During her first year as a law associate in New York, Lisa Smith became a nightly drinker. Her team would often go out after work, and she was worried that if she didn’t go, she would miss professional opportunities. Every step of her career—from recruitment, mentoring and even interacting with clients— centered around alcohol.

“I always refer to the legal profession as being soaked in alcohol because it normalizes a lot of problematic drinking,” Smith said. Like a disproportionate number of women, she stopped practicing law early in her career after struggling with alcohol for about five years—along with the stress of the profession.

A new large-scale study shows these patterns remain widespread. Women in the legal profession were more likely to report engaging in risky drinking (56 percent vs. 46 percent) and hazardous drinking (34 percent vs. 25 percent) relative to men. Female attorneys were seven times as likely to mention an increase in this behavior because of the COVID-19 pandemic versus a four-fold jump in males. The researchers also found that more women considered leaving law due to mental health problems, burnout, or stress than men (24 percent vs. 17 percent).

“Stress has a well-understood role in precipitating depression, anxiety, and frequently hazardous substance use,” said Patrick Krill, co-author of the study and the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm that works with large legal employers to provide mental health and wellbeing services.

Nearly 3,000 legal professionals in California and Washington D.C. participated in the study, but Krill said the group was selected randomly so the results could be applied to other large cities with a high population of lawyers. The New York City area has the largest number of attorneys in the country and the second-highest per capita, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Drinking is part of the cultural pressure of trying to make it in a male-dominated field, and in some cases, a response to the high levels of stress women face in the legal profession. Eileen Travis, the executive director of the Lawyer Assistance Program at the New York City Bar Association, said part of the problem is the stigma that prevents people from reaching out when they need help. To counteract this, her program offers monthly events on substance abuse or mental health, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a confidential hotline.

The study also showed that female lawyers face a higher "effort-to-reward" ratio, which measures the balance between levels of work and levels of rewards in the workplace. Women in the study reported having to work harder to achieve the same recognition and professional status as men.

Work-family conflict, exacerbated by women taking on a larger share of household work during the pandemic, was associated with the highest likelihood of wanting to leave the profession for women. A 2020 McKinsey analysis reported similarly that mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most housework and caregiving.

Karen Chuck, a psychotherapist in New York City and former corporate attorney, said policy changes are needed on the national level to balance out these inequities.

Last month, President Joe Biden proposed a $1.8 trillion spending and tax proposal, “The American Families Plan,” that puts significant funding towards child care and paid family leave.

The retention of female lawyers has been a widespread problem for years. Although a similar number of women enter the legal profession as men, they only make up around 20 percent of partners, the most senior position at most firms. Some reports estimate the attrition rate in law is 150% greater for women than men. Women in law continue to earn less than men despite female partners outperforming male partners in court by more than 12 percent.

Krill said the absence of female lawyers means the industry is losing out on the balanced perspective and the intelligence women bring to the legal working environment.

“It loses a lot of really, really sharp people... it's a brain drain,” he said.