Vol. 42, No. 2

NABE Comm panelists share thoughts on mental health, bar events, and the role of lawyer assistance

by Marilyn Cavicchia

During the question-and-answer period for the NABE Communications Section Workshop program on lawyer wellness, an attendee from a small bar noted that in her legal community, there’s not much of a stigma anymore toward treatment for addiction or problematic alcohol and substance use—but that the stigma regarding mental illness remains very strong.

Many other attendees seemed to agree, and the panelists, too, noted that research on mental health problems among lawyers is lagging behind that which has been done on addiction and related issues. Bree Buchanan, director of Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, said that just as she would like to see a shift in attention toward stories of long-term recovery, she also hopes that efforts to promote lawyer wellness will increasingly include mental health.

David Crawford, whose previous bar leadership roles include president of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, co-chair of The Missouri Bar's Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program Committee, and member of the National Conference of Bar Presidents Executive Council, said that he, like many lawyers, lacked the language to name or talk about his feelings (including depression, with which he has since been diagnosed)—before he entered recovery for alcohol addiction.

“Even though I wanted to put a gun to my head every morning,” he said, “I couldn’t have told you I was depressed.”

Below are some other insights shared during the Q&A, which are applicable not only to communicators but to the rest of the bar, too.

Rethink social events

The only point on which there was real dissent among members of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, Buchanan said, was regarding whether their report should discourage bar associations from serving alcohol at social events. Instead, they recommended that bars “deemphasize” alcohol.

The State Bar of Texas recently made an example-setting change, she noted: Alcohol is no longer served at its holiday party (though she did jokingly acknowledge that there’s a lot of sugar instead).

If alcohol is made very prominent at a bar event, Buchanan noted, then you’re excluding not only people in recovery but also those who choose not to drink because of religious beliefs or other reasons. The result, she said, is “a whole host of people who can’t network.”

Even if you do serve alcohol at an event, she added, prominently featuring another option—such as a dessert bar or a coffee bar—makes it easier for a lawyer in recovery to even enter the room to participate.

And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that no alcohol equals no fun, Crawford advised; in fact, people in recovery often have such a good time that when he goes into a building where an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is being held, he knows to follow the sound of laughter.

What is the role of the LAP?

If you think of the typical lawyer assistance program as the place where most lawyers call to get help, you may be shocked by something that Buchanan and Crawford said about their own recovery—neither one called the LAP in their state (though in Buchanan’s case, a LAP volunteer did come to her).

Buchanan noted that six-tenths of 1 percent of lawyers in Texas are using TLAP; one reason that number may be so low, she said, is that the LAP is within the state bar, which can scare people off. In general, Buchanan sees the role of LAPs evolving toward one of public awareness in the legal community regarding drug and alcohol problems and mental health issues, rather than emphasizing direct recovery services quite as much as in the past.

In its communications, she added, TLAP now stresses that lawyers who need help don’t necessarily have to call TLAP to get it—in fact, she said, “help is everywhere.”