March 2018

Recovering lawyers share keys to well-being

Raul Ayala has been a practicing attorney in California for more than 36 years and he’s a recovering alcoholic.

Derek LaCroix is a non-practicing attorney and he’s been in recovery for more than 30 years.

Amanda Richards, a first-year law student in British Columbia, struggled with mental health issues and substance abuse before going to law school.

All three shared their stories and put a face on the sobering statistics that reveal that 1 in 5 lawyers are alcoholics and 1 in 4 are depressed. But they also want everyone to know that if you are struggling you don’t have to suffer in silence, that you are not alone and that you can get help.

Ayala, LaCroix and Richards participated on panel “Attorney Well-Being: It’s Your Life in the Balance, Right?” held at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver. The program was sponsored by the ABA Criminal Justice Section and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. Panelists were:

  • Ayala, deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles
  • LaCroix, QC, director of the Lawyer Assistance Program in British Columbia
  • Richards, 1L, Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia
  • Bree Buchanan, attorney, director of the Texas Lawyer Assistance Program, chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistant Programs and co-chair of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being
  • Tracy Kepler, attorney, director of the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, former president of National Association of Bar Counsel


Ayala provided an overview of how the rigors of the profession can lead to substance abuse, physical and mental health problems.

“Early in my career I was an active alcoholic. I was a private practitioner with no oversight and for me it was a pretty bad combination,” Ayala said. “Before I went to law school I already had two DUIs and a third one in the making. If I was applying for permission to the bar now, I would have a real problem. I’d be required now to go to through LAP (Lawyer Assistance Program) before I got admitted. So, it’s a lot different now.”

LaCroix focused on stress and said lawyers must learn to self-regulate. “If you are always fighting, it’s going to affect your brain. Yes, you have to work hard. That’s not the problem,” he said. “The problem is we go to battle but when we come out and we forget to de-stress, we forget about our families and we forget about spirituality.”

He offered some ways to recognize addictive behavior, including changes in behavior, attendance, performance and personal habits.

"These can be early warning signs,” Ayala said. “But get help. What shocks me most is how resistant lawyers are to getting help.”

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being is one resource to get that help. Buchanan was appointed by ABA President Hilarie Bass as a co-chair of the task force, which recently launched its website, www.lawyerwellbeing.net. The genesis of the task force was two published studies that looked at the rate of substance abuse disorders, mental health disorders and the abysmal rate of help-seeking by both law students and lawyers. The law students survey found that one-quarter of students were at risk for alcoholism, 17 percent suffered from depression and 6 percent had suicidal thoughts in the last year. The lawyers survey revealed that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 11.5 percent admitted to having suicidal thoughts at some time during their career.

“Those of us who do this work, we didn’t have any of these statistics or hard data that these studies showed,” Buchanan said. “I think the thing our profession has to worry about is that these studies showed very demonstrably that the younger the lawyer, the higher the rate of impairment of whatever kind – depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorder.”

The task force issued a report with 44 recommendations directed at law firms, law schools, regulators, the judiciary, bar associations and professional liability carriers.

The report defines well-being as “a continuous process toward thriving across all life dimensions,” and it zeroed in on six key dimensions: Occupational, Emotional, Intellectual, Spiritual, Physical and Social.

Buchanan said the report addressed the stigma associated to getting help. “We have to make it okay to talk about substance abuse, depression, mental health issues, suicide that is occurring in the profession,” she said. “We must educate all sectors of the profession on these issues so that they can identify it and know how to handle it. You don’t need to diagnose, you don’t need to cure, you don’t need to treat. But you do need to know how and when to refer lawyers and law students to your lawyer assistance programs.”

Buchanan said the task force is “passing the ball” to the chief justices of each of the states supreme court to make this a priority.

Kepler discussed attorney discipline. Among the quick facts she presented were:

  • Of the most common violations, 61 percent come from poor attorney-client relations (failure to communicate with client, fee disputes, neglect of case).  
  • The most serious violations include conversion/misappropriation of client funds, conviction of a crime, lack of candor to the tribunal. “The conviction of a crime really goes to the heart and soul of some of the problems that we are seeing in regard to the alcohol use, opioid use or the methamphetamine use where attorneys are using prescriptions that often aren’t theirs and they are actually violating criminal laws to continue that use.”
  • Ignorance of ethics rules, personal financial pressure, pressure to get and retain clients, substance abuse/mental health Issues, cognitive impairment (e.g., dementia) are frequently why lawyers violate the rules.
  • Most grievances come from angry former clients and reports from other attorneys.
  • Criminal law is the specialization that gets the most grievances.
  • Studies show that 40 percent to 60 percent of lawyers facing disciplinary charges suffer from some type of addiction or mental illness.
  • In 2016 statistics from Illinois, 31 percent of lawyers disciplined had an impairment issue.

Regulation authorities, according to Kepler, have become more proactive in their approach to get attorneys to deal with these issues, to talk about them and get help before they lead to a complaint. “What we have learned is that discipline or disciplinary sanction is not going to make a lawyer well.”

First-year law student Amanda Richards said she entered school having a vision for herself and knowing who she was “and quickly found out that law school is a disaster. That people are anxious. There really isn’t much help for us.”

Having dealt with her own issues prior to entering law school, Richards said it is “terrifying” to see so many of her fellow law students anxious and depressed. “I’m constantly talking friends down. There is so much pressure when you come to law school and most people are so terrified to ask for help.”

Richards agrees that lawyers’ substance abuse and mental health issues begin in law school. “I don’t have the answers, but my goal is to get these talks going at law school and to say to people that it’s ok to struggle and it’s ok to ask for help.”

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