Alcohol And Law School, In Our Own Words

Adam Wheeler (3L) and Aidan Campbell (1L)

Drinking seems to be a core part of the “typical” law student social experience. And yet it is not something we seem to spend much time reflecting on as a student body. We direct increasing concern to student mental health and wellness at the law school, in response to the serious challenges many of us face, but there seems to be a conspicuous silence about substance use.

Given the high rates of alcoholism in the legal profession, we wanted to break the silence around use at our Faculty and explore students’ experiences and perspectives. What follows are our takeaways from a series of interviews with students as well as some thoughts from our new Counselling and Wellness Manager, Yukimi Henry.

It starts early and is pervasive

Drinking is everywhere at the Faculty. All students, drinkers and non-drinkers alike, identified alcohol as at the centre of the law school’s social life. Between pub nights, Halloween, Follies, and Law Ball, it can seem that the only way to ensure an event is well attended is to have ready access to drinks. As one student noted, “Drinks are everywhere, all the time, from people using it to de-stress at the end of the day to social engagements, to networking engagements…it’s pervasive.”

The law school is far from alone in this respect, but use is ubiquitous within the legal profession. Reflecting on this, one student noted, “[H]igh demand, forced crunch time—the minute we get to the law school, that all starts.” In some ways, it’s a classic chicken and egg dilemma—are students bringing higher rates of use into the profession or are we simply entering into the culture?

Students identified a similar dynamic at play in thinking about the “work hard, play hard” culture that touches on life at the law school. Some students described using the intensity of their work to justify how hard they would party on the weekend, while others described it as the result of a need to blow off steam as fast as possible, to make up for their lack of a genuine work life balance.

Drinking can seem like a job requirement

It’s not that we’re doing anything new here; if anything, we’re setting ourselves up for success. A student we spoke to who had just been through the wringer of the 1L recruit said they were out for drinks three time with recruiters in as many days. They noted that the pressure was internal, more about wanting to market themselves as fun and outgoing, rather than coming from the other side of the table. They claimed that they felt the recruiters only really wanted their charges to feel as comfortable as possible and that not drinking wouldn’t have hurt their chances. Though they added a note of caution, “if you do drink, though, they will never stop ordering, and it can get messy.” When asked, the student recruiters said that “the dumbest thing they had seen from prospective employees was getting too drunk during these events.”

Others see things differently: “I’m afraid I’ll fail the fit interview the moment I say I don’t drink, or succumb to the pressure and drink but not be able to and end up gagging.” Although they acknowledged that they understand why drinking has such a grip on the legal industry. “There’s an emphasis on being a social person since the work is client based. For some reason in the west, being social means drinking.”

Not participating can be isolating

As much as drinking can provide a valuable outlet for stress and an easy, fun student activity, the fact that not everyone feels comfortable drinking is not controversial. However, whether students abstain for religious and cultural reasons, for health reasons, and/or financial reasons, the problem appears more complicated than “to drink or not to drink”. One student noted, “I went to pub night once, [and] felt weird ordering a diet coke…I feel like I’m shoving my non-drinking down other peoples’ throats.” This pressure was echoed by other students we spoke to, and even those who chose to drink noted that they at times felt pressured to drink more than they would have otherwise planned.

It’s hard to tell where a fun outlet ends and problematic use begins

Not all substance use is abuse. However, the environment can transform a recreational activity into a crutch for some students. One student noted that, “Law school invites a problematic relationship with drugs or alcohol, and not everyone has the tools to recognize what’s happening…they’re not necessarily able to correlate stress and alcohol use.” So what do we do in situations when we see people who, as one student described, “[have] fully passed the point of this being fun and are now a danger to themselves?”

Another student discussed the extent to which being around this level of use is challenging to their own well-being: “Personally, coming from a long line of alcoholics…if you’re living in a culture where everybody is drinking all the time, for those who are genetically loaded for alcoholism it’s a time bomb.” It can likewise pose challenges for students who are trying to reduce their use based on previous bad experiences: “[I] had just moved from an area that has unhealthy relationship with alcohol and I was looking forward to getting a [reset] but didn’t get that at the law school.”

Joking about alcoholism can make it harder to seek help

Before law school, neither of us had ever heard as many jokes about being alcoholic as we do now. Many students seemed to share the experience of hearing other students joke about drinking everyday, during class, or before an exam. How are we supposed to interpret these stories?

Substance abuse is partially defined by when use begins to interfere with a person’s daily functioning. Within the overachieving context of the law school, however, one student noted: “[…] the indicators might look different; cries for help might look different.” Another acknowledged that it is “much more easy to rationalise your problems, or convince yourself that they aren’t as bad as others think.” This reflection touches on a difficult question—when should we risk the awkwardness and ask “Are you okay?”

Not every casual joke about substance use suggests a problem, of course, but these types of comments may also have a cumulative effect on our law school culture. Identifying that drinking or drug use may be interfering with your life can be very challenging at the best of times, but hearing it discussed flippantly may lead to doubt or anxiety about seeking help.

Questions over the role the Admin and SLS can play

Students’ Law Society (SLS) President Andrew Wang noted that “[The] SLS shares the concern that for students who don’t drink, social events with a focus on drinking may be inaccessible to them and may cause them to feel pressured to drink in order to participate fully in social life at the law school.” Thinking about ways to make their events more accessible is often discussed by the Social Committee, but he noted that the new building will allow for a wider range of events. However, this is where students saw the SLS’s role ending, otherwise they risk encroaching on students’ personal choices and boundaries.

For its part, the administration seems to see these types of issues as falling within its purview. For Yukimi Henry, the faculty’s new counsellor, it’s about “treating substance use as a behavioral choice but addiction as a mental illness. Not all the behavior here is addictive. If this is your only pressure valve, it’s a problem; if it’s one of a range of choices, I actually have no problem with that.”

But there are steps that can be taken

Working to build a safe and supportive law school community is an ongoing process that should engage students, the SLS, faculty, and administration. But finding ways to support one another, and being thoughtful about the way our use may affect others is also everyone’s responsibility.

If you’re worried about yourself or someone you know, you should feel free to contact the SLS Equity Officers (slstoronto.equity@gmail.com) or Yukimi (yukimi.henry@utoronto.ca) for support and resources. After all, as Yukimi notes, if things are starting to feel out of your control “treatment is not a further restriction of autonomy but a facilitator of it.”