Editorial: Lawyer Impairment Is A Serious And Growing Crisis

The Connecticut Law Tribune

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The statistics are stark and unsettling. Lawyers have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Attorneys suffer from drug and alcohol addiction at twice the rate of the general population. And 25 percent of male attorneys and 40 percent of female lawyers experience clinical depression during their careers—once again, more than any other profession.

The reasons behind that grim picture are not difficult to discern. The combination of a Type A personality so common to attorneys coupled with the pressure-cooker environment in which we pursue our profession promote a fertile breeding ground for all these medical and social ills.

In recognition of the impairment problems, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have established a Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) to ensure that every attorney, judge and law student has access to the resources necessary to fight the demons of alcoholism, substance abuse and mental health issues. The first such agency was established in South Dakota in 1960. But Connecticut did not join the LAP ranks until 2006, when then-Chief Justice William Sullivan oversaw a rule change increasing the required contribution to the Client Security Fund and allocating a portion of that increase to the formation of Lawyers Concerned For Lawyers-Connecticut Inc. (LCL-CT). Before that, impaired lawyers and judges were assisted by the Connecticut Bar Association's Lawyers Concerned For Lawyers Committee.

Today, under the able leadership of its executive director, attorney Beth Griffin, LCL-CT helps some 200 lawyers and judges each year find the help they need to confront their problems and rebuild their professional and personal lives.

In a recent American Bar Association survey, LAPs across the country reported that substance abuse/addiction was the most common issue served, comprising about 50 percent of all cases. Within that group, alcohol abuse was by far the most prevalent at 76 percent, with prescription drugs next at just under 10 percent of referrals. Sex addiction and compulsive gambling led the so-called "process addiction" category.

Those survey results are perhaps not surprising based on one's own observations of friends and colleagues in the profession. But recently a new risk—cognitive impairment—has become statistically significant in the referrals made to LAPs. While still comprising, on average, under 5 percent of all services, the number of LAP programs providing services for "cognitive/aging issues" increased from 70 percent in 2011 to nearly 85 percent in 2012, according to the ABA survey. It cannot be mere coincidence that this sudden increase has occurred just when the baby boomer generation is reaching retirement age—but not retiring.

Whether inadequate financial planning and/or the Great Recession of 2008 have made it necessary for senior lawyers to postpone retirement, or whether they believe 70 really is the new 60, baby boomers, who comprise the largest demographic in our population, are not leaving the bar or the bench as they age past 65 and 70. Since baby boomers now make up 55 percent of the national bar, the prevalence of senior lawyers will only increase in the coming years. While loss of mental acuity differs dramatically among individuals as they age, no one can suggest that intellectual agility increases in old age. Accordingly, we can only expect referrals to LAPs for cognitive impairment to grow far above its current level.

The law is a self-regulating profession, and so the question becomes what we could and should be doing to ensure that the impaired lawyer gets the help and support he needs before the client is harmed and the profession damaged by his inability to meet the rigors of lawyering or judging. It seems the answer to that question would include at least the following:

Increased Awareness. The bench and bar must appreciate the nature and scope of the impaired lawyer's problem and the solutions that are available. The CBA, the Connecticut Bar Foundation and LCL-CT recently collaborated to offer a highly informative symposium on this subject, which included presentations by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals and therapists, the former and current state chief disciplinary counsel, a recovering-alcoholic lawyer, the CBA president and others, and which provided the alarming figures at the beginning of this editorial. Programs like these are invaluable in addressing the awareness issue, and we need more of them.

Adequate Funding. Most states have one place and one place only where the impaired lawyer can find the help she needs. LAPs must have adequate resources to meet the demands for services. LCL-CT does an outstanding job with its modest annual budget of $200,000. But how long will it be before its resources are overwhelmed?

Support. At the aforementioned symposium, the CBA president wisely suggested every law firm or legal organization should have an internal process by which a lawyer with addiction or mental health issues can seek help on a confidential basis, without jeopardizing his career. Besides doing the right thing by supporting that partner or associate or colleague, the firm benefits by getting back a valuable asset in the form of the recovered lawyer.

Intervention. Denial is the dominant characteristic of the addicted or depressed person, and so often the help must come from the outside. We owe it to our close friends in the bar or on the bench to force them to face reality and get the help they need. Such intervention can be direct or indirect; the latter taking the form of a call to LCL-CT, which will then make contact with the subject. That call, and all of her treatment, is handled with absolute confidentiality.

Rule Changes. Rule 1.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires a lawyer to "provide competent representation" that includes "the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary." Quite obviously, an attorney suffering from any significant level of impairment cannot meet that requirement, and all that awaits him upon failure is reprimand, suspension or disbarment. Should not there be less draconian measures available, such as those utilized in the medical profession whereby an impaired doctor can continue practicing but only under the supervision of another physician? Would that not encourage, at least in some cases, the lawyer needing help to come forward and seek it, thereby relieving his colleagues from the distasteful obligation of reporting a lawyer whose impairment makes questionable his fitness to practice under Rule 8.3?

Impairment is hardly unique to the legal profession, but it is undeniably a real problem for us. We owe it to our impaired brothers and sisters—and to the public we serve—to help them in their moment of need. •

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