Grassroots efforts brought alcohol and drug abuse out of shadows

July 29, 2015

A generation ago, lawyers with alcohol or drug addictions often had another problem: Seeking help might risk their professional livelihood.

There was no state Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program that could offer confidential assistance. Local and state bar organizations were only beginning to address these problems in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

malloy-tim-mug Malloy

Highland attorney Tim Malloy remembers meeting some resistance before the Lake County Bar Association authorized a subcommittee to help lawyers struggling with alcohol abuse in the early 1990s.

“Everybody handled this in different ways, and it was guerrilla warfare, so to speak,” Malloy said. “There were a lot of ethical concerns. Nobody wanted to come out and admit they had a problem,” he said, in part because it was unclear whether an attorney receiving that information could maintain confidence in light of rules of professional conduct at the time.

“There was a lot of uncertainty and a fair amount of risk,” he said. “We were walking the tightrope without a net. I think there were probably five or six of us (in the Lake County bar) at that point working on this issue, and we agreed this is important enough; we said if they push us, we’ll push back. … There would be somebody to talk to, to maintain confidentiality, no matter what.”

Twenty-five years ago, efforts of local bar associations and other attorney groups in Lake County, Evansville, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis to assist lawyers with substance abuse problems were front-page news in the inaugural year of the Indiana Lawyer. Today, attorneys all over the state can turn to JLAP for assistance, but getting to that point was a long time coming.

Terry Harrell mug Harrell

“The attitude was, ‘It’s not my problem, why should we fund this program?’” said JLAP executive director Terry Harrell, who’s been with the state court-sponsored organization nearly since its beginning in 1997. She said bar groups, and ultimately the state Supreme Court, saw the program as vital for protecting the profession.

“If lawyers can stay healthy, they’re going to be more productive, more ethical and the legal profession is going to benefit as a whole,” Harrell said. “It’s not really good to have impaired lawyers in our profession.”

assistance-timeline.gifBefore JLAP, though, lawyers facing addiction had to worry what might happen if they asked a colleague to look after clients and cases while they went into rehab, for instance.

One of the attorneys who helped make the case for the Indiana Supreme Court to create JLAP was Marge Miller of Indianapolis. Now retired, Miller said she’s a recovering alcoholic who’s been sober for 34 years.

“The people who stuck with it through that time were very dedicated,” Miller said. “Really, it was a lot of people’s efforts, and efforts for the most part produced by people who suffered from alcoholism themselves, and therefore were very anxious to help other attorneys suffering from some kind of addiction.”

Ed Hopper is another retired Indianapolis attorney who fought alcohol addiction before becoming sober around Christmas of 1985. A couple of years after that, he was among those pushing for the Indiana State Bar Association to create a lawyers assistance program, and it did in 1995.

Hopper has helped lawyers get assistance, but he’s also seen lawyers killed by alcoholism. In a profession where alcohol abuse is about twice that of the population at large, and alcohol is customarily a feature of legal functions, he said some attorneys remain reluctant to acknowledge they may have a disease.

“Alcoholism, in my opinion, is something that we won’t recognize or admit to because it changes your life,” he said. “It becomes worse and worse quicker and quicker with lawyers because of the sense you have to be in charge of your cases and in charge of your clients.”

bryant-michele-otm.jpg Bryant

Evansville attorney Michele Bryant said her late colleague Tim Dodd was among those in southwest Indiana who pushed the Indiana Supreme Court to establish JLAP. “He was the guy down here forever” when fellow lawyers needed assistance, Bryant said.

Even today, the local bar in Evansville has an active committee that helps lawyers with substance abuse problems.

“It’s more of an informal kind of process where we can kind of reach out to people we suspect might need some kind of assistance,” Bryant said. “If somebody needs to take a leave of absence, we call other attorneys who practice in the area and say, ‘so and so has health problems,’ and everybody is willing to help out and pick things up.”

Many of those who helped shape the current JLAP structure also serve or have served on its board, and many people such as Bryant, Malloy and Hopper remain volunteers who are open to offer assistance to attorneys when JLAP calls, Harrell said.

A network of about 300 volunteers is available to help lawyers in need of assistance through JLAP. Harrell said the number of volunteers is sufficient, but there are some rural areas of the state where it remains difficult to connect attorneys who might have a problem with volunteers who can help.

While the network for help is more comprehensive than ever, some wonder if the incidence of substance abuse and addiction among attorneys has declined over time.

“I think there is still a fair amount of resistance to accept that we are human,” and sometimes encounter drug and alcohol abuse problems, Malloy said. “We’re broken just like the rest of society … but I think it’s hard for lawyers to accept they have problems.”

Hopper, though, said he believes the situation has gotten better. He says the network of volunteers – many of whom are lawyers who’ve experienced addiction and recovery – is vital to gaining the trust of attorneys who may be in crisis.

“I think the education at JLAP is beginning to help in getting lawyers in treatment well before they get themselves in trouble,” he said.•


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