Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Law & Order 2.0, Law and Alcohol Culture 2.0

Law And Order 2.0, Law and Alcohol Culture 2.0

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

How many times have you heard these words on your TV, heralding the beginning of Law & Order? I suspect that many of us have heard the opening description hundreds of times. Unlike many legally-themed TV shows, Law & Order is popular with lawyers, and I am thrilled to hear that a new season of the original Law & Order is being launched.

While some younger lawyers identify Law & Order as their inspiration for choosing law as a career, I predate Law & Order which aired its first episode in the fall of 1990.

I discovered Law & Order a few years later—it was on at 8 pm on A&E, and if I got my young children to bed by 8, my reward would be an hour of Law & Order. I was a corporate lawyer by happenstance (and, probably, personality), but even if it was too late to inspire me to go to law school, I loved the mystery stories, trials, and criminal law cases all the same.

No offence to Lennie Briscoe and his many partners—but most of us chose law over police work. The detectives on Law & Order got their hands dirty dealing with bodies and rooting around in garbage bins for evidence, but the assistant district attorneys faced interesting intellectual and legal challenges. And many of us—not practicing criminal law—also credit Ben Stone and Jack McCoy for our knowledge of the laws of evidence. “Fruit of the poisoned tree,” we call out, or “inevitable discovery,” predicting whether evidence will be admissible.

But as much as I enjoy Law & Order and its spinoffs, there is one thing I hope we won’t see when our beloved show returns: the way the show propagated alcohol culture in law.

I wish I had time to complete a fulsome analysis of what percentage of episodes feature a scene in the District Attorney’s personal office, often after a trial concludes but sometimes connected with pre-trial or trial issues, where the DA, whether Adam Schiff, Arthur Branch or Jack McCoy himself (in later SVU episodes) always has a bottle of Scotch and glasses in his office, and the lawyers are quite often raising a glass. My guess it is more than half and likely much higher. It epitomizes the intersection between law culture and alcohol culture.

You can still watch Law & Order on some cable channels—I record them on my PVR!  Earlier this week, I watched the episode in which Alexandra Borgia is written out of the show (Season 16, episode 22), coincidentally just a few days before I learned of the reboot. The episode ends with the quintessential scene in DA Arthur Branch’s office, as Arthur and EDA Jack McCoy pull out the Scotch bottle and glasses. Jack tells Arthur that Alexandra despised the Scotch in the office tradition, and that she would have said it was too old boys’ club. I was pleased that they recognized that there was an issue about alcohol in the office, but that sensitivity didn’t result in a change to how the show's lawyers used alcohol. This episode aired in 2006, and the drinking in the office pattern continued through to the end of the show’s series conclusion.

SVU lives on—not my favourite of the spin-offs, but we fans take what we can get. And with it alcohol in law culture lived on, not in the police portions, but still in the lawyer side. One episode really bothered me: the one where Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba’s exits the show. He is facing a dilemma where his personal ethics would have him act in one way, while his duty as a prosecutor, dictates the opposite. Jack McCoy, now the DA, tells him to do his job, finish off the 26-ounce bottle in his desk drawer, go to confession and be back ready to work the following morning.

Does art imitate life, or is it the other way around? It’s hard to know.

Many research studies over the last thirty-plus years have considered alcohol usage by lawyers in different parts of the western world (see this link and this link for US data and here for a discussion respecting the UK). While precise percentages of legal professionals engaging in high-risk heavy drinking or experiencing substance use disorders vary, lawyers score much higher than the general population. The Canadian data is becoming dated (it is from 2012), but the Federation of Law Societies will be launching a lawyer well-being survey soon.

I learned of the close connection between lawyers and alcohol in my first articling interview in Calgary in 1985. As I was being shown into the boardroom, one of the two lawyers on the interview team offered me coffee. I declined because I had arrived downtown early so I wouldn’t have to worry about being late and had just spent 45 minutes drinking coffee in a restaurant (this was pre-Starbucks days!). The second question from that same lawyer, asking if I was related to a lawyer he knew with my last name. I said yes, that he was referring to my cousin.

I could see the lawyer adding one and one and reaching a reasonable but not accurate conclusion. My cousin, who he knew, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and does not consume coffee or alcohol. I could see the equation  “she didn’t want coffee” plus “her cousin is Mormon” leading to the conclusion that I must be Mormon as well. And I was well-aware that there was a general belief at that time that Mormon women would not be serious about careers and just wanted to get married and have children.

So, I decided I should confront this head-on. I said, “I’m not Mormon—that’s not why I declined your offer of coffee.” And I explained that I had just finished a cup of coffee before arriving for my interview. The lawyers’ response? He looked at the other lawyer and said “Good. She drinks!”

This affirmed to me that drinking alcohol was a key part of law culture, and my experience working at two law firms only deepened this sense.

Recent Canadian studies have concluded that more than 20% of Canadians do not consume alcohol. While I now know many more lawyers who don’t drink than I did early in my career (maybe 1 or 2%), the pressure on them to fit in and have a drink has not evaporated.

Our profession socializes and networks with a drink in our hands. Students and lawyers who don’t drink alcohol often end up drinking pop at events, attracting the inevitable “why aren’t you drinking” questions. While many individuals choose to abstain from alcohol for personal reasons, many have physical, religious, or medical reasons, including substance use disorders. These questions effectively put non-drinkers in a position where they must justify their choices and potentially disclose private information that is linked to human rights-protected grounds.

At some point in the next few months, we may be able to resume group socializing events. Just as Law & Order is rebooting, let’s reboot how we, as a profession, view alcohol. If your firm is looking forward to hosting networking, client, and firm events, please consider how alcohol impacts your firm culture. Please ensure that you have viable non-alcohol beverages, besides pop, and that pressure is not exerted for students, lawyers, or anyone else to drink in order to fit in.

This month, Assist is inviting you to learn more about substance use in our profession. Many lawyers turn to alcohol as our go-to stress management technique, but using alcohol, or other substances, for stress relief is short-term gain for long-term pain. Research shows that substances in this way decreases resilience. And our careers are marathons and not sprints (we hope!).

Please join us on October 22nd as we partner with Alcoholic Anonymous’ Committee on Professional Cooperation for our first Fall Speakers Series event, an open mock AA meeting to help us understand more about addiction and recovery.

Since the pandemic descended upon us in March of 2020, Assist has seen a marked increase in the number of individuals seeking professional counselling for substance use issues. While we have had a similar number of total counselling cases in 2020 and 2019 (977 versus 1027—3 per cent variance), the percentage of cases in respect of addiction doubled from just under 5 per cent, where it has sat for a few years, to 9 per cent. Kudos to the brave lawyers and students who recognized they had a problem and sought help during the pandemic.
With substance use occurring in our profession at high rates, almost all of us will encounter another lawyer—a colleague, friend or opposing counsel—who is struggling. If someone confides in you that they are struggling with substance use or addiction, you can direct them to Assist, but the more you know about substance use/addiction and recovery, the more helpful you can be. Ditto if you suspect that someone you know is struggling with substance use and you want to provide support.
Assist is featuring a mock Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, as opposed to any other 12 step meeting, because alcohol is the substance most frequently used in the lawyer recovery cases we see. The Mock AA meeting will have many similarities to other substance use 12 step groups and is presented as a sample, to demystify what happens at meetings generally. And according to a recent review by Cochrane Group, an international not-for-profit organization  dedicated to providing high-quality information to make health decisions which considered 27 studies with more than 10,000 participants, AA and other 12-step programs can lead to a higher rate of abstinence than other approaches, including cognitive behavioural therapy. However, all programs are not equal; programs with well-articulated clinical programs, like AA, had better results.
We want to increase lawyers’ awareness of how AA works and to demystify what happens in an AA meeting. Our webinar will follow the format of an open AA meeting, with us observing (but not participating.) The theme for the meeting is “my life is unmanageable,” since this is something that is experienced by lawyers including those battling substance use disorder as well as by lawyers who are dealing with other personal problems.
Our webinar, the first in our Fall Speakers’ Series, is on Friday, Oct. 22. The presentation and mock meeting will run from noon until 1 p.m., but presenters will be available to answer questions for those who can stay on longer. Please email Eileen to register.
And please think about how we can work together to change the alcohol culture in law. We can start by taking small steps, being allies to non-drinkers, both professionally and personally, who should not be forced to justify why they do not drink alcohol. We can advocate to have viable non-alcohol beverages at events, and you can choose to consume the non-alcohol beverages as a sign of solidarity with non-drinking colleagues. Just as importantly, we can encourage our workplaces to make other stress relief mechanisms available, including mindfulness, yoga, exercise programs, self-care and activity groups around hobbies and interests.
Let’s let life, in law culture, set a better tone for art. I for one will be hoping that the Law & Order reboot will follow a health-informed approach to legal stress management and not perpetuate negative stereotypes.




Closing Corner

I hope that you have enjoyed our focus on Indigenous poetry.
As part of Assist’s commitment to truth and reconciliation, we are announcing the creation of the Assist Indigenous Literature/Book Club!
We all learn about cultures in different ways. Some people learn by reading sociological analyses and history. Others of us learn through art forms. If our Closing Corner content has piqued your interest in Indigenous literature, please email Eileen.
We know that reading an assigned book each month can be daunting when we have many demands on our time. Our Indigenous Literature Discussion Group will feature poetry as well as novels, and as you have seen with our content, short poems can pack a lot of punch!
Closing Corner will be launching a new theme for October, and we welcome submissions as well as suggestions for content, although we may revisit Indigenous literature periodically. Please email me with feedback!