By Eric Wood
“Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head …”
Well, not that “Day in the Life” from The Beatles, but the beginning of a day in the life of the men and women at the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP) may start in similar fashion. For northern Indiana liaison Frank Kimbrough, that early morning routine may come after having spent much of the night on the phone fielding a crisis call. Frank has been a fixture with JLAP since before it was JLAP. Early in his career, Frank lost a law partner to what, at the time, was a mysterious illness to him: alcoholism. This loss would motivate Frank to seek out and help other attorneys. Having found some like-minded colleagues in his pursuits, Frank helped form a committee called Lawyers Helping Lawyers, later morphing into the Indiana State Bar Association’s Lawyers Assistance Committee, and eventually today’s JLAP.
Taking a call at 2 a.m. is nothing out of the ordinary for Frank. Covering the after-hours JLAP line is simply one of his duties for the agency. One such call last May was from a law student coming to grips with the stress of final exams and the impending doom of THE exam, which would either grant him entrance to the field of law or relegate him to the purgatory of second, third or fourth attempts. The young man could also sense the looming specter of student loans just months away from darkening his door. The student, like many others, turned these anxieties inward, creating crippling self-doubt and even thoughts of ending it all. Frank, in his inimitable disarming style, had the student relaxed and focusing forward with hope by the end of the call. He even managed to find moments of levity with the student, lifting his spirits and proving he had found in JLAP a companion for the journey ahead. Crisis managed.
“… Found my way downstairs and drank a cup, and looking up, I noticed I was late …”
For us at JLAP, the end of the phone call is likely just the beginning. The call described above may have ended with a student being talked off the proverbial ledge, but that doesn’t put the matter to bed by a long shot. After clearing his head with a cup of coffee, Frank’s next call was to me. As the coordinator of JLAP efforts at the law school in question, it would be up to me to visit with our distressed student at my next monthly campus visit. I would come up with names of potential therapists or other appropriate resources to pass on to the student in the meantime. Finally, Frank and I would identify a potential JLAP volunteer to pair with the student for what Frank refers to as the “howdy call” — an occasional cup of coffee and conversation to make sure the young man knows he’s not alone.
This initial contact with JLAP is recorded as a call for help. The call for help, often answered by participant services manager Amy Spinks, is the first step in a process for us, much like intake is the first step in treatment planning for a therapist. At JLAP we are small but mighty — five full-time employees and two part-timers cover the entirety of judges, lawyers and law students for the state. We, then, often must function with a hive mind, pooling our collective knowledge and experience to determine a course of response to a call for help. Case manager Jill Fuqua is likely to know a good treatment resource for a solo practitioner in Bedford dealing with anxiety. Her years working with Mental Health America and the Division of Mental Health and Addiction has given her a wealth of knowledge of Indiana treatment facilities. Deputy director Loretta Oleksy, having previously worked as the family court coordinator for the Indiana Office of Court Services, may know how best to respond to a juvenile court judge struggling with secondary emotional trauma from a horrific child abuse case. As a licensed clinical addictions counselor, I may be the go-to in coordinating an intervention for an attorney with a life-threatening addiction problem. After the initial call, we are likely to schedule a meeting with the client to discuss options, make referrals or connect them to one of our own support groups.
“… Found my coat and grabbed my hat. Made the bus in seconds flat …”
Data from the call for help is compiled and recorded in our confidential database. This doesn’t just enable us to coordinate our follow-up efforts and know our clients and potential clients better. The data also helps inform our outreach efforts. In other words, did that presentation we gave at the December Inns of Court in Fort Wayne result in an uptick in calls from that region? Last year, JLAP staff and volunteers presented more than 70 times, speaking to crowds from less than a dozen to more than 1,000. Topics of our presentations span the gamut of lawyer well-being, from resilience and compassion fatigue to depression and substance use disorders. Canvassing the state also gives us the opportunity to spread the word on what we really do for the men and women we serve. Unfortunately, much of our time at JLAP is spent convincing skeptical attorneys, judges and law students we are truly confidential and separate from the court, the disciplinary commission or the Board of Law Examiners. We approach every client with compassion and genuine concern to forge trusting bonds with those we serve, acting as guides in a journey toward healing.
“… I read the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade …”
While many of our client stories end happily — a bar passed, a marriage salvaged, sobriety achieved — some do not. Early last year I received a call from a judge in a small county expressing concern for a lawyer with an evident drinking problem. A second call came in shortly thereafter from one of our volunteers and then a third. An intervention was organized and executed, successfully resulting in a trip to the hospital. Unfortunately, our efforts were in vain. The man died two months later from multiple complications of alcoholism. He was just 45 years old. I will never forget him or his family.
A day in the life at JLAP is just that: life, and sometimes death. And then another day begins and ends much the same. And then another.
40-second E-major chord, and fade …•
• Eric Wood is a licensed clinical addictions counselor and clinical case manager at JLAP. Opinions expressed are those of the author.