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A new benefit to the profession
By KAREN NOBUMOTO
President, State Bar of California

Karen Nobumoto This month the State Bar will open more doors to its new, comprehensive, and confidential, program to assist lawyers in our bar whose lives and practices are impaired by alcohol, substance abuse or mental health problems. With an emphasis on prevention, the State Bar Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) is designed to help our members who have a substance abuse problem with either alcohol or drugs to get assistance before they violate ethics or professional rules and face bar discipline. The program, first conceived by Sen. John Burton and created through SB 479, which he authored, is the State Bar's latest effort in an ongoing program to help our members avoid possible disciplinary charges and subsequent State Bar Court judgments.

To lead the effort, the board hired as LAP director Janis Thibault, who until this past January served as director of the California Medical Board Physician Diversion Program. Accepting the same title and responsibilities at the State Bar, our new director was able to hit the ground running: The main LAP office opened on March 1, and this month offices in San Francisco and Sacramento will be open for business.

Sen. Burton's legislation, which took effect in January and directs that $10 of each member's dues support the program, calls for treatment to be made available to attorneys who suffer from alcohol or drug abuse problems or mental illness so that they may be able to "return to the practice of law in a manner that will not endanger the public health and safety." Under this mandate, our new director is building a small staff and launching an outreach effort so that attorneys who need this program will be aware of its existence and be enrolled before it is too late.

The LAP had its initial beginning in a study resulting from 1999 legislation (SB 143) which found that the State Bar discipline system is predominantly complaint-driven, with the vast majority of complaints against lawyers in law firms of 10 or less. Exper-ience with the State Bar's discipline system also has revealed that better than 50 percent of discipline cases involve an element of substance abuse or mental illness.

For many years, The Other Bar, a State Bar-affiliated support group for substance abusers, has been shouldering the burden for impaired attorneys. While the exact number of attorneys who have sought help through The Other Bar is not known, we do know that they represent only a small percentage of the potential number of lawyers who are suffering from drug or alcohol problems and/or mental illness as a result of the pressures of their practice. Now The Other Bar is able to refer attorneys to the LAP and is continuing to provide its excellent services to members enrolled in the new diversion program.

As we worked with Sen. Burton and his staff in creating this program, we were able to look at all other 49 states that already have attorney diversion programs in place. Many of these states, including Florida, Oregon and Texas, are way ahead of us, and we were fortunate to be able to draw on their outstanding programs - and on the California Medical Board, which has a 58 percent self-referral rate - as models for our own comprehensive and ambitious program. The new diversion program (which is detailed even more this month in a Page 1 story) is one of the many member benefit programs we have been able to put in place by working with the legislature, and now we are reaching out to individual judges in both state and federal courts in our efforts to detail the benefits of the LAP.

Additional outreach to the public, our members and courts will coincide with full staffing of our LAP office later this summer. The Other Bar has been working closely with our staff in these outreach efforts, and, with the outreach barely a month old, we have been advised that already there are 50 attorney applicants for the program.

Our new attorney diversion program is a perfect example of the good that can come from a collaborative effort with the legislature, the courts and successful enterprises such as The Other Bar. We are confident that our new LAP, under proven direction and with experienced staff, will benefit our profession, the public and the administration of justice.

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