GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2006

Why on Earth Would I Call a LAP?

Lawyers are human. Humans have problems. Lawyers have clients. Lawyers with problems can create problems for their clients—and get into a lot of trouble with their state bar associations. That’s why lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) exist: to prevent or mitigate damage to lawyers’ lives, careers, and clients.

Did you know that your state has a LAP? Some LAPs deal only with substance abuse issues. They connect callers to peer counselors, recovery groups, and inpatient and outpatient recovery services and programs. The majority of LAPs, however, are connected with a network of professional providers experienced in the sensitive issues specific to helping lawyers with business or personal problems. The LAPs offer information about resources and provide referrals to these professionals.

Increasingly, LAPs are working to promote healthy lifestyles and work options for lawyers. If you’ve never considered yourself or your work environment as candidates for a makeover, this article may help revise your point of view.

So why should I call a LAP? Short answer: to keep or get yourself healthy and to stay out of trouble. More importantly, the LAP representative who answers your call is an expert trained to be familiar with lawyers’ lives and with the available resources to help legal professionals deal with practice-related problems. In addition, fees for network professionals are usually lower than those for out-of-network providers because the programs often are supported by grants from state bars, courts, or foundations.

People call LAPs for all kinds of reasons. Here in Washington State, most of our callers want help with one or more of the following problems:

• managing stress

• transitioning to another workplace or career

• lacking energy or motivation to work

• procrastinating

• feeling overwhelmed by doing legal work and running a business

• earning too little

• difficulty relating to friends and loved ones

• drinking, drugging, or other compulsive behaviors

The best reason to call your LAP: You recognize that you need to be healthy in order to help others. Lawyers who focus solely on their clients’ needs without regard to their own get burned out. They become sick, neurotic, and inefficient; have relationship problems; and often face disciplinary actions after clients complain to the bar. Stress and burnout are occupational hazards for all lawyers, but solos are particularly susceptible.

What can I expect when I call? This depends on where you live and the size of your state bar LAP. Small LAPs may have just one person with a desk and a telephone line, but that person is likely a lawyer or mental health professional who can offer reassurance, information, and referrals to mental health professionals or substance abuse treatment facilities. Some may even provide crisis intervention over the phone.

At the other end of the continuum are more heavily staffed LAPs that offer information and referrals plus individual or group counseling (provided by licensed mental health professionals). In some states, LAPs are connected directly to an employee assistance program (EAP) that facilitates the actual services, which include assessment, a limited number of counseling sessions, information about medical or financial conditions, and referrals to resources outside the EAP network.

Many LAPs coordinate a network of volunteer lawyers who serve as peer counselors to colleagues in distress. Peer counselors are the backbone of some lawyer assistance organizations, highly effective because they understand the stressors within your professional life and often because they have been in your shoes themselves. Typically, the volunteer peer counselors have had life experiences similar to yours and want to give back by helping others down the line.

Are LAP services confidential? In most states and under most circumstances, yes. You can check with your state bar LAP about specific limitations. A quick look at the LAP websites for California, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts— generally available on the state bar website even though some of their programs operate independent of the bar—confirms that their LAP services stress confidentiality. Regulation of exceptions to confidentiality is a state matter, and differences between programs may exist. (Go to www.fla-lap.org for an example.) In Washington State, our clients enjoy the same degree of confidentiality and privilege as do clients of private mental health providers.

Exceptions to confidentiality may arise in any therapist-client relationship, LAP-related or not. These exceptions include, but may not be limited to, abuse or neglect of children, dependent adults, or vulnerable adults; plans for suicide; and plans for homicide. In fact, licensed therapists in almost all states have a duty to report to the police actual threats of physical violence against a reasonably identifiable victim and may be obligated to warn the intended victim as well. Regulations in some states also may require lawyers to report known ethical misconduct by other lawyers to their state bar’s disciplinary authority. Your state LAP may or may not adhere to this requirement; you can generally learn more by calling the LAP or going to its website.

Do LAPs help with law office management? Show me a lawyer who is depressed, manic, paralyzed with fear, or high on chemicals, and I’ll show you an office that’s probably a mess in one way or another. Because LAP professionals specialize in helping lawyers, we know a lot about the business of law, particularly as it affects solos. Many lawyers have problems from taking on clients they should have sent elsewhere, billing and collecting, working without (and with) staff, or finding and keeping competent staff. Over time we’ve learned enough to be able to coach and counsel lawyers on many of these issues.

Some state bar associations now offer law office management assistance programs (LOMAPs). Their aim is to help with the nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts aspects of running a business efficiently and, thus, more enjoyably and profitably. Check with your state or local association to learn more about LOMAPs in your area.

Because business and personal problems often go hand in hand, it makes sense to address both. Not at all coincidentally, as lawyers take care of their personal issues and grow healthier, so do their businesses.

What if my employees are impaired? Your employees are human, too, and thus susceptible to mental, emotional, relational, and physical perils. Let’s face it, working in a law office is stressful for everybody, especially if your employees perceive you as part of the problem.

The best thing you can do to help your employees be functional and productive is to be functional and productive yourself. So, before you run off trying to fix staff members who may be struggling with drugs, alcohol, mental illness, domestic violence, money problems, and the like, be sure you’ve first addressed your own issues.

Some LAPs may offer assistance to nonlawyer staff. Washington State does not, but we often coach lawyers on how to handle this situation.

If a staff member shows signs and symptoms of some underlying difficulty, document specific behaviors over a period of time, then have a friendly conversation with him or her. Share your observations, express your concerns over the individual’s performance, and ask how you can help resolve the situation. Give the employee specific, measurable performance goals and timelines. Repeat this process as needed, but after the first occurrence, be sure to mention the consequences of continued impairment. Consulting an employment attorney is a good idea if you do need to let someone go.

Small firms of ten or more may want to consider contracting with an EAP service as part of the firm’s benefits package. EAPs provide specific services to address the well-being of employees, such as brief counseling for work-related or personal issues, as well as referrals to chemical dependency treatment providers. They’re surprisingly affordable—on average costing less than $25per employee per year.

What about members of my own family who need help? A LAP may or may not offer direct assistance to family members. Most probably do not. Our program in Washington State provides couples counseling if one of the partners is a lawyer. Otherwise, we do not work directly with spouses, children, parents, or siblings of lawyers. But it’s likely that your LAP at least can refer you to someone in your community who does.

How can I help a colleague who’s impaired? Most LAPs are equipped to reach out to lawyers who won’t ask for help themselves but need it. What follows is an example of this process, with characters I’ve chosen to call Ed and Mary and a LAP representative played by me:

Ed calls the LAP because he’s concerned about a colleague down the hall, Mary, who he’s noticed has been missing work, taking long lunches, and failing to show up for client meetings. Ed suspects alcohol may be involved in her erratic behavior but doesn’t know this for sure. He feels uncomfortable with “reporting” Mary—he doesn’t want her to get in trouble with the disciplinary side of the bar.

First, I assure Ed that his call is confidential and that I will not tell Mary he called unless Ed wants me to. I assure Ed that his “report” will go no further—that I have no obligation to turn Mary in to her firm or any other authorities. To assess the next step, I ask Ed how involved he wants to be from this point forward—he may or may not want to continue in an active role. Ed says he’d like to remain involved, and we discuss what our next move might be. I explain that an often-used option is for the LAP to send Mary a letter, mentioning that it’s come to our attention that she may be having personal problems that are affecting her practice. The letter gives her a bit of information about the LAP and encourages her to call us or her own health care provider to talk about possible assistance programs. Most often, I tell Ed, that’s it. I send the letter and wait for Mary to respond. If she doesn’t call, the letter at least has served as a wake-up call, alerting her to the fact that others have noticed that something is wrong and that they are concerned about her.

If Ed and Mary have a long-standing relationship and Ed wants to do more than have me send a letter, we talk about additional options. Ed may want some suggestions or coaching on how he can approach Mary with his concerns, or we may decide to arrange for a pair of peer counselors (lawyers who have gone through this) to call on her. Our choice will depend on the circumstances and on what sounds like the best fit.

Other LAPs may handle this situation very differently. Some would contact Mary directly with an offer of help or automatically arrange for a peer counselor to call on her soon. If alcohol or drugs are clearly involved in Mary’s problems, some LAPs would arrange an intervention with appropriate friends, family, and coworkers. I wish to emphasize once again, though, that LAPs generally do not “report” lawyers to disciplinary agents for misconduct, mental health difficulties, or substance abuse. Check with your jurisdiction to be sure.

Unless people have smelled alcohol on Mary’s breath or seen her with drug paraphernalia during business hours, it’s not safe to assume that she has a substance abuse problem. More lawyers are depressed than addicted, and Mary’s behavior could easily be a sign of a major depressive episode or even a family problem. If Mary is addicted and depressed, a common combination, she will need to deal with her addiction before she can begin healing from depression.

When is the right time to intervene? The earlier someone receives help for any problem, the better. Many LAPs emphasize prevention and, like most of us, prefer to act before situations fall to pieces or become truly desperate. Certain LAPs have well-organized programs to get lawyers the help they need to prevent malpractice, medical, and ethical problems owing to stress, illness, or addiction.

What exactly is an intervention? Broadly speaking, any LAP or peer activity that is taken on a lawyer’s behalf is an intervention. If you take a colleague to lunch and bring up some of his behaviors that are clearly leading him toward trouble, that’s an intervention—and a very important one.

The term is also used in conjunction with a formal process in which a lawyer is confronted in a carefully designed way by one or more people who have been affected by the errant behavior. Interventions were first used in the area of recovery from substance abuse, but they are effective with many forms of problematic behavior, from rage-aholism to excessive spending to bipolar disorder. Many LAPs across the country provide interventions, conducted by LAP staff, peer counselors, or an interventionist from a treatment facility. I’ve even coached law firms about how to confront a partner who will not acknowledge the effects of his behavior on others.

Any intervention, formal or not, serves as a wake-up call to the recipient and puts him or her on notice that others are aware of aberrant behavior and that it is causing problems. An intervention is an act of compassion, a sign that people care about the recipient. It can also be an act of self-protection for the interveners. A lawyer who refuses to acknowledge the problems she’s causing herself or others is a malpractice suit waiting to happen—and that puts the entire firm at risk.

What if a lawyer doesn’t want help? All LAP services are voluntary. We do not drag lawyers over our threshold and force them to submit to treatment. This is in keeping with the philosophy of 12-Step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, that emphasize the need for individuals not only to come to terms with their behavior but also to accept responsibility for these choices. Some LAPs can be quite confrontational in their approach to lawyers with substance abuse issues. If a person isn’t ready to deal with her dysfunction, you may think your lunchtime talk or your intervention failed. But it might turn out to be the event that breaks through the force of the impaired lawyer’s denial. Again, the intent is to help the lawyer recognize that he is not an island and that his behavior affects peers, clients, family, and most importantly, himself.

How do LAPs interact with a lawyer’s firm? LAP representatives will not— cannot—interact with a lawyer’s firm unless the lawyer signs a specific, written permission notice allowing them to do so. If you call me today and your secretary or partner calls me about you tomorrow, I will at no time allude to my contact with you. Period. If your firm calls me today and you call me tomorrow, I will not tell you that your firm called unless a firm representative has signed a permission notice authorizing me to do so. Everything a LAP does is governed by the rules of confidentiality. Again, check with your LAP to learn the local limits.

What’s the future of LAPs? Most governing bodies recognize that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. LAPs increasingly are seen as a practical risk-management tool for lawyers who suffer the inevitable ups and downs of practice and life. Assistance programs are a win-win option for lawyers, clients, and disciplinary bodies. Because funding for the programs often depends on grants from foundations, state courts, or bar associations, you can help ensure that decision makers in your area recognize the value of preventing problems before they occur, or of mitigating those that already exist.

As I mentioned, LAPs started out focusing on alcohol and drug problems among lawyers, but many are expanding services to include medical, mental health, and career issues as it becomes more acceptable to admit that lawyers can self-destruct in numerous ways. If your LAP doesn’t address these issues in addition to substance abuse, it’s likely that the program will do so in the future.

Another development indicative of the rapid growth of assistance programs is the increase in outreach to adjunct populations. Services of the Washington State LAP are now available to third-year law students coping with stress or addiction issues, or any of the issues that lawyers face, including medical matters, and we have established a separate program for impaired judges. The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) is in the process of establishing goals for outreach among its judicial membership.

The biggest challenge for LAPs continues to be making our services known to all lawyers and, from there, assuring legal professionals that we are a safe resource. We cannot stress enough the importance that confidentiality holds for everyone associated with helping solve problems that threaten a lawyer’s health or law practice.

 

Rebecca Nerison’s mission is to improve lawyers’ lives and workplaces through executive coaching and law firm consultation. A licensed psychologist, Dr. Nerison has worked exclusively with lawyers at the Washington State Bar Association’s Lawyers Assistance Program since 1997. She can be reached at rebeccan@wsba.org.

 

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