40th Annual Disciplinary Conference of the District of Columbia

May 15, 2013

Attorneys in Distress: Perspectives on the Problem

The practice of law can take a heavy toll on lawyers. Attorneys are statistically more likely to struggle with depression, alcoholism and substance abuse than the general public. These issues can have drastic repercussions on lawyers’ personal and professional lives. These problems and the legal profession’s response to them was the topic of the Fortieth Annual Disciplinary Conference on May 14 at the Mayflower Hotel.

The panel drew from diverse geographical and professional backgrounds. Moderated by Michael Frederickson, Esq., General Counsel to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, it included Denise J. Perme, LICSW, the DC Bar Lawyer Assistance Program Manager and a licensed social worker; Rodney S. Dowell, Esq., Executive Director of Massachusetts’ Lawyers Concerned Lawyers, Inc.; Michael J. Cohen, Esq., Executive Director of Florida Lawyers Assistance; and Lisa M. Villarreal-Rios, Esq., LMSW, LCDC-1, the Administrator and Special Programs Coordinator of the Grievance Referral Program of the State Bar of Texas.

The presentation began with a grim series of statistics. Lawyers have the highest depression rate among 105 professions. Ms. Perme reported that last year was the first time that depression and mental health issues eclipsed alcohol and substance abuse as the dominant problems before the DC Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), although alcoholism and substance abuse continue to affect lawyers at higher rates than the general public. “Impaired lawyers” are disproportionately the subject of malpractice cases. Anxiety is also a growing problem, particularly since the recession. Law students, facing a bleak job market and overwhelming debt, are particularly susceptible to anxiety and depression and several panelists stated their programs were seeing them in growing numbers.

What the numbers do not show is the personal side of the problem. The panel introduction pointed out that most people sitting in the room either have confronted or will confront the problem of an impaired lawyer at some point in their career. Many on the panel had personal struggles with these issues. Lawyers are humans and these problems impact their careers, their own lives and their clients’ lives. More than one panelist pointed out that the internet has made disciplinary records and attorney misconduct easier to find than ever, creating a permanent encumbrance on careers. These issues affect more than just the particular attorney. As one panelist stated, if lawyers do not face their problems their clients will.

To address these problems, DC and other state bars have created LAPs to provide support and resources to struggling attorneys. While they each of their own unique structure there were common threads in how they addressed attorney problems. Many employ social workers and counselors to provide holistic support to clients. Another common element is law practice management support for solo and small firm attorneys who need help balancing personal troubles with running a practice. Diversionary programs are also common, allowing some attorneys to complete courses of treatment without getting a disciplinary record.

During the Q&A session, Judge Vanessa Ruiz (ret.) of the DC Court of Appeals asked about a scenario posed to her when she first interviewed for a judgeship: what should a judge do when confronted with a lawyer who appears to be drunk at a hearing? The panel agreed it was a difficult situation but agreed that the judge should tell the lawyer to contact the local LAP and seek help. The suggestion of a judge carries far more weight than anyone else in such circumstances and troubled lawyers will listen to judges where they would ignore friends and colleagues.

The main takeaway of the evening was that resources are out there for those needing help. Ms. Villareal-Rios noted that many of the issues facing lawyers have underlying social and environmental components that must be addressed. The legal profession, like a family, can compound problems or provide support. Mr. Frederickson, the moderator, told the audience that the key to treatment programs is reconnecting a person to their community and support system. What programs represented by the panel provides is a way for lawyers to reconnect.

For more information about the DC Lawyer Assistance Program visit http://www.dcbar.org/for_lawyers/bar_services/counseling/.

By David F. O'Brien, Legal Editor