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Vol. 42, No. 2

NABE Communications Section Workshop panel discusses how to help deliver a life-saving message

by Marilyn Cavicchia

The lawyer hunched over a desk, with head in hands. The empty martini glass, perhaps tipped over. The empty pill bottle, perhaps also on its side. These are all commonly used images when bar association journals and other communication vehicles address matters such as alcohol and substance abuse and mental health problems among lawyers.

It’s time for something new.

That was one of the key messages from a panel discussion at the 2017 NABE Communications Section Workshop in St. Louis this past October: It may be much more effective to instead use images that suggest the peace, productivity and other great outcomes that can occur after a lawyer reaches out for help.

Helping communicators learn how to deliver potentially career-saving and even life-saving information were: Bree Buchanan, director of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program; David Crawford, a past president of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, past co-chair of The Missouri Bar's Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program Committee, and past member of the National Conference of Bar Presidents Executive Council; Joyce Hastings, communications director at the State Bar of Wisconsin; and moderator Nick Hansen, communications specialist at the Hennepin County (Minn.) Bar Association.

The Hazelden/CoLAP report—and what’s happened since

In February 2016, the legal profession, organized bar, and academy were rocked by an article in the Journal of Addiction Medicine on the prevalence of substance use, addictions, and other mental health and well-being concerns among lawyers. The article was based on national research conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. Among the key findings:

  • 20.6 percent of respondents scored at a level consistent with problematic drinking;
  • 28 percent reported experiencing mild or higher levels of depression;
  • 19 percent reported experiencing mild of higher levels of anxiety; and
  • 11.5 percent reported suicidal thoughts at some point in their career.

Later in 2016, the Journal of Legal Education published an article on the findings of the Survey of Law Student Well-Being, a study conducted in 2014 with a grant from the ABA Enterprise Fund and support from the Dave Nee Foundation. The study was sponsored by the following ABA entities: CoLAP; Law Student Division; Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division; Young Lawyers Division; and Commission on Disability Rights. Some of its findings were:

  • 43 percent of the law students who responded reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks;
  • more than 14 percent of respondents reported using a prescription drug without a prescription in the prior 12 months; and
  • 17 percent of respondents screened positive for depression, 23 percent for mild to moderate anxiety, and 14 percent for severe anxiety.

The next big step was very much in keeping with the trend toward grassroots, do-it-yourself, and quick action: At the 2016 ABA Annual Meeting, a group of LAP directors and others “commandeered a conference room,” Buchanan recalled. “We had no budget and no permission.”

What evolved from that ad hoc discussion—with subsequent approval from ABA President Hilarie Bass—was the National Task Force on Lawyer Well Being, which included additional stakeholders from across the profession and the judiciary.

At the 2017 Annual Meeting, the task force released its report, with 44 practical recommendations that Buchanan said are aimed at bringing about “a culture change.” Buchanan’s focus is now on ensuring that the recommendations are implemented in each state via an action plan—something she said that, in many states, will likely fall to bar associations rather than supreme courts.

And that’s where communicators come in, Buchanan said: as “critically important” partners in helping to “break the stigma and create an opportunity for discussion.”

Know your audience(s)

But if not with the images mentioned at the start of this article, then how should bar communicators get this important message out?

As with any other communications effort, Hastings said, it starts with knowing your audience—or deciding which of many multiple audiences will be your primary one.

Hastings suggested one possible focus: Studies show that those most at risk for impairment via alcohol or other substances and/or mental health problems are those in their first 15 years of practice, especially under age 30.

It’s natural, she said, to take a “heavy hammer” approach and emphasize that an impaired lawyer could face discipline or even lose his or her license. But one big problem, she said, is that the people you need to reach might not recognize themselves in your images and words.

“Your audience is [generally] not those who have hit rock bottom,” she explained, “but those who may just be feeling ‘a little off.’”

Besides, she said, if everything is about the negative consequences, “Where is the message of hope?”

There needs to be one, Crawford said, acknowledging that “the hook” is the tragic stories of lawyers facing serious problems—but the real message, he believes, is that the work involved in recovery often makes someone a better and more diligent lawyer even than someone who has never had such a problem.

Think, too, about where and how your audience will be most likely to encounter and absorb information on these topics, the panelists advised. For example, Buchanan said, TLAP is under the auspices of the state bar but needed a separate website because, even with promises of confidentiality, lawyers were afraid to engage with TLAP via the bar’s website.

Besides bar journal articles, Buchanan added, think about a range of different communications vehicles, such as social media or a public awareness campaign. TLAP has both a blog and a podcast (Voices of Recovery), Buchanan said, and recently produced a video in conjunction with the State Bar of Texas’ communications, audiovisual, and executive teams. The video, TLAP Is There, was a presidential initiative and is shown at advanced-level CLE programs, regardless of their subject matter.

However you get out messages of recovery and how to get help, Crawford said, it’s important to do so “as often, and in as many creative, different ways as you can.”

The importance of the personal story

Hansen noted that his publication once grabbed a lot of interest by focusing not on personal tragedy but on the science of addiction. But there is power in those personal stories, the panelists said—they just need to be handled with care.

To have their greatest impact, Crawford said, it’s important that these stories not be anonymous. To convey a message of hope, he suggested, consider asking for personal accounts from people who have been in recovery for a long time and who are successful in various aspects of their life.

And be open to the idea that your writer or interview subject might be from another state, added Crawford, who is in recovery himself. He is comfortable speaking to national audiences and writing for bar publications in other states, but he is more hesitant to speak or write for Missouri audiences, for fear of losing clients.

The stigma is still so strong, he noted, that judges and prosecutors typically don’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in their own jurisdiction. However, he personally doesn’t fear running into clients at AA meetings—if anything, he said, this could lead to more business from that client, not less.

If you plan to interview someone who is in recovery for alcohol addiction, Buchanan noted, it’s important to know a strong cultural ideal of AA: Don’t press the person to reveal whether they are in AA or to mention that organization specifically. When on the record, she explained, a person in AA will almost always refrain from using the name, and will use the more general term, “recovery,” instead.

Given the stigma and the notion of privacy in general, how can you find someone willing to share their story of recovery? Buchanan recommended calling the LAP director for your state. “They have a huge network of people to tell their story,” she said.

Making connections with LAP

In fact, giving the LAP director a call is a good idea in general, the panelists said. Crawford noted that in his experience, it’s the LAP director who contacts bar staff for help in getting these messages out, so they might welcome an invitation to have coffee, as Buchanan suggested.

For Hastings, it was her natural inquisitiveness and reporter’s instinct to “break” a big story that first prompted her to reach out to Linda Albert, a co-author of the CoLAP/Hazelden study who was then the director of the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program.

The study needed to appear in a scientific journal first, for the sake of credibility, Hastings said, but “We knew we wanted to be there on Day Two.” She got an advance copy of the study and had a feature completed and ready for the bar journal by the time the scientific journal came out—beating even the ABA, Hastings noted proudly.

Whatever motivates you, the panelists stressed, do connect and do help get the word out. As communicators, Buchanan said, “You have more power than anybody else to tell the story, and by doing that, you’ll be changing the world for the lawyers in your state.”

(Note: For a synopsis of points shared during Q&A—including a more detailed discussion of lawyer mental health—please see “NABE Comm panelists share thoughts on mental health, bar events, and the role of lawyer assistance,” also in this issue.)