Lawyers Helping Lawyers: Part 2

In March, I blogged on the issue of lawyer impairment.  The post referred to the Hazelden Study, a study that found staggering rates of “behavioral health problems among lawyers.” In particular, problems associated with alcoholism, depression, and anxiety.

My post asked that you not approach the issue from the perspective of whether another lawyer’s health problems trigger a duty to report.  Rather, I asked you to consider helping a lawyer for no other reason than to help a person who needs it.  I wrote:

  • “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, is HERE. 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?”

A few weeks later, Cara Cookson and Josh Simonds joined me on a panel at the VBA’s mid-winter meeting.  Among other things, we stressed (1) that referring a lawyer to help will not necessarily lead to action against the lawyer’s license; and (2) that referring a lawyer to the Vermont Lawyers’ Assistance Program satisfies any reporting duty that might exist.

Still, lawyers being lawyers, many of you want to know if & when a duty to report arises.

A few weeks ago, the ABA Journal reported that the Virginia State Bar had released a draft ethics opinion on a lawyer’s duties when another lawyer in the firm is impaired.

I’ll let you read the opinion and draw your own conclusions.  One note: the draft opinion makes reference to lawyers older than 65.  In my experience, many believe that it’s middle-aged and older lawyers who typically confront behavioral health problems.  In fact, as reported by the ABA Journal, the Hazelden Study concluded that it’s younger lawyers who are most at risk.

I thank Josh, John Weber, and all of the others who are working or have worked with VT LAP.  I think it’s time that the Judiciary and VBA figure out how to provide much more support to the program.  As a profession, we cannot help others if we, ourselves, are not healthy enough to help, or if we who are, don’t help our colleagues who are not.

3 thoughts on “Lawyers Helping Lawyers: Part 2

  1. This is a good initiative. A group is judged by the behavior of its constituency and leaders in response to systemic risks and the ethical content of the group. Mr. Kennedy has used his position to enhance the mentality of VT’s legal ethos by reminding us that humans are not only objects of extraction; a group can be improved by including a supportive ethic. The law and ethical rules are only evidence of a prevailing consensus enforced by sanction and the police power. It’s good to include a little charity in it.

    The next problem is how to create a practice around our good intent. The term “reasonable” comes up a lot and I don’t know what that means. In Soviet Russia it was “reasonable” to displace millions of people. Hyperbole aside, I think the opinion of a doctor or other health professional should be necessary in any determination of “impairment”.

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