Forecast 2014: Bringing More Help To Impaired Lawyers

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Barry Schaller

Practicing law is a high-stress occupation characterized by a high level of responsibilities, risks and rewards. Client trust and confidence is essential to a lawyer just as trust and confidence on the part of other lawyers and judges is vital. Much of what lawyers do takes place in private without close scrutiny and with a large measure of autonomy.

With the expanding scope of information and communication technology, more and more of what lawyers do involves using technology with correspondingly less person-to-person contact. In some communities, the personal and professional bonds among lawyers have weakened in the face of economic competition, increasing specialization, as well as less personal contact. Law firm demographics have changed radically during the past few decades, notably in urban areas. Many firms have evolved into massive national law firms with a central location and numerous satellite offices with lowered decision making authority.

On the other hand, the competitive market for lawyers, plus the economic downturn, has resulted in a growing proportion of solo practitioners, many of them new lawyers, and many older lawyers who have left or retired from their firms. In other words, more lawyers choose solo practice at the outset and many turn to solo practice during the course of their careers. The impact of the recent downturn in law school admissions is yet to be felt.

For all these reasons and more, impairment of any kind, such as addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gambling, or illness and age-related problems, can be an insidious threat to the reputation and integrity of the individual lawyer, the profession as well as the interests of clients, and the courts. Impairment can produce catastrophic results by the time discovery takes place. This problem must be confronted by the legal profession and the judiciary working in cooperation with attorney assistance programs like Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers–Connecticut. In view of the changes in the culture of the profession, new initiatives are needed, centered on renewed vigilance, knowledge, education and training, and enhanced resources.

Joint Program

In October, LCL, the Connecticut Bar Foundation and the Connecticut Bar Association sponsored "The Impaired Lawyer Symposium," which addressed three aspects of impairment—identifying, intervening, and future outlook. Our focus is on the future outlook for dealing with impairment, taking into account the context of intervening in impairment situations and the multiple goals of intervention which seek to provide assistance to troubled lawyers while appreciating and addressing legal and ethical factors.

The legal community has come to endorse wholeheartedly the vital goals of lawyer assistance programs, which include providing assistance to lawyers and judges who are impaired, aiding in curtailing malpractice claims and disciplinary complaints, educating the legal community about conditions that cause impairment, and educating the legal community and families of lawyers about available services. While the mission of assistance programs, such as LCL, are clear—to help lawyers save their lives, careers, and families—closer examination of the concept of intervention is necessary, however, in order to prepare the legal community to develop effective approaches to the problem.

Interventions have at least two major components—getting help for the impaired lawyer, and protecting the interests of clients, the courts and all other interested parties. In other words, the process of seeking remedial or therapeutic intervention takes place within an ethical and legal context. The impairment problem may arise in the course of a trial or appellate proceeding, in the course of an office transaction, within a law firm environment, or in other less well-defined circumstances.

Full understanding of the roles of the participants and coordination of efforts will be necessary in order to reach a satisfactory resolution on all fronts. Participants may include other lawyers with interests in conflict with the impaired lawyer, court officials, lawyer assistance program personnel and disciplinary counsel. In any given intervention, the roles of the participants will differ because the entities have different theories and purposes around intervention involving impaired lawyers. The various goals and functions of participants are achievable with proper coordination and cooperation.

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