Five for Friday #108

108

Warning: today’s post isn’t as light-hearted as some of the #fiveforfriday intros.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is a branch of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.  In 2015, SAMHSA conducted a national survey on drug use and health.  The survey found that approximately 4% of Vermonters had experienced serious thoughts of suicide over the previous year.  The Vermont results are here.

There are approximately 2,700 lawyers with active licenses in Vermont.  If lawyers suffer at the same rate as other Vermonters, 108 Vermont lawyers have had serious thoughts of suicide over the past year.

108.

Okay, I know the math might not be accurate.  However, consider the following:

In 2016, the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic released a study on lawyers’ behavioral health.  The ABA announced the study’s results here.

Per the announcement, the study revealed “substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems in the U.S. legal profession.”  In addition, the study “determined that lawyers experience alcohol use disorders at a far higher rate than other professional populations, as well as mental health distress that is more significant.”

So, given that lawyers suffer at higher rates than other professionals, 4% might not be too far off.

Fact: in the past 3.5 years, 5 Vermont attorneys have committed suicide.

Fact: 2 of those 5 took their lives in 2018.

Fact: since September 2016, as many lawyers have had their licenses transferred to disability inactive status due to mental health or substance abuse issues as did in the previous 16 years.

There’s a problem.

Fortunately, the profession has started to address it.

In response to the ABA/Hazelden Study, three groups spurred creation of a National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.  The groups:

Last summer, the National Task Force published “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.”  The report makes a series of recommendations to the legal profession’s various stakeholders and urges state supreme courts to form committees to review the recommendations.

On January 2, 2018, the Vermont Supreme Court issued a charge & designation creating the Vermont Commission on the Well-Being of the Legal Profession.  The Commission includes a representative from each of the stakeholder group mentioned in the National Task Force’s Practical Recommendation for Positive Change.   Each Commission member has formed a sub-committee to review the recommendations for that particular stakeholder group.

For example, I’m on the Commission as the representative from the “attorney regulators” stakeholder group.  My sub-committee includes one representative from each of the following: the Professional Responsibility Board, the Board of Continuing Legal Education, the Board of Bar Examiners, the Character & Fitness Committee, and the Judicial Conduct Board. I also appointed a lawyer who has long represented lawyers and judges in professional conduct investigations and prosecutions.  My sub-committee will review and report on recommendations that the Court’s various regulatory bodies ensure that lawyer health & wellness is prioritized throughout the licensing/regulatory scheme.

The Commission’s work will be the subject of the plenary session at the Vermont Bar Association’s upcoming midwinter meeting.  For more information, including how to register, please visit this site.

As I’ve blogged, the report from the National Task Force is a call to action.  In my view, we have duty to keep this issue on the front burner.

Why?

Because 108.  That number is far too high.

Other posts on this topic:

Onto the quiz.

Rules

  • None.  Open book, open search engine, text/phone/email-a-friend.
  • Even question 5!
  • Unless stated otherwise, the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct apply
  • Team entries welcome, creative team names even more welcome.
  • E-mail answers to michael.kennedy@vermont.gov
  • I’ll post the answers & Honor Roll on Monday
  • Please don’t use the “comment” feature to post your answers
  • Please consider sharing the quiz with friends & colleagues
  • Please consider sharing the quiz on social media.  Hashtag it – #fiveforfriday

Question 1

Which is different from the others?

  • A.  A contingent fee agreement
  • B.  An hourly fee agreement
  • C.  A former client’s consent to a conflict
  • D.  Concurrent clients’ consent to a conflict

Question 2

There phrase “persons of limited means” appears four times in a single rule.

What’s the topic of the rule?

Question 3

There’s a rule that prohibits a lawyer from counseling or assisting a client to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent.  In 2016, a the Supreme Court adopted a Comment to the rule.  The Comment makes it clear that lawyers may:

  • A.   accept cash to represent people charged with financial crimes
  • B.   not accept cash to represent people charged with financial crimes
  • C.   not disclose a client’s immigration status absent the client’s informed consent
  • D.   advise & assist clients on matters related to Vermont’s marijuana laws & regulations.

Question 4

There’s a rule that prohibits a lawyer from doing something, unless it’s:

  • to another lawyer; or,
  • to someone with whom the lawyer has a family relationship, close personal relationship, or prior professional relationship.

What’s the “something?”

 

Question 5

Vincenzo Leoncavallo was an attorney and judge in Italy.  In 1865, he presided over a murder trial that involved a love triangle: the victim was stabbed to death by a romantic rival.  The victim was Judge Leoncavallo’s son’s babysitter.

Fast forward to 1910.  It was then, 108 years ago,  that the first public radio broadcast took place.  The broadcast was of 2 operas.

One of the operas had been composed by Judge Leoncavallo’s son.  It involved a love triangle in which Silvio was stabbed to death by Canio, a jealous romantic rival.

Name the opera.

Bonus: name the character for whom Silvio and Canio shared dueling affections.

 

108

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Lawyer Well-Being: A Call to Action

“The benefits of increased lawyer well-being are compelling and the costs of lawyer impairment are too great to ignore.  There has never been a better or more important time for all sectors of the profession to get serious about the substance use and mental health of ourselves and those around us.”

*************************************************************************************

I’ve blogged often on the alarming number of lawyers who struggle with substance abuse and mental health disorders.   My most recent post on the topic was one month ago today:  Lawyers Helping Lawyers: Keep it on the Front Burner.

Monday, the National Task Force On Lawyer Well-Being released its report The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.  The report puts the issue of lawyer well-being on the front burner in each of our kitchens.

And it turns up the heat.

Here’s an excerpt from the Task Force’s introductory note:

  • “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.  Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.  The two studies referenced above reveal that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance abuse.  These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence.”

Let me re-emphasize:  “These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence.

The note goes on:

  • “The legal profession is already struggling.  Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers.  We are at a crossroads.  To maintain public confidence in the profession, to meet the need for innovation in how we deliver legal services, to increase access to justice, and to reduce the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance use disorders to fester among our colleagues, we have to act now.  Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by a courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.”

Per the report, there are 3 reasons to improve attorney well-being:

  1. Good for business
  2. Good for clients
  3. The right thing to do

#3 should sound familiar to readers of this blog.

The report is 73 pages long and makes recommendations for judges, legal employers, law schools, bar associations, professional liability carriers, and lawyers assistance programs. Most relevant to this blog, the report makes recommendations for regulators. They begin on page 25 and, per the table of contents, can be summarized as follows:

  • Take Actions to Meaningfully Communicate That Lawyer Well-Being is a Priority
    • Adopt Regulatory Objectives That Prioritize Well-Being
    • Modify the Rules of Professional Responsibility to Endorse Well-Being as Part of a Lawyer’s Basic Duty of Competence
    • Expand Continuing Education Requirements to Include Well-Being Topics
    • Require Law Schools to Create Well-Being Educations for Students as an Accreditation Requirement
  • Adjust the Admissions Process to Support Law Student Well-Being
    • Reevaluate Bar Application Inquiries About Mental Health History
    • Adopt a Rule for Conditional Admission to Practice Law
    • Publish Data Reflecting Low Rate of Denied Admissions Due to Mental Health Disorders and Substance Use
  • Adjust Lawyer Regulations to Support Well-Being
    • Implement Proactive Management-Based Programs That Include Lawyer Well-Being Components
    • Adopt a Centralized Grievance Intake System to Promptly Identify Well-Being Concerns

I will do my part to review each recommendation for regulators with the appropriate body, whether the Professional Responsiblity Board, the Board of Bar Examiners, the Character & Fitness Committee, or the Continuing Legal Eduction Board.  But, as I mentioned, the report makes recommendations for many other groups.  Nearly each and every one of us fits into it at least one of those groups.

Turn up the heat on your front burner. The time to act is now.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the Vermont Lawyers Assistance Program.

Wellness

 

 

 

Lawyers Helping Lawyers – Keep it on the Front Burner

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.

Read it.

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:

Road to Recovery