Since I started this blog, I’ve not received more e-mails, texts, or DMs suggesting that I post about a particular topic than I have this week. The suggestions flowed from an article that ran in Saturday’s New York Times: The Lawyer, The Addict.
I first blogged on this topic in March 2016 with the post Lawyers Helping Lawyers. The post referred to a study done by the ABA and the Hazeldon Betty Ford Clinic. The study found “substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems in the U.S. legal profession.”
In my post, I noted that “[e]xtrapolating 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.”
I added “[h]ere’s a real number, not an extrapolation: over the past 14 months, three Vermont attorneys took their own lives.”
Pointing out that, in my experience, lawyers are often the first to know that another lawyer is struggling to cope with addiction or mental health issues, I urged lawyers not to come at this problem from the perspective of “when do I have a duty to report another lawyer?” Instead, I argued:
- “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?”
The beat goes on.
Since my post 16 months ago, 5 Vermont lawyers have been transferred to disability inactive status or placed on interim suspension as a result of substance abuse and/or mental health issues. For those 5 lawyers, help came too late not to involve the disciplinary process.
Whatever we do to address this problem, we need to make sure it includes spreading the word that it is no longer sufficient to wait to refer someone to help until he’s hospitalized or her practice has cratered. Refer early. Not to save clients from harm, but to help a fellow human being get into recovery or treatment.
After the NYT article ran this weekend, some wonderful, caring lawyers engaged me in social media conversations on the need to do better as a profession on this issue. I love that they were involved and I thank each and every one of them.
We need to do more. The fact that “talking about it on social media” is a positive step shows how far we have to go.
My original post includes links to resources:
- “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.”
Beyond encouraging you to refer lawyers in need to help, other things I think we need to do:
- Figure out how to fund the Vermont Lawyers Assistance Program
- Decouple discipline/reporting from treatment/referrals
- Seminars on how to help, where to turn
- CLE in recognizing the signs & symptoms of alcohol/drug abuse & mental health conditions
- Understanding that, if help arrives early, the lawyer will not lose his or her law license
There’s probably a lot more to do. These would just be a start.
We cannot let the topic fade into the background. The numbers prove that lawyers need help now. We must provide it.
As a profession, we’ve gone on & on for years about “access to justice” and haven’t come close to solving that problem. In my book, “access to justice” necessarily includes “access to legal services.” Not to just any legal services, but to competent legal services. In that sense, this is an access issue.
Help another lawyer. The one you help might someday return the favor.
Here are some resources:
- Vermont Lawyers Assistance Program
- ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs Resource Page
- Brian Cuban, The Addicted Lawyer