Park’s program, the Nourish Method, is designed to do by integrating the following components into your life[5]:

N – Notice nature

O – Observe your breath

U – Unite with others

R – Replenish with food

 I –  Initiate with movement

S – Sit in stillness, and

H – Harness your creativity

The method seeks to support our physiological stress responses by nourishing our nervous system, alleviating our anxiety levels and overall mood.  Balancing our blood sugars, that have been thrown out of whack with prolonged alcohol use, by eating regular meals containing proteins and omega oils is also important to aid reduction in cravings.  Starting these steps in advance of cutting back or eliminating alcohol can assist the transition process greatly.

GADs can face some unusual and sometimes hostile reactions from people when they change their drinking behaviours, puzzled why you would do so when “you don’t have a problem!”.  Your decision to cut back may also unintentionally shine a light on their own drinking behaviours.  Hangover free mornings, renewed energy and motivation and vigour is the best response…!

It can be really useful to have a plan in place when you choose to reduce or eliminate your GAD all together.  Make a firm decision about what your non-negotiables are around drinking, particularly in relation to up and coming celebrations, drinking at home or drinking alone etc…, so that you reduce the chances of being caught off guard and relying on will power alone (and remember maybe means yes!).  Also, planning your public reasons for reducing your intake or going alcohol free is a great way of halting a debate or discussion around your choices and firming up your decision.

Over time, gaining an understanding of why you believed alcohol “helped” you is fundamentally important (relieve anxiety, to relax or to connect with others?) and testing and challenging those beliefs, based on what we actually scientifically know to be the case (ie, that we end up more anxious, stressed and sad etc… in the long run) enables you to start the process of undoing those beliefs and go-to behaviours to support long term success[6].

Rock-bottom should not be the indicator for people wanting to make some healthy changes around their approach to their alcohol use.  Also, ‘rock-bottom’ is different to everyone.  Your motivation to change may have come from experiencing a hangover that prevented you from exercising or ruined your Sunday or that your children are now at an age where they notice what you do to relax on Fridays. It does not have to be a DUI, a loss of a job or a black-out.  Healthy choices can happen at any time – join the movement!

With a nourished nervous system and freshly formed beliefs around your alcohol use, you will be well on our way to forming new healthier behaviours and habits that serve you!

Last word

For support on how you can change your relationship with alcohol, email me at [email protected] or schedule a breakthrough call on my web to discuss how we can make this mind-shift together.


[1] Jolene Park, functional nutritionist and founder of The Gray Area Drinking Resource Hub specialising in GAD(www.grayareadrinkers.com)

[2] While there’s no safe level of drinking, the guidelines provide a framework for how to stay healthy and protect yourself and your family from alcohol harm. The guidelines recommend that (1) to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day, (2) anyone under 18 should not drink alcohol to reduce the risk of injury and harm to the developing brain, and (3) women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not drink alcohol to prevent harm to their baby. Australian guidelines (National Health and Medical Research Council)

[3] @jolene__park, instragram post, 24 June 2022

[4] Jolene Parks, Ted Talk, Gray Area Drinking

[5] Grayareadrinkers.com, Jolene Park

[6] Annie Grace, This Naked Mind

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Perfectionism and Alcohol

Making the connection between escalating alcohol consumption, excessive social media use and/or emotional over-eating and perfectionistic tendencies isn’t so obvious at first, but it becomes clearer when digging a little deeper at what perfectionism hides and how exhaustingly unattainable it is.

So how is perfectionism defined?  Dr Brene Brown writes that:

“[P]erfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, work perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.[1]

Can you relate to that overwhelming feeling of wanting to be accepted no matter what, to fit in, to belong?  Kelly (44 years old) does:  “In my late 30s, I can recall wanting so desperately to be part of this “amazing group” of people that I almost lost myself in the process.  I spent hours, days ruminating how to make myself better for their acceptance, how to look, present perfectly and fit their mould… and exhaustingly worrying why they didn’t include me in everything or respond to my messages after I had tried my best.  In retrospect I didn’t have a strong enough hold on who I was and I was wracked with self-doubt… It took me years to appreciate that I drank to excess both privately and publicly to soothe my wrung out nervous system and negative self-talk.  It was a revelation to me when I worked it all out!  I’m stronger for it now believe me!” Looking to others for approval is anxiety-creating and stressful.

Those with perfectionistic tendencies believe that the more “perfect” they are perceived to be, the better they are as a person.  Self-worth and the value they place in themselves is linked to what others think of them; how they perform; how they look.  However the pursuit of perfection is unattainable.  We cannot control how another person perceives us.  When we outsource how we value ourselves to other people, we leave the most important part of us, the essence of who we are, our identity and self, wide-open to erosion.

Seeking relief and distraction from these overwhelming feelings and thoughts, many people reach for alcohol, endlessly scroll social media or emotionally over-eat.  Initially this brings a pleasurable dopamine hit and feels good, but what closely follows is more feelings of guilt, shame and blame with fatigue, anxiety and disappointment thrown into the mix.

It is a perfection/shame/disordered behavioural cycle.  Those who feel shame can seek refuge behind perfectionism, and perfectionism can spark further shame when it’s not attained or numbed with alcohol, social media or food.

It is not your fault! It is a confusing place to be. You may have been complimented and adulated growing up for your achievements and appearance rather than who you are, your kindness, your thoughts and opinions and developed a pattern of seeking approval.  Or you may have found that an appearance of perfection can defer criticism or bullying.  Your sense of self may be shaky.  Then there are the cultural pressures to be a super-mum, look active and healthy, be successful, be happy, be engaging, fit-in and belong and look like you have the perfect marriage family! We often don’t even know we are seeking out perfectionistic goals as we’ve been on board this mission for decades. How exhausting.

Some signs that you or your loved one may need some compassion and help are if you are socially withdrawing generally or your valued relationships are suffering; you are disengaging from the activities that you usually enjoy; you are not exercising or going outside; you would prefer to be alone with your vice; you have an internal dialogue filled with negative self-talk (“I should be like/look like/behave like…”, “if I just do xyz….”,”tomorrow I will….”) and frequently create plans to just do better starting tomorrow.

Another sign is if you are struggling with who you are and what your purpose is in life.  You internally feel like you are immobilised or in a place of life paralysis whilst at the same time externally presenting as “happy” and “satisfied”.  Perfectionism stops us from putting ourselves out there, from doing new things, from speaking our opinions, for fear of making mistakes and being judged for it, and feeling the shame and blame that comes with this.   We can lack motivation to make lifestyle and career changes that deep down we know we can and ought to do.  We get stuck and trapped when in this mode[2].

Some people are experts at hiding their damaging behaviours from others and also themselves.  The quest to present as perfect acts to push these behaviours into the dark, hidden from families and friends and it can be a very lonely existence where some are living dual lives, seemingly happy and successful on the outside, but drinking, scrolling, eating or excessively shopping behind closed doors.

An enjoyment of the secrecy of their damaging behaviours can develop as these behaviours can feel like a ritualistic celebration of a secret indulgence;  an internal quiet rebellion against the strict perfectionistic rules that they are externally abiding by; an allure of a “forbidden” act that numbs them.  This is deeply confusing and shining a light on these hidden behaviours and talking to someone about what is happening is really important. Channelling and cultivating other healthy ways to honour our rebellious side is also an effective way of honouring your real self that has been buried under a “perfect” identity, such as seeing live music, dancing to loud music, seeing a comedy show, painting – whatever is your wild thing!

Acknowledging and embracing our vulnerabilities, being kind to ourselves and welcoming our mistakes and foibles as inevitabilities of growth and universal life is essential to moving out of a destructive cycle and embracing an authentic you.  Vulnerability strengthens connection with others and ourselves.

Separating other people’s views from our self-worth is fundamental. Ask, how do I identify myself to myself? Listen to your negative self-talk and get curious about what you say to yourself about yourself.  I bet there are some fairly negative internal statements floating around.  Listen to your internal dialogue and ask yourself whether you would speak like this to another person?  Choose how you want your authentic self to be and see if you can expand your self-perception beyond how you may be perceived by others to the real aspects you value – kindness? authenticity? courage? Lean into adventure and live authentically in alignment with your values (not another person’s values!).

Finally, and this can be challenging, ask yourself what is the fear you have of being perceived as imperfect? Does it come from an event or exchange that occurred in childhood or younger years?  Be willing to explore what your fears may be and choose to be your authentic adventurous self rather than striving to satisfy the external narrative that you have been conditioned to believe about yourself.  Explore what lies behind the “I just need to…”; :”I should….” “If I could just….”

Kelly states that “I always knew I was strong deep down, but that I often changed or tweaked my identity and how I behaved to be accepted by others and I think I lost myself there for a while. Strengthening my understanding of who I am helped me greatly to pull myself out of a deepening hole.”

All of this work helps build our overall resilience, so you can be less reactive to other people’s judgments and perceptions.  How freeing!

Reaching out and seeking help to do this work can be the best gift for you and your family and can be an important element to gaining freedom from damaging behaviours and finding your purpose and motivation.

Last word

For support on how you can change your relationship with alcohol, email me at [email protected] or schedule a breakthrough call on my web to discuss how we can make this mind-shift together.


[1]  Dr Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart, p145

[2] Dr Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart, p143