Whose job is it to intervene?
The merging trend lines of longer lifespans and cognitive impairment are an increasing cause of concern among bars and state regulatory agencies that handle competency complaints aimed at older attorneys. But the issue of spotting—and, more importantly—reporting a potential cognitive impairment problem remains a sensitive subject.
“Denial is a big issue,” says Michael Cohen, executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance. “Quite often, you don’t know you’re ‘there’ [if you have a cognitive impairment]. The affected attorney is usually the last one to know.”
That can often create embarrassing situations in courtrooms, he says, leading to potential formal complaints.
“[Louisiana] is clearly seeing an increase in the number of investigations for issues related to
age-related dementia,” says Dane Ciolino, former chair of the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board and a veteran attorney and consultant in lawyer and judicial discipline. “People were more willing to retire years ago than they are now.”
But before many of those complaints reach disciplinary boards, they are often directed—both formally and informally—to lawyers’ assistance programs.
“People don’t want to call the state bar disciplinary committee on the dean of the local bar, so they call us,” says Nan Hannah, the founding chair of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Transitioning Lawyers Commission. “It’s a hard call to make. If you’re a paralegal for a solo practitioner and if you make that call, you’re probably killing your job.”
Terry Harrell, executive director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program and chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, agrees that family, friends and colleagues of potentially cognitively impaired lawyers are reluctant to report such issues. But she believes more attorneys understand that not reporting an issue risks damage to clients and the profession, potentially violating an oath that most lawyers have taken.
“We are getting more calls,” she says. “As people learn more about us, dementia is being viewed more as a mental health concern. We’re the softer approach than discipline.”
But not all cognitive impairment concerns brought to LAPs are just that. Brain tumors, hearing loss, mild strokes, and urinary tract infections are just some of the often-correctable medical issues that have been erroneously viewed as more typical, age-related cognitive impairment, Harrell and others say.
Still, LAPs remain among the first to get calls about cognitively impaired attorneys, Harrell and others says, with many saying they’re seeing a small but steady increase in reports.
“There’s not another place for these calls to go,” Buchanan says. “It’s fallen into that ‘to-do list’ [for LAPs], so we’ve had to become knowledgeable about this issue.”
And to a great extent, more LAPs and bar associations are responding.
Formed in 2012, North Carolina’s Transitioning Lawyers Commission is recognized by the mandatory North Carolina State Bar as a certified LAP. The TLC trains volunteer NCBA members who help identify potentially cognitively impaired attorneys, working confidentially to transition them out of everyday legal practice. The process usually involves family members, colleagues and a professional neuropsychologist, who work together on the diagnosis and future plan, Hannah says. The program was recently granted a five-year extension as a LAP, and received a 2015 NABE LexisNexis Community and Educational Outreach Award.
“It was created as an intervention program, but we don’t use the word ‘intervention,’” Hannah notes. “If people think you’re an intervention group, they don’t want to be a part of it. We wanted it to be a ‘warm blanket’ intervention.”
Cohen says The Florida Bar, which formed an Aging Lawyers Working Group in 2012, is on the verge of developing a similar formalized assessment and intervention program, working with the University of Florida’s Department of Psychology. Florida Lawyers Assistance recently posted a link to the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam, which is designed to help spot early signs of impairment.
And while LAPs have done an admirable job in helping cognitively impaired attorneys, Cohen says, the issue is still challenging for many counselors.
“It’s the most difficult type of intervention we do,” he notes. “It’s much more difficult than substance abuse, where we have a rehabilitation plan. There is none here. It’s basically, ‘It’s going to end with you turning in your [law] license.’”