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Reaching out to lawyers

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“We’re not in the business of saving licenses; we’re in the business of saving lives.”

So said Judge Robert “Butch” Childers of Memphis, Tenn., chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, expressing one of the overlying themes of the annual CoLAP conference in Indianapolis Oct. 5-8.

The symptoms of stress, how to help law students, and how lawyer assistance programs work with disciplinary commissions were among the topics addressed at the conference, which had at least 200 participants and 41 exhibitors.

jlap Mary Richardson and Don Lundberg, both former heads of the Illinois and Indiana disciplinary commissions, respectively, discuss the entities’ relationships with lawyer assistance programs at the American Bar Association’s national conference for LAPs, which was in Indianapolis. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

The science of substance abuse and stress, and how it affects the brain was discussed at the session “Stress and Compassion Fatigue in the Legal Profession: What Does Your Brain Look Like?”

Dr. Barbara Krantz, chief executive officer and medical director of research for the Hanley Center showed brain scans and explained how hormones the body produces while under stress tend to affect the brain. For instance, if one is in a stressful situation – the example she gave was sitting in traffic, seeing an accident and construction ahead, and being late to a hearing in court – hormones would be released as a result of the stress. Ideally, the body would also release other hormones to counteract the stress hormones, which would cause a balance, or homeostasis.

When one’s body doesn’t know when to stop the tug of war between the different hormones that cause fight or flight reactions and the hormones that relax the body, there is chronic stress. This can lead to physical symptoms, such as tension, sleep disorders, fatigue, frequent colds and infections, increased alcohol use, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, and high blood pressure.

Krantz said because attorneys have multiple stressors, and because they are high achievers and tend to put more pressure on themselves while underestimating their level of stress, they often overlook the signs that they need to do something to take care of themselves.

The stressors attorneys face are not that different from what law students face, according to panelists in a breakout session about law student wellness.

Terry Harrell mug Harrell

That panel included moderator Judith M. Rush of the Minnesota State Bar Association Life and the Law Committee, along with panelists Ann D. Foster, director of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program; Michael Larson, director of the Montana Lawyer Assistance Program; Erin M. Keyes, assistant dean of the University of Minnesota Law School; and Carter Alleman, Valparaiso University School of Law Student Bar Association president and national vice chair for Student Bar Associations of the ABA Law Student Division.

The panelists discussed various ways the law schools and LAPs in their states have been tackling the various issues students face, including how to address some of the myths when it comes to getting help for mental health or substance abuse problems while in law school, and how it can affect one’s character and fitness results when they apply to join the bar after they graduate.

They also agreed that the presence of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have contributed to the proliferation of some myths for law students who seek help.

Panelists and audience members discussed whether schools should use a tough-love approach, with a mandatory session to inform students about these issues; or by giving the students the option to attend programs to learn more about LAPs and other resources.

Terry Harrell, executive director of Indiana’s Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program and vice chair of the conference, said lawyers are better off if they face their issues as law students. Otherwise, the problem doesn’t go away, it just gets worse.

She also added a scholarship program is available for law students to receive 30 days of treatment – for free – from Bradford Health Services, with locations around the country. LAPs throughout the U.S. can work with students to get into the program, and they need to pay only transportation costs.

Another well-attended panel was a discussion between two former disciplinary commission chairs. Don Lundberg, now a partner with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis and former executive secretary of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission, spoke with Mary Richardson, who previously chaired the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

Lundberg said that he and Judge Childers agree that “there is a fundamental shared goal of lawyer disciplinary commissions and lawyer assistance programs to protect the public. But our approach is different.”

Because both LAPs and disciplinary commissions are trying to achieve the same ultimate goal, Lundberg and Richardson agreed the entities ought to work together in terms of how they are structured and how they get along on a personal level. However, they also need to maintain an understanding when it comes to what the other side is dealing with. For instance, Lundberg said, “The disciplinary side deals with the mess. We deal with the victims and the chaos” that result from an attorney who is facing disciplinary procedures.

Both added that there are different personalities between those who serve disciplinary commissions and those who serve on LAPs, but that both groups still need to be able to come together somewhere in the middle

They also agreed there needs to be trust among the people of the two types of organizations, including a trust in the LAPs’ reasoning to have confidentiality in cases that aren’t being monitored by a disciplinary commission.

Richardson said the only time her disciplinary commission wrote an amicus brief was to support the confidentiality of those who go to LAPs for help because without it, that system would fall apart and fewer people who need treatment would seek help.

Early on in the conference, Judge Childers noted that because what the participants do in their regular work is so serious, the event was also meant to be fun.

While most of the four-day conference discussed serious topics, participants had a few lighthearted moments, such as a dessert reception that included a presentation by Dr. Will Miller, a therapist who is also a minister and a stand-up comedian.

Miller focused on his theory of refrigerator relationships, relationships between friends and family where if one person is visiting the other’s home, it’s not unusual for the visitor to raid the refrigerator of his or her host.

He connected it to what LAP programs do, because many Americans are mobile and therefore are less likely to have family or other support systems in place when they get into trouble with drugs or alcohol, or feel depressed. He added that people should never feel isolated, even though that is the norm in society.

Many of the panels also mentioned isolation and how LAP programs could share that with the legal communities in their respective states so that attorneys – or law students – would know how important it is to check on each other from time to time.

In his closing speech at the awards dinner Oct. 7, Judge Childers reiterated his point that the LAP programs aren’t helping lawyers keep their licenses, but they’re saving lives by reaching out to their communities and helping to prevent some of those feelings of isolation attorneys have when they are distressed.

“I’m constantly energized by the number of people who give of their time to save lives,” he said. “… I am constantly amazed at what we can accomplish with a small group of people working toward the same goal. … We have made a lasting change in the legal community … and we need to continue to be the change we want to see happen.”•

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