California Bar Journal
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State Bar alcohol diversion program starts to take shape
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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 this month.

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 commitment."

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 self-referral rate.

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 public.

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 disciplinary charges.

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.