Lawyer Assistance Programs: Help Is on the Way

Vol. 41 No. 4

By

Mary Dunnewold is a legal writing instructor at Hamline University School of Law.

But lawyering also has its dark side. Lawyers report higher rates of dependency issues, depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses than nonlawyers. The consequences of these sorts of problems are significant for the legal profession: harm to clients, harm to lawyers themselves (who have spent enormous amounts of time and money to become qualified to practice law), and harm to the legal system in general.

As a law student or lawyer, you may know other lawyers or students whose drinking habits or state of mind worry you, or you yourself may experience problems with addiction issues or stress management. And you may be wondering who to turn to for help. The good news is that virtually all states have a Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), set up either through the state bar association, the state court system, or as an independent nonprofit organization. LAPs provide a variety of services to lawyers, law students, and families of lawyers who are struggling with mental health, addiction, and substance use issues.

Although the exact program model varies by state, most programs provide assistance services to individual lawyers, including assessment, intervention, counseling, support groups, and referrals for counseling. LAP representatives may also conduct prevention and education programs for law students, judges, and practicing lawyers, and they may provide services to state disciplinary and bar admissions agencies. For instance, if a lawyer runs into a professional responsibility issue related to an underlying substance use problem, she may agree to undergo a chemical dependency evaluation through her state’s LAP. She may then agree to accept monitoring, counseling, support group participation, or other services from a LAP as part of a disciplinary action. In most states, participation as part of a disciplinary action or bar admissions process is voluntary.

Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in Minnesota, points out that it can be difficult for lawyers to ask for help. LAP programs are there to make it easier to seek that help. “As lawyers, we’re supposed to be the helpers who solve problems. Other helping professions, like social work and psychology, have mechanisms built in to deal with the stress that those professionals experience in their work. We don’t have that. We have to take care of each other because no one else will.”

Bibelhausen emphasizes that lawyers often experience secondary trauma because of the difficult situations they deal with. Untreated, the stress of secondary trauma can affect mental health and lead to unhealthy behaviors. “Lawyer assistance programs are here so that nobody has to do this alone. There is always someone in your corner,” she says. She also notes that lawyers are risk takers by nature, but a side effect of risk taking can be anxiety, depression, and chemical dependency. Untreated, these conditions can lead threaten both your personal life and your career.

Most LAPs take a “broad brush” approach, addressing a wide range of mental health issues for lawyers from all corners of the profession, and many LAPs also help lawyers address the family stress that can be the fallout. In most states, LAP services are free, funded by the courts, the bar association, grants and donations, or outside sources. Some even offer financial assistance in the form of loans, grants, or gifts to help lawyers get through difficult circumstances related to treatment.

Even though LAP programs are most often funded by the courts and bar associations, generally, services are confidential and do not affect license status. Under Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.3, which has been adopted in most states, lawyers and judges who gain information about lawyer misconduct while participating in an approved LAP are exempt from reporting that misconduct. In addition, many states have in place either a rule or statute designating all communications with LAP staff and volunteers as privileged. These rules also make LAP records confidential, with few exceptions. A possible exception might be if the lawyer agrees to participate in an LAP program as a disciplinary settlement condition; in that case, verification of participation might be required, so the lawyer might be asked to waive some aspects of confidentiality. 

LAPs also offer resources beyond crisis management, reaching out to help lawyers deal with stress before it becomes a problem. For instance, the Washington LAP sponsors Washington Contemplative Lawyers, which offers a “Mindful Lawyers” group. This group meets to learn about “mindfulness” and to practice incorporating mindfulness into their professional lives. The Washington LAP also sponsors programs on self-care for legal professionals and work-life balance. Similarly, the Texas LAP provides information and materials on stress management, wellness and law practice, and compassion fatigue. Minnesota Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers sponsors a young lawyers’ group that provides a “no alcohol” social alternative to “bar review.” (The group usually meets in a coffee shop for “barista review.”) Others programs offer resources on overcoming procrastination, quitting smoking, and career transitions.

It’s easy to access LAP services if you need help or want to refer a friend. State programs have extensive websites that list their services and contact numbers. Emergency services are available 24 hours a day, and contact can usually be made either by phone or e-mail. The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) also has a website listing resources (www.americanbar.org/colap) and a hotline number: 1-866-LAW-LAPS. The majority of lawyers who use LAP services are self-referred, but it’s not uncommon to be referred by another lawyer, a judge, or a family member.

If you have weathered mental health and dependency issues, or if these issues are of particular interest to you, you might also consider volunteering for a LAP. Volunteers serve LAPs in a variety of capacities, including as board members, interventionists, prevention and education seminar presenters, and support group organizers. Many LAP programs depend heavily on volunteers for their programming. And volunteers can come away with the great satisfaction of helping their peers navigate the stresses of the profession.

Finally, if you are a law student worried about whether past or current mental health or dependency issues will affect your bar application, a confidential LAP hotline can give you the answers and advice you need, and you’ll have the option to remain anonymous.

 

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