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Do you have a high-functioning alcoholic in your legal practice? And how can you help them?

View profile for Dr Bunmi  Aboaba
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Following reports from Business Insider showing that alcoholism is a serious issue for law firms, many companies are now taking the initiative to help employees.

Law firms especially can take that further step by learning how to spot a high-functioning alcoholic and how best to help them.

High-functioning alcoholics are individuals that function effectively and lead a relatively normal life. They are professional, with at times, highly stressful careers, and may also have a family - all the while hiding their addiction.

Spot the signs

It’s important to mention that drinking problems appear on a very wide spectrum, from binge drinking to alcohol dependency, so not all of the following signs may apply to everyone:

Physical appearance. Watch out for sallow skin, bloodshot eyes, profuse sweating, tremors, unexplained bruising, slurred speech and rapid weight gain or loss, as well as other withdrawal symptoms.

Changes in routine, including frequently turning up to work late, leaving the office early, taking longer lunch breaks, disappearing for lengths of time and spending more time working alone.

Secretive behaviour. If an employee is using mouthwash, breath mints, breath spray, perfume, aftershave, when it's something they wouldn't normally do, then this could be a red flag.

Behavioural changes: mood swings, being defensive, starting arguments, talking too quickly or slowly, no volume control or even staying silent for long periods.

Strained relationships, which could be caused by failing to commit to attending meetings, being late for important appointments, forgetting to complete tasks and missing deadlines.

Lacking concentration. Alcohol causes major disturbances in sleep, so it affects day-to-day concentration, energy levels and productivity.

Joking about drinking.  Can be a sign that they are deep in denial of their addiction.

However, 50% of lawyers won’t show ANY of the above-mentioned signs.

So how can you identify the secret 50%

You may have to dig a little deeper and pay even closer attention to:

  1. Overachieving at work in order to ‘show’ that there isn’t an underlying problem
  2. Easily compartmentalizing work, play and personal life
  3. High tolerance to alcohol (keeps on drinking at events but rarely appears ‘drunk’)
  4. Won’t drink more than everyone else at a work party, but may drink excessively before or after... or even in the toilets during the party
  5. Tried to quit alcohol in the past, but masquerades it as ‘for charity’ or as part of ‘Dry January.’
  6. Fits right into the existing drinking culture at the firm (if applicable)
  7. Will always finish a drink, never wasting a drop.

Obviously, it’s essential to be very careful about how you approach someone you suspect to have a drinking problem.

How can you help?

Unless your employee is in an immediate crisis, the first step to helping them is indirectly.

This largely includes cultivating a positive, healthy culture in your workplace:

  • Ensure the majority of the firm’s events are non-alcoholic
  • Prohibit the use of alcohol in the office
  • Prohibit the giving of alcohol as gifts for birthdays, etc.
  • Hold a seminar hosted by an addictions expert to do a talk on the signs that someone could have a problem with alcohol. This can do a great job at increasing awareness and vigilance and helping people address problems
  • Incorporate team activities such as yoga, wellness courses, meditation, etc.
  • Enforce a strict “no contact except in dire emergencies” policy when an employee takes time off
  • If an employee has already received rehab treatment for an alcohol problem then ensure you have a proper back-to-work plan in place.

Sometimes you’ll need to get directly involved in helping an employee. So how can you approach an employee about their drinking problem?

  • Prepare for denial: The chances are they will be in denial and might be defensive
  • Make it private: Set the scene in a secure, safe space
  • Empathise: It’s essential you demonstrate to your employee that you know alcohol issues are an illness and they can be treated
  • The nurturing approach: Be sensitive when dealing with your employee and emphasize that they’re not in trouble - you’re simply worried about their wellbeing
  • Be factual: Name times and dates where possible without being accusatory
  • Show the consequences: Demonstrate how their behaviour has affected their work, if appropriate
  • Recommend: Suggest your employee makes an appointment with their GP to discuss any issues. Also, provide them with contact details for a variety of people who can help them, such as addiction counselors or Sober Coaches
  • Accommodate: Make time for them during working hours to go to any necessary appointments, support groups or therapies.
  • Cover them financially: Offer to pay for therapy, counselling or anything else they may need. After all, you’re investing in your employee’s wellbeing.

If you think one of your employees or colleagues might have a drinking problem don’t turn a blind eye. You could be the starting point for their new, sober lifestyle.


Dr Bunmi Aboaba a Sobriety Companion and Coach and founder of the Sober Advantage. Bunmi is dedicated to helping professionals overcome drinking problems. Her combination of holistic therapies is used to prepare a bespoke plan designed to fit around busy schedules. Bunmi helps people battling a variety of addictions to get control of their lives and beat their addiction – for good.  Bunmi uses a variety of techniques to help her clients, all of which she has used herself to help her gain her sobriety and remain sober for 10 years.  See: and