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44th Street Notes

When Lawyers Need Help

Jan 1999

The Association is justly proud of its many membership services, including several forms of insurance protection, such as life, disability and professional liability insurance; banking services; information services and the largest and finest bar association law library in the country (and, I・d be willing to wager, in the world). There is, however, one service available through virtually every other major metropolitan bar association that we do not offer despite a demonstrable--and critical--need: a professionally staffed program to help those of our colleagues who suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse. With the encouragement of Presiding Justice Alfred D. Lerner of the Appellate Division, First Department, and in collaboration with the New York County Lawyers・ Association, I am determined to fill that gap by creating a lawyer assistance program in New York City to be staffed by a qualified professional.

Alcoholism and substance abuse (ranging from cocaine to prescription drugs) are more pervasive than is generally believed. According to reliable studies, between 7% and 10% of the adult population is impaired by alcohol. It is generally recognized that impairment among lawyers is more widespread than in the population at large; the ABA estimates that 15-18% of lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse, and a random survey of lawyers in the State of Washington revealed that 18% were :problem drinkers.; Can anyone seriously doubt that this affliction is at least as widespread in the pressured legal environment of New York City as it is in Washington or any other part of the country? This Association has nearly 21,000 members, and there are roughly 70,000 lawyers in New York City. Whichever of the foregoing percentages you apply to those numbers yields a deeply troubling and unacceptable number of afflicted members of the Bar in New York City.

The problems associated with alcoholism and substance abuse among lawyers are sufficiently serious to demand prompt attention and action. It has been estimated that between 40% and 60% of lawyers against whom complaints are filed with disciplinary authorities have alcohol or substance abuse problems, sometimes accompanied by clinical depression. In addition, a significant percentage of the $8 million paid annually by the New York Lawyers・ Fund for Client Protection results from the misdeeds and failures of alcohol- and drug-impaired lawyers. Moreover, alcohol- and drug-impaired lawyers harm not only their clients, but their colleagues, their families and, of course, themselves.

It would be erroneous and unfair to say that this problem has been ignored in New York City. Both this Association and County Lawyers have volunteer committees of dedicated members who respond to requests from impaired lawyers, their colleagues and families, conduct periodic educational programs and monitor attorneys in recovery, who are referred by the Departmental Disciplinary Committee in the First Department. Our Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, chaired by Kathleen Kettles-Russotti and formerly chaired by Dan Keenaghan, while doing all they can as volunteers, has been urging the Association for years to establish a professionally staffed program. The New York State Bar Association has an excellent lawyer assistance program staffed by a trained and extraordinarily dedicated and effective counselor, Ray Lopez, who, though located in Albany, responds to calls from lawyers throughout the State. Notably, a substantial majority of his calls emanate from lawyers in New York City.

Taking Care of Our Colleagues

It is time, indeed, past time, that we took care of our colleagues suffering from this scourge. Consequently, we plan to establish a New York City Lawyers Assistance Program staffed by a qualified professional, who will be able to respond to self-referrals and referrals by others (i.e., colleagues, judges, disciplinary committees and family members), intervene when a lawyer threatens to harm himself or others irreparably, coordinate the monitoring of attorneys in recovery, and conduct a vigorous outreach program to inform lawyers, judges and the community at large of the availability of the program. The existing committees of this Association and County Lawyers will form the nucleus of an expanded corps of lawyers who will provide monitoring and support services. The program will be open not only to members of the two associations, but to any lawyer in New York City who needs and seeks the program・s help.

We anticipate that a fully functioning program, with a certified counselor and an administrative assistant, will cost approximately $150,000 a year. As of the writing of this message, we have raised nearly half that amount. Prudence might suggest that we not embark on the program until all of the required funds are in hand. But the need is so acute that we cannot in good conscience delay taking remedial steps any longer. I hope that Association members will realize that the LAP program is in the best interests of the profession, their colleagues and themselves, and will support the program by making a contribution to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Fund, Inc. for this purpose (in addition to a separate contribution to support the pro bono programs sponsored by the Fund). I also hope that additional Association members will volunteer to help their brothers and sisters at the Bar who suffer from these afflictions.

We cannot realistically hope to eradicate alcoholism and substance abuse in the legal profession in New York City. We can, and will, implement a program designed to minimize these illnesses and their deleterious effects. Please join with me in this effort.

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