Volume 18, Number 5
July/August 2001

Managing an Impaired Lawyer's Practice and Files During Recovery

By Frederic W. (Fritz) Knaak

It was worse than her worst nightmare. Hung over, Linda* walked past her daughters' bedrooms and down the stairs, thinking that, as usual, they were making their own breakfast and that she'd be late for court again. To her surprise, however, the court had come to her.

Judge Elaine Edwards* was in the living room waiting for her, as were her mother, father, sister, daughters, two good lawyer friends with whom she shared her office, and two strangers-one an alcoholism intervention specialist, the other a member of Minnesota Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (Minnesota LCL), who had been called by the family to help.

In the harsh light of early morning, Linda's deepest fears about losing her professional esteem and sense of independence and self-worth, not to mention her family, were threatening to become reality. Never in her life had she felt more exposed and vulnerable. She felt a keen sense of shame and a strong feeling that, somehow, she wasn't up to the job of being a lawyer and now everyone else would find out. She was near panic.

These intense feelings, which are perfectly normal, are easily the greatest problem for the recovery of a lawyer like Linda. The group that had assembled in her house to conduct what is called an "intervention" had anticipated those feelings and was ready with answers when she fiercely resisted their suggestion of a chemical dependency treatment program. "I can't do that," she said. "What about my clients? Who will take care of my daughters?"

When Linda's family first called Minnesota LCL, the staff immediately organized a work group of three lawyers to help coordinate both the intervention and the resources that Linda would require to get the help she needed. One of the things they had anticipated was her need to have assistance getting and keeping her practice on an even keel while she was away from it during her recovery.

Thomas Gmeinder, a Minnesota lawyer and long-time Minnesota LCL member and former chair of the group, has assisted many other lawyers in this kind of case. "One of the reasons we developed the three-lawyer panel," he jokes, "is that we figured a desperate drunk would be more than a match for any two of us."

In fact, the program director and panel coordinate with the family, partners, and, in cases where the lawyer makes the initial request, directly with the lawyer. As fellow lawyers, one of the things the panel members can focus on is the lawyer's worries about his or her files and caseload.

"One of the first things that any lawyer worries about is who will take care of the files and cases," says Barbara Knigge, program director of Minnesota LCL. "That's true whether it's an issue of going to chemical dependency treatment, or other health-related issues. Our members are all lawyers, most of whom have had similar experiences. When a family member, partner, or good friend calls us in to help, that's one of the key areas we hone in on, just to be sure the bases are covered and a big source of worry is eliminated. Then, the lawyer will be more open to treatment and support."

In Linda's case, her office mates were called on to help. "Usually, the fears a lawyer has about what may happen to a file are blown way out of proportion to reality," says Gmeinder. "At this point for lawyers going through their own problems, their personal fears make everything seem a crisis when, in fact, it hardly ever really is when looked at in the cold, hard light of day. Usually, say nine times out of ten, it doesn't take much more than a few phone calls and letters to clear a calendar. People will always think they're the 'one,' but really they're the 'nine.'"

In cases where no other lawyers are immediately nearby, Minnesota LCL members with similar practices are called in to help. Minnesota family lawyer John Gilsdorf has worked on a number of such cases. "Nothing that I do as a lawyer gives me a greater satisfaction than helping another lawyer out that way. It's one thing I can do that really will help other lawyers in a way that really matters."

Gmeinder agrees. "One of the best things I remember when I was chair [of Minnesota LCL] was that I could get on the phone and within an hour I could have a three-lawyer panel in the office of any lawyer in the Twin Cities. The desire to help others is still a huge motivator among people in our profession. And they were offering real help, the kind calling for time and sacrifice."

Gilsdorf remembers one case in particular. "The lawyer admitted that he had 'a problem' and that he needed treatment. But, he 'just couldn't go just then' because he had a discovery motion to defend the very next day. This, of course, is a classic lawyer's 'duck.' Since it was a family law matter, the panel gave me the call and asked if I could do a discovery motion hearing the next day. I did it and got the result I would have expected if it had been my case alone. Frankly, it was probably better that he wasn't there." The lawyer was able to go to treatment that night and was on the road to recovery by the time Gilsdorf entered the courtroom. The judge in the case was never informed of the reason for the change. It was simply a matter of one lawyer covering for another.

The problems are often tougher, however, than covering a single hearing, notes Cindy Hinderlite, a former Minnesota LCL program director and now an administrative/project director for the Johnson Institute Foundation in Minnesota. "It can be a real mess" when a lawyer has slid into depression or chemical dependency. The problems can include stacks of unanswered letters and unchecked calendars. In some cases, several lawyers have needed to be called in to help while the impaired lawyer was out for treatment, she recalls.

Minnesota LCL operates apart from the bar association, and the referrals and work done by its members, including file assistance, are kept confidential. Members deem their work to be a matter of assistance directly to other lawyers, and not part of the disciplinary arm of the courts. This can be important in reassuring struggling lawyers that facing up to their alcoholism or other problems won't suddenly deposit them in front of an ethics panel. In the program's 25-year history, the confidentiality of a lawyer seeking help has never been compromised or abused.

The fact that other lawyers can provide confidential help on files during treatment doesn't mean that Minnesota LCL intervention will prevent a lawyer from facing the consequences of unethical behavior. "Sometimes," argues Knigge, "what has to happen is that the lawyer has to lose his or her practice." What Minnesota LCL can offer in that case, she notes, is the kind of professional help the lawyer will need to get healthy again. "The strange thing is," she adds, "some of the lawyers who lost their practices but got sober and went on to other things will tell you that, all things considered, it was the best thing that ever happened to them." Not all calls for assistance are for interventions or from third parties. In fact, many requests for help come from lawyers calling for themselves. The procedure isn't all that different from the Minnesota LCL's point of view. "We still put three people together," says Gmeinder, "but we're able to get things done much more quickly because we can work things out directly with the lawyer. It's easier to help and coordinate, and we're an immediate resource for the person needing the help."

Frequently, the first contacts are anonymous. Women in particular are very reluctant to identify themselves at first when calling for information, says Knigge. The rapid growth of the numbers of women in the legal profession has added a particular twist to the equation. "There is a general pattern of chemical abuse among woman lawyers that differs from male lawyers," explains Knigge. "Generally, women are much more likely to be private, 'closet' drinkers, whose immediate associates, and even family members, including husbands, do not know they have a problem. In many ways, the pressures on women in the profession have been harder to deal with. They have had more to prove and fewer peers with whom to work things out. Plus, invariably, we see family and child-care issues at the forefront of their worries," says Knigge. "We deal with a lot of single moms."

In our example, Linda's family had agreed before the intervention to take care of her daughters while she was away at treatment. "Typically, we coordinate with the family to make sure those issues are dealt with," notes Knigge.

Veronica Casey, a well-known attorney with an established Twin Cities suburban practice, agrees that women have had particular problems in dealing with chemical dependency issues in the legal profession. Casey notes that a "tremendously helpful" trend is the "growing number of women who have served as role models of professional success in recovery from chemical dependency." Casey has found that offering quiet, private help on a one-on-one basis can be very effective with women who have come to her for help with their alcoholism.

Henderlite agrees: "Earlier on, there weren't a lot of women openly helping one another in these programs. In the ten years I was helping to do interventions for lawyers, very rarely, at least early on, were women available to help." One of the results was handing off files to men while the woman went off to treatment. But this may have created an inadvertent and negative symbolism. "It's just more helpful to have other women around to offer support," says Casey, "even though these problems are not unique to men or women."

Twenty-five years ago, only Minnesota and California offered this kind of assistance to lawyers trying to get help in recovering from chemical dependency. Because of this, both states have cadres of lawyers experienced in helping their fellow attorneys with these kinds of needs. Today, 34 other states have programs similar to Minnesota LCL, sometimes with similar names, other times under the umbrella of "lawyers assistance programs." All are focused on getting help to where it's needed and are growing by leaps and bounds with lawyers helping themselves by helping their colleagues. "Lawyers, men and women, who either feel they may need help or know others that do, should know that literally hundreds of their colleagues are there to help," says Gmeinder.

The key step is to ask for help. It will be there.

*Not her real name

Lawyers Helping Lawyers

When Minnesota's LCL celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, Judge Leon Emerson of California will be the guest of honor.

In 1976, a dozen Minnesota lawyers were trying to set up an organization to help lawyers recover from chemical dependency. Only California had organized anything like what they hoped to do. When the Minnesotans came calling for advice, on his own, Judge Emerson came to Minnesota to offer to be of any help he could. He is considered one of the founders of Minnesota Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

Since then, many of those same Minnesotans who met with Judge Emerson have had the opportunity to return the favor, by meeting with colleagues in other states tryng to set up their own organizations. That spirit of lawyers trying to help their fellow lawyers is in the oldest and finest tradition of helping others that is the core of the practice of law.

Because of lawyers like Judge Emerson, lawyer assistance programs are now flourishing in a majority of states. The extent of the services they provide, and their governance, varies from state to state. In addition to services for alcohol and substance abuse, most of these programs also provide services in the areas of gambling, sexual addictions, and mental health problems. An excellent source of information on what's available and who to contact can be found through the ABA website at www.abanet.org/cpr/colap/assistance.html. A summary of various state programs follows:

  • ALABAMA: Lawyer Assistance Program, 334/834-7576, jmleslie@alabar.org
  • ALASKA: Lawyer Assistance Committee, 907/264-0401, oregand@alaskabar.org
  • ARIZONA: Member Assistance Program, 602/340-7334, 800/681-3057 (24-hour crisis line), diane.ellis@staff.azbar.org
  • ARKANSAS: Lawyers Helping Lawyers, 501/782-7294, rharrison@lcahlaw.com
  • CALIFORNIA: The Other Bar, 800/222-0767 (24 hours), lggaal@aol.com; State Bar of California, 415/561-8200
  • COLORADO: Lawyers Health Program, 800/432-0977 (in state only); 303/825-7076 (24 hours), lcrispelle@aol.com
  • CONNECTICUT: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, 860/623-9835, william.c.leary@snet.net
  • DELAWARE: Lawyers Assistance Committee, 302/995-7001 (24 hours), nachama@aol.com
  • DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Lawyer Counseling Program, 202/347-3131 (9-5 and answering machine), lphillips@dcbar.org
  • FLORIDA: Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., 800/282-8981 (national, 24 hours), fla-lap@abanet.org
  • GEORGIA: Drug & Alcohol Resource Center, 800/289-0201; lawyer assistance committee 770/429-1499, swsm@mindspring.com
  • HAWAII: Attorney & Judges Assistance Program, 808/531-2880 (24 hours), pager 808/574-9491
  • IDAHO: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, 208/454-2531, wellness1@worldnet.att.net
  • ILLINOIS: Lawyers Assistance Program, 800/527-1233, illap@mindspring.com
  • INDIANA: Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP), 866/428-5527 (24 hours), seisenha@courts.state.in.us
  • IOWA: Lawyers Helping Lawyers, 800/243-1533, hughgrady@home.com
  • KANSAS: Impaired Lawyers Assistance Committee, 913/573-2992, amcdonald@wycokck.org
  • KENTUCKY: Lawyers Helping Lawyers, 502/564-3795
  • LOUISIANA: Alcohol & Drug Abuse Committee, 800/354-9334 (24 hours), louisianalap@worldnet.att.net
  • MAINE: Alcohol and Substance Abuse Committee, 207/786-3173, kee@mymailstation.com
  • MARYLAND: Lawyer Counseling Program, 410/685-7878 (24 hours), 800/492-1964 x252, rvincent@msba.org
  • MASSACHUSETTS: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc., 617/482-9600 or 800/525-0210, bonnie@lclma.org
  • MICHIGAN: Lawyers & Judges Assistance Program, 517/346-6306, 800/996-5522, blivingston@michbar.org
  • MINNESOTA: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, 651/646-5590, bknigge@mnlcl.org
  • MISSISSIPPI: Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program, 800/593-9777 (24-hour confidential hotline), bdaugherty@msbar.org
  • MISSOURI: Lawyers' Assistance Program, 800/688-7859 (24 hours and answering service), molap@mobar.org
  • MONTANA: Lawyers Helping Lawyers, 888/385-9119, joanbnewman@hotmail.com
  • NEBRASKA: Alcohol & Drug Abuse Committee, 402/475-6527, rallan@nebar.com
  • NEVADA: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, 702/455-4827, GRAHAMR@co.clark.nv.us
  • NEW HAMPSHIRE: Lawyers Assistance Committee, 603/224-6942, jonnh@aol.com
  • NEW JERSEY: Lawyers Assistance Program, 800/246-5527 (24 hours), njlap@aol.com or Bill Kane at BARRISTER1@aol.com
  • NEW MEXICO: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, 505/242-6845, 800/860-4914 (24 hours, in state only), stratvert@aol.com
  • NEW YORK: Lawyers Helping Lawyers, 800/255-0569 (24 hours, nationwide), lap@nysba.org
  • NEW YORK CITY: New York City Lawyer Assistance Program, 212/302-5787 (24 hours), etravis@abcny.org
  • NORTH CAROLINA: Positive Action for Lawyers, 800/720-7257, nclap@bellsouth.net
  • NORTH DAKOTA: State Bar of North Dakota, 701/746-7366 (daytime), 701/775-3701 (evenings)
  • OHIO: Lawyers' Assistance Program, Inc., 800/348-4343 (24 hours), smote@hmbc.com
  • OKLAHOMA: Lawyers Helping Lawyers, 800/346-7889, mirandolaw@dellnet.com
  • OREGON: Oregon Attorney Assistance Program, 503/226-1057, 800/321-6227, michaels@oaap.org
  • PENNSYLVANIA: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, 888/999-1941 (helpline), 800/335-2572, lclpa@epix.net
  • RHODE ISLAND: Confidential Assistance Program, 401/421-5740, riba2@ids.net
  • SOUTH CAROLINA: Lawyers Caring About Lawyers, 803/252-3663
  • SOUTH DAKOTA: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, 605/771-0275, mccahren@iw.net
  • TENNESSEE: Tennessee Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, 877/424-8527, tnlap@aol.com
  • TEXAS: Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, 800/343-8527, 512/463-1453 (voice mail), afoster@texasbar.com
  • UTAH: Lawyers Helping Lawyers, 801/753-7400
  • VERMONT: Lawyer Assistance Program, 800/633-0028 ext. 52, WbbrReis@aol.com
  • VIRGINIA: Lawyers Helping Lawyers, 800/838-8358, 804/644-3212 (confidential voice mail), valhl@vba.org
  • WASHINGTON: Lawyers Assistance Program, 206/727-8265, barbarah@wsba.org
  • WEST VIRGINIA: Lawyer Committee on Assistance and Intervention, 304/233-1974, tindert@wvbar.org
  • WISCONSIN: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, 608/764-5844, 800/254-9154, llandmann@wisbar.org
  • WYOMING: Lawyers Assistance Committee, 307/778-7663

Frederic W. (Fritz) Knaak, in private practice for 22 years, is a partner at Holstad & Knaak, P.L.C., in St. Paul, Minnesota. A former board member of Minnesota Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, he also served ten years in the Minnesota State Senate.

The author of this article has granted permission for reproduction of the text of this article for classroom use in an institution of higher learning and for use by not-for-profit organizations, provided that such use is for informational, non-commercial purposes only and any reproduction of the article or portion thereof acknowledges original publication in this issue of GPSolo, citing volume, issue, and date, and includes the title of the article, the name of the author, and the legend "Reprinted by permission of the American Bar Association."

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