Lawyers Helping Lawyers

Updated on March 3 to refer accurately to the Vermont Lawyers Assistance Program.

Last month, the American Bar Association and the Hazeldon Betty Ford Clinic released a  a study on attorney substance abuse & mental health. According to a press release issued by the ABA, the study found “substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems in the U.S. legal profession.”

The press release is HERE.

The full study is HERE.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the study’s “discussion” section:

  • “Our research reveals a concerning amount of behavioral health problems among attorneys in the United States. Our most significant findings are the rates of hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol dependent drinking and high rates of depression and anxiety symptoms. We found positive AUDIT screens for 20.6% of our sample; in comparison, 11.8% of a broad, highly educated workforce screened positive on the same measure (Matano et al., 2003). Among physicians and surgeons, Oreskovich et al. (2012) found that 15% screened positive on the AUDIT-C subscale focused on the quantity and frequency of use, whereas 36.4% of our sample screened positive on the same subscale. While rates of problematic drinking in our sample are generally consistent with those reported by Benjamin et al. (1990) in their study of attorneys (18%), we found considerably higher rates of mental health distress.”

In my experience, lawyers are in position to recognize signs of substance abuse and mental health issues exhibited by another lawyer, whether a co-worker, colleague, or opposing counsel.  Some lawyers wonder whether there is a duty to report substance abuse and mental health issues.  Maybe.  Rule 8.3, the reporting rule, isHERE.

But how about this? How about coming it at from the perspective of helping another human being instead of analyzing whether another’s struggles trigger your duty to report? If a colleague, co-worker, or opposing counsel needs help, why not help them?

Yes, I get it, we are reluctant to get involved.  Some of these might sound familiar:

  • It’s not my business.
  • I don’t know for sure, could’ve been she was having a bad day.
  • It helps my client that he isn’t doing his job.
  • The firm doesn’t need the bad publicity.

Well, consider this:

Extrapolating from the ABA/Hazeldon study, approximately

  • 500 active Vermont attorneys are problem drinkers
  • 500 active Vermont attorneys exhibit signs of problem anxiety
  • 720 active Vermont attorneys struggle with some level of depression.

Here’s a real number, not an extrapolation: over the past 14 months, three Vermont attorneys took their own lives.

Help is available.

Contact the Vermont Lawyers Assistance Program. It’s confidential and the volunteers are exempt from the reporting requirement in Rule 8.3.  Josh Simonds is the Director and is an excellent resource. A referral to Josh’s program will not result in a referral to the disciplinary prosecutors.

Or, call me.  It’s confidential. I can refer an attorney to the LAP program or to one of the PRB’s assistance panels. The panels, in turn, have the authority to refer a lawyer to LAP or to any type of counseling.  I CANNOT refer the attorney to the disciplinary office.

Or, visit the website for the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.

Call someone. We need to help ourselves, help others, and help ourselves to help others.

Finally, please consider signing up for this seminar scheduled for March 31 at theVBA’s Mid-Year Meeting.  Josh Simonds, Cara Cookson, and I will try to provide you with tips to recognize signs that another lawyer is dealing with substance abuse or mental health problems, and we will provide guidance on how to respond.

 

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