October 23, 2012

Can the Bar Help You in a Crisis?

Send a Question to Bill

Have questions about your career, your practice, your computer or anything else? Send them to Bill Gibson at bgibson@cnnw.net. If Bill doesn’t have the answer, he’ll find the experts who do.

While you haven’t specified the nature of your particular situation (and since it’s personal, of course, that’s completely understandable), the bar might well have services that can help you. For years, state and local bar associations have been providing help to lawyers who have problems with drugs and alcohol, and a number have now expanded their mission to provide assistance for lawyers with different kinds of problems.
In Oregon, where I practice, the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP) provides assistance with “alcoholism, drug addiction, stress management, time management, career transition, compulsive disorders (including gambling addiction), relationships, depression, anxiety and other issues that affect a lawyer’s ability to function.” That’s quite a broad range of services. I encourage you to contact both your state and local bars to see if they offer these services.
There are, of course, other types of crises, such as the plight of lawyers in the Gulf Coast states that were devastated by the hurricanes this fall. Your question made me wonder what was being done to help those lawyers cope and rebuild their lives and their practices. It turns out that much is being done to assist the legal community in Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere (as well as their families, support staff and clients). It is essential that lawyers be able to reach out to others in the legal community during crises of every level, so here I’d like to address what the bar is doing in terms of disaster-recovery assistance as well.
Finding Ways to Bring Hope and Extend Help
By one estimate, the hurricanes caused the dislocation of more than 9,000 lawyers in Louisiana alone. Many of them lost everything, including their office buildings. Everything was swept away, including computers, paper files, phone numbers—everything—even the diplomas on the wall. The courthouses didn’t fare much better and most still haven’t reopened. Many of the lawyers may never hear from some of their clients again and have no way of contacting them.
Bill Leary, who heads the lawyer assistance program for the State Bar of Louisiana, told me about getting a call from a lawyer who had lost everything but his cell phone and that didn’t have much battery power left. The lawyer’s office was gone and he couldn’t find his family. There wasn’t much that Bill could do that terrible day.
While a lot of crisis assistance has reached the Gulf in the intervening months, an incredible amount of work remains to be done. So how is the legal community responding?
An instructive example is how Mike Long of the OAAP recruited a team of professionals to find a way to help. Mike lives a long way from New Orleans, but he put together a team that included ABA LPM Section members Jim Calloway of the Oklahoma State Bar, J.R. Phelps of the Florida State Bar, Gisela Bradley of the Texas State Bar, and others who traveled to Louisiana to put on a daylong program for lawyers whose lives and practices had been devastated.
Bill Leary said that the men and women who attended the program arrived in the morning looking shell-shocked. The program didn’t come close to solving their problems, but by the end of the day they looked more hopeful and less weary. Another program is being planned soon.
I also spoke with Donna Spilis, who heads the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, or CoLAP. She pointed out that Mike Long and others were able to get help quickly to the Gulf states because of the informal network that has grown up around CoLAP, through which professionals from assistance programs around the country are able to share ideas, look for answers and stay in touch with each. (Carl Roberts discussed some of the PMAs’ tireless efforts in his December Law Practice Chair’s Message.)
It remains to be seen what the legal community can and will do in the coming months for our colleagues in the Gulf, but it’s clear the work of the lawyer assistance professionals has just begun. According to Bill Leary, “We’re going to see more and more drastic results for individuals over the next six months. Some of the lawyers are trying to come back to work and problems like depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are starting to show already.”
Bill extended his heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped and to those who will continue to help his lawyers get their lives back on track. “Nothing is working the way that we thought it would,” he observed. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
If you’d like to learn how you can help in that work, or if you’ve personally been affected by the hurricanes, I encourage you to visit www.abanet.org/katrina , www.helpkatrinalawyers.org and www.katrinalegalaid.org .