JLAP: Volunteers are empathetic, always willing to listen

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Their stories are as varied as the lawyers and judges they help. JLAP volunteers are like a baseball team: there are specialists and there are utility players. What they all share is a desire to help and a willingness to listen.

Rick Adams works at the Marion County Public Defender’s Office. Sober for 20 years, he also works with those in the legal profession who abuse alcohol. Julie McDonald is a deputy director in the Indiana Office of Court Services. Her twin brother took his own life at age 27. Because of her drive to make something positive from her brother’s tragic suicide, McDonald most often assists with crisis intervention when lawyers suffer from mental health issues. South Bend’s Ann Carol Nash is of counsel with the firm of Halpin Slagh. She is the utility infielder whose urge to assist extends past her legal clients to others in the legal profession.

While a majority of lawyers associate JLAP with disciplinary problems arising from alcohol or drug abuse, there is a far broader range of issues addressed by JLAP volunteers and staff. Among these are mental health (especially depression and stress management), gambling addiction and even age-related infirmities such as dementia. Volunteers help lawyers directly, assist in monitoring those under monitoring agreements and in transitioning cases for lawyers leaving the practice.

In the demanding world of private practice, with the business of law ascending to dominance over the profession of law of prior years, the prospect of taking time to assist a colleague can be daunting. Ditto for busy trial court judges who often are called upon to referee disputes among addicted or mentally ill litigants. It was the main factor that caused Nash to hesitate about becoming a JLAP volunteer. While she had heard about the program at continuing legal education programs and had even taken time to read about JLAP’s mission, Nash was concerned about “over committing.” After her first experience monitoring a suspended lawyer, she came to understand that “it wasn’t more burdensome than she could handle” and, while that lawyer did not bring a whole-hearted effort to the task, still Nash felt it was worth the effort. From that first experience, she has become one of JLAP’s most versatile volunteers in northern Indiana.

Monitoring a lawyer with an alcohol-related suspension requires a volunteer to be part probation officer and part sponsor, Adams said. There is a duty to report the client’s progress and any violation of applicable terms. The dual role creates some tension, especially if the client is only trying to get through the program and is not fully committed to recovery. Adams approaches his volunteer efforts with the idea that he is a buffer between the client and the authority requiring treatment. Because he is a recovering alcoholic and has the distinction of being the first successful graduate of a JLAP monitoring agreement, he can approach clients with experience and objectivity. Nash also noted the unique problems of working with a suspended lawyer who is not fully committed to recovery, but explained also that the objective reporting requirements sometimes make it easier for the volunteer. Both try to listen and determine the best way to reach a less-than-willing client.

All three volunteers emphasized that the JLAP staff is always there to support the volunteers. McDonald puts it this way: “They are available at any time and there is nothing that they wouldn’t do for you. They know how to help draw boundaries and they fill in the gaps of the knowledge we don’t have.”

Nash and McDonald are more often asked to talk with lawyers who have sought help themselves or who have been identified by others as being in need of assistance. While these contacts may be less formal because they are not related to the disciplinary process, they nevertheless can present life-or-death issues.

While many would be reticent to raise a concern with a colleague, McDonald has developed a unique ability to engage in what might seem to be a difficult conversation. She typically finds a quiet time and asks if the lawyer is okay. McDonald has never had anyone react negatively to her inquiry. “When people are suffering, they really want help. When I share my experiences, it gets past any awkwardness. If we were all more open about our experiences, there would be a lot less loneliness and isolation.”

As one who conducts character and fitness interviews for the Board of Law Examiners, McDonald encounters many young lawyers — and wishes there were more young volunteers who could relate to the pressures of a young family, a difficult supervising lawyer or partnership track, and the massive student loan payments many face. She draws constant inspiration from the clients she’s worked with, the “vast majority” of whom become volunteers themselves. “Having received assistance just motivates them to help others.”

Their collective wisdom to those who may consider volunteering is pretty simple. Don’t be afraid to give it a try. It is not necessary to be a psychiatrist or addictions counselor. The JLAP staff members are always there to provide support and help define appropriate limits. And, with all the challenges it presents, it’s possible to help … and the work is so important. It assists the client on an individual level, it raises the legal profession, and in doing so it simultaneously serves the public. There is always a need for more volunteers, especially among law students and young lawyers. There are an endless number of volunteer opportunities. Contact JLAP if you’re interested in joining the team.•

R. William Jonas Jr. is a commercial and insolvency lawyer practicing in South Bend. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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