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More lawyers with addiction seeking help

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

California lawyers with substance abuse and mental health problems are increasingly seeking help before their behavior becomes so serious it impedes their advocacy for clients and requires State Bar intervention.

The annual report of the three-year-old Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), which assigns lawyers a case manager, connects them with support groups and directs them to treatment when appropriate, states that almost two-thirds of the attorneys who agreed to participate in the program in 2002 and 2003 faced disciplinary proceedings, the result of having been charged by the State Bar with misconduct. In 2004, the numbers of attorneys participating who faced disciplinary proceedings showed a decline from previous years: only one-half of the new participants, according to the report, scheduled for release March 1.

“This is a clear indication that there is growing acceptance of the program as a confidential resource for all attorneys challenged by substance abuse and/or mental health concerns,” the annual report states. LAP Director Janis Thibault said the new statistics indicate the program is doing exactly what was intended: “Our goal is to help people before any damage is done,” she said.

State Bar assistance programs for lawyers with substance abuse or mental health problems were recently in the news when it was reported that Ventura attorney Tamara Green had accused popular television star Bill Cosby with drugging and fondling her 30 years ago. She said she came forward to lend credibility to a similar claim by a Pennsylvania woman, who said she was drugged and fondled by the actor/comedian one year ago. Cosby has denied both claims and Pennsylvania officials declined to file charges against him, saying they had insufficient evidence. Green, who was charged by the State Bar in March 2004 with 12 counts of attorney misconduct in three separate client matters, was admitted in October to the State Bar Court’s Program for Respondents with Substance Abuse or Mental Health Issues, now known as the Alternative Discipline Program (ADP). Referral to ADP is public information. Participation in LAP, however, is confidential.

The bar has three programs for lawyers with substance abuse or mental health issues. The Lawyer Assistance Program (calbar.ca.gov/ lap) is statutory and is funded with $10 of the $390 yearly bar dues. The State Bar Court’s ADP is newer and designed specifically for lawyers who face professional misconduct charges. Those accepted into ADP also must participate in LAP. The oldest program is The Other Bar, an abstinence-based self-help group similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Attorneys charged with misconduct who wish to enter ADP must first be evaluated by LAP, a process that takes about 90 days. They also must prove a connection between the misconduct and substance abuse or mental health problems. They then stipulate to misconduct, and a bar court judge determines alternative punishments — one if they successfully complete ADP and the other if they do not.

The second option offers a higher level of discipline. The lawyer signs a contract with the court, and the discipline is put on hold while the attorney completes ADP, which can last anywhere from 18 to 36 months. Sixty-eight are now in the program, 53 are being evaluated and two attorneys are nearing completion. Their problems cover a wide range, from alcohol, drug and gambling addiction to post-traumatic stress, and mood disorders such as depression.

Enrollment in the court program requires participation in LAP. The 267 lawyers currently participating in LAP each receive a recommended plan that includes a variety of recovery and therapy activities, some paid for by the attorney. The program also includes participation in profession-ally facilitated support groups throughout the state with other lawyers in the program.

LAP deputy director Richard Carlton said the combination of working with mental health professionals who are familiar with the problems of attorneys as well as taking part in group therapy with fellow attorneys contributes to the healing power of the program. “They feel like they’re heard and understood,” said Carlton. “There’s a perception that there’s something different about being an attorney, and there’s also a reality.”

LAP also offers State Bar members three free counseling sessions related to less severe mental health issues like burnout and stress. Carlton said that when he asks groups of lawyers the major sources of stress, he always gets the same answers — “deadlines, time pressures, being responsible for major issues in their clients’ lives, opposing counsel, judges and clients.”

The Other Bar (www.otherbar.org) is a network of volunteer California lawyers and judges who provide confidential ongoing assistance and support to lawyers who suffer from alcohol or chemical dependency and their families. It operates a 24-hour toll-free telephone service (1-800-222-0767) for information, emergencies and referral. It also has support groups and a message board on its Web site for members. Largely funded by the State Bar through a $372,000 annual contract, The Other Bar consultants reported a total of 478 initial contacts with attorneys seeking peer assistance during 2004, either by phone or at local meetings.

Other highlights of the LAP report:

  • 38 percent had a mental health diagnosis; 39 percent had a substance abuse diagnosis; and 22 percent had both mental health and substance abuse issues.
  • The program received more than 300 calls for assistance in 2004.
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