YourABA July 2011 Masthead

Step-by-step strategy on managing lawyers with chemical addictions

As opposed to many professionals like doctors and airline pilots, lawyers with chemical addictions are frequently ignored, largely because of stigma within law firm culture and the fact that no industry-wide standard exists for getting lawyers fully recovered and back to work. Todd C. Scott, vice president of Member Services and Risk Management at Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company, provides strategies and insights to help managing partners address lawyers’ treatment and recovery issues in his ABA Law Trends & News article, “Lawyers Seeks Treatment, Boss Seeks Assurance.”

“There is a direct correlation between the length of time in aftercare programming and the lawyer’s chances of a full recovery with no relapses,” writes Scott.

Deal with the issue head-on: According to a study commissioned by Cottonwood de Tucson, a behavioral health treatment center in Tucson, Ariz., where 460 treatment professionals and recovering lawyers from around the nation were interviewed, the primary obstacle that prevented legal professionals from accessing care was the belief that they could handle their problem on their own. A strong sense of self-reliance is common among attorneys. As such, it is important for managing partners to confront the issue head-on with the purpose of helping the troubled lawyer to accept that she has a problem that she cannot deal with on her own.

Primary treatment and intense aftercare: Make sure the lawyer goes through primary treatment for ridding the alcohol and drugs that are in his system. Addiction recovery specialists available through lawyer assistance programs can help in advising firm managers on a variety of treatment options.

Ongoing aftercare is key to successful recovery. Regular monitoring and support to help the lawyer stay in touch with the systems and tools to keep him on the right path is key. Aftercare programming is designed to identify the underlying issues in the lawyer’s life that led to his addiction and troubling behavior. “There is a direct correlation between the length of time in aftercare programming and the lawyer’s chances of a full recovery with no relapses,” writes Scott, mentioning that in successful treatment programs for other highly trained professionals, such as airline pilots, aftercare is often ongoing for more than two years.

Let the lawyer know her job is at stake: “Addicted lawyers are highly motivated to participate in a treatment program if their refusal might mean losing their job,” Scott says. Such threats are effective, as demonstrated by the high recovery rates of doctors and lawyers, whose licensure is dependent upon seeking treatment. “Even to the most hardened alcoholic and drug abuser, loss of income means they simply won’t be able to afford their abusive habit any longer, and it’s time to get some help.”

Come up with a treatment agreement: “Last chance agreements between the employer and the addicted employee can be a constructive part of recovery by outlining the employee’s recovery responsibilities and providing the return-to-work motivation the lawyer often needs,” writes Scott. The agreement should also acknowledge that the employer will return the lawyer to work upon completion of the recommended treatment, with an understanding that the return to work is conditioned on the lawyer’s strict compliance with other follow-up aftercare recommendations.

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Seeking help is better for the firm: Although Scott realizes that seeking help for a troubled lawyer on staff may not always be a quiet, easy thing, he explains, “It is usually necessary to avoid a looming disaster for both the lawyer and the firm.” Finding treatment for lawyers with chemical dependency lowers malpractice insurance claim frequency without increasing professional liability policy premium rates.

According to a 2002 study by the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program, a provider of malpractice insurance for lawyers in the state of Oregon, claim frequency rates for lawyers dropped from 30 percent to 8 percent annually after they received treatment for chemical dependency. Scott explains that getting help for treatment means that underwriters who set professional liability policy premium rates will not penalize the lawyer for seeking treatment because statistically, the recovered lawyer is seen as an average insurance risk compared to the general lawyer population.

Don’t wait for rock bottom: According to Theodore J. (Ted) Collins of St. Paul, Minn., counsel to the firm of Collins, Buckley, Sauntry & Haugh, P.L.L.P., whom Scott features in his article, “Although a big firm would typically have employee assistance programs in place, small firms have a duty to try and encourage healthy behavior and to act on it when they notice changes.”

“The old theory of waiting until the lawyer with the problem hits bottom is not often mentioned anymore as a strategic option,” says Scott. “By forcing the choice to get help, and having some expectations for the lawyer in recovery, the employer can save a life as well as a firm.”

For the employer that is willing to take the steps necessary to get help for the addicted attorney, but would like some assistance, addiction recovery professionals are available to help the process. “Everything from advising firm managers and organizing the intervention, to drafting and implementing the treatment and return to work agreement can be accomplished with the assistance of addiction recovery specialists,” Scott writes.

Lawyer Seeks Treatment, Boss Seeks Assurance” appears in the 2011 spring issue of Law Trends & News of the General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division.

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