Vol. 43, No. 6

Lawyers, judges not immune to opioid addiction

By Robert J. Derocher

Main article: Crisis in the courts and the community: Bars respond to opioid epidemic

The reactions of attendees at the D.C. Bar’s twice-a-year CLE session on lawyers and substance abuse still surprise longtime instructor Daniel Schumack.

“It seems to be a shocker to an audience of lawyers that we have lawyers who use heroin, we have lawyers who are addicted to prescription pain medications,” says Schumack, a Virginia attorney whose practice focuses on representing other attorneys facing disciplinary issues. “But the reality is that lawyers have problems, just like nonlawyers. Lawyers are susceptible to anxiety and depression, which often leads to self-medication.”

Thus, it is no surprise to Schumack and others that many lawyers and judges are confronting the same opioid abuse challenges as others are, and that bar associations are reaching out through CLE, lawyer assistance programs and similar efforts to make sure that lawyers are getting the help they need—while also protecting the public from substance-compromised attorneys.

“For years, it was not fully recognized that there are a lot of attorneys in the same place as the public with addiction issues,” says Martin Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer at the Massachusetts Bar Association. “Anecdotally, we’re hearing more about colleagues who are struggling. There is a fair amount who are struggling with opiates. Our leadership team is highly committed to the issue.”

He says the Massachusetts bar has been working with the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, which has been following the American Bar Association’s lead in helping attorneys and judges with opioid abuse problems. The court is expected to issue recommendations this fall on how to best reach out to help the legal community. Internally, Healy adds, the bar has been working to beef up support and programming through its Wellness Committee.

Attorney and judicial wellness is also an increasing focus for the Knoxville (Tenn.) Bar Association, according to President Wynne du Mariau Caffey-Knight. The bar is planning a wellness conference for local attorneys and judges in September, with sessions focusing on fitness, wellness tips and health screenings, as well as two different CLE tracks and a special session called “Joy 101.”

Schumack says he has seen a noticeable “sea change” in how bars are addressing attorneys with addiction issues. In Virginia, where Schumack is also a bar member, the Virginia State Bar just changed the name of its assistance program from Lawyers Helping Lawyers to the Virginia Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program and implemented a $30 fee to help support it.

The change is also noticeable, he adds, at bars that are involved in attorney discipline. Two decades ago, a lawyer with substance abuse issues whom he represented had no chance of avoiding license suspension, despite his successful efforts to seek treatment.

 “Now,” he says, “[a] bar would be very accommodating and would want to know he’s in treatment.”