A legislatively mandated program to assist
alcoholic or drug-addicted lawyers is slowly taking shape with the
hiring of a director and the expected appointment of a 12-member board
Janis R. Thibault, the manager for the past two
years of the California Medical Board's diversion program for
doctors, will head the bar's new program, to be headquartered in Los
Angeles. Thibault is a marriage and family therapist and a certified
addiction specialist who worked in the physician program for five
years before becoming its director.
She said she hopes to replicate the successful
components of the medical board's program while tailoring the
bar's efforts to best serve lawyers. "There are some proven
practices, so there won't be a need to invent a brand new
structure," she said.
About 1,500 doctors have participated in the
medical board's program since it began in 1980. Historically, it has
a success rate of between 69-74 percent - success meaning
participation for five years, a minimum of three years of
uninterrupted sobriety and lifestyle changes which enhance sobriety.
"When they do that, there's a significant reduction in the rate of
relapse," Thibault said. "It's a pretty monumental
The bar's program, required under legislation
authored last year by Sen. John Burton and signed by Gov. Davis, will
be funded with $10 from the dues of every active attorney -
about $1.3 million. Starr Babcock, special assistant to the
executive director who is coordinating development of the program,
said he hopes the program will match the medical board's 58 percent
The identity of any attorney who refers himself
or herself to the bar for help will remain confidential and the
attorney will be able to continue to practice. The goal is to help
lawyers become sober and avoid discipline by the bar.
Four of 10 disciplinary cases involve a drug,
alcohol or mental illness component, Babcock said. "If we can get
them at the front end, we can prevent all that destruction to the
lawyers and their families, their clients and cases, and to the
administration of justice," he said.
Thibault will oversee hiring staff, developing a
budget, placement of statewide support groups, creating formal rules
and regulations to govern the diversion program, developing
comprehensive MCLE courses and outreach efforts.
She said the keys to success are support groups
in the participants' communities (the medical board has 14 groups in
16 locations), and evaluation committees composed of experts in
addiction medicine and mental health. "We wind up with really the
cream of the crop of experts in the field in the state making their
recommendations for participation," she said.
Participation is closely monitored and can
include frequent meetings with Alcoholics Anonymous or a similar group
and random drug tests.
Babcock says no attorney will be turned down on
the basis of inability to pay.
As part of its outreach efforts, the bar plans to
work closely with the judiciary, local bar associations, The Other
Bar, a State Bar-affiliated AA-like group for alcoholic attorneys, and
The program will be administered by the executive
director, operating independently of the bar's discipline system. In
a separate effort to deal with abuse among attorneys, the State Bar
Court is creating its own drug court for lawyers already facing
The bar's board of governors is expected to
approve its six appointments to the 12-member oversight committee this
month. Gov. Davis will make four appointments and the Senate Rules
Committee and Speaker of the Assembly will make one each.