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VOL. 121 | NO. 55 | Thursday, March 09, 2006

Attorneys Have Options, Even When Things Fall Apart

By Andrew Ashby

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BACK FROM THE BRINK: Robert Albury Jr., executive director of the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program, is an example of an attorney who not only sought treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, but rose above it in a profession that emphasizes swagger in the face of stress. -- Photograph By Andrew Ashby

Lawyers and judges have to project an image of calm and control in a courtroom, but when that façade breaks down because of job pressure, it can lead to suspension or worse.

The American Bar Association estimates that 15 percent to 20 percent of lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse. Robert Stein, executive director of the ABA's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, stated in his most recent annual report that one in four lawyers suffers from stress and that, out of 105 occupational categories, lawyers rank first in depression.

"It's a high-stress job," said William Robilio, a Shelby County assistant public defender. "You deal with heavily emotional issues. You can be dealing with people's lives, their livelihoods or even their freedom. That's a lot of pressure."


Cooling the hot seat

Anne Fritz, president of the Memphis Bar Association, said there are several reasons lawyers feel stress, including pressure from clients.

"If you have to see a lawyer, something has gone wrong somewhere along the way," Fritz said. "A lot of that causes stress and it begins to take a toll."

Stress can come from the office as well.

"Young attorneys have to earn anywhere from 2,000 billable hours (or more) a year, and they're working long hours to do that," Fritz said.

Even so, Memphis has a long history of helping lawyers who suffer from physical and mental problems.

"(Being an attorney is) a high-stress job. You deal with heavily emotional issues. You can be dealing with people's lives, their livelihoods or even their freedom. That's a lot of pressure."
- William Robilio
Shelby County assistant public defender

A nonprofit organization called Lawyers Helping Lawyers was formed after local attorney John Dice committed suicide in the mid-1980s. Although John Dice seminars - longstanding continuing legal educational workshops that deal with stress, depression and suicide - are still held every year, Lawyers Helping Lawyers was replaced by the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program in 1999.

The Tennessee Supreme Court established the assistance program to help members of the legal profession who suffer from any mental or physical disability that might affect their ability to practice or serve.

Robert Albury Jr., executive director of TLAP, said another source of stress comes from the adversarial nature of the law profession.

"It's a place where saying 'I give up, I need help,' is often seen as a sign of vulnerability instead of strength," he said. "So admitting that something is too big for us and we can't think or talk our way out of it is not in our nature."

Albury knows this because he sought help from a similar program called Florida Lawyer Assistance Inc. about 13 years ago after his addiction to alcohol and other drugs got out of hand. He was practicing law in Miami at the time. After he became sober, Albury got a behavioral therapist license and was later appointed as TLAP's first executive director.


Flaking out, floating in

Although stress or substance abuse problems can build, causing problems that could lead to suspension, lawyers abandoning their practices isn't common, Fritz said. But it does happen.

"There might be a couple of those a year and in some years there are none," she said. "A lot of them will enter into a contract with TLAP. They will go and get help or treatment and TLAP will monitor their progress."

To help lawyers deal with a variety of problems, TLAP has two different parts.

The first is a confidential peer assistance program, which consists of a statewide network of lawyers and judges who are in recovery from a variety of different conditions. Tennessee is broken into eight regions, with each having a Regional Assistance and Monitoring (RAM) team of six to eight trained volunteers. Albury coordinates them.

"They give of their own time and resources to help their peers," he said.

TLAP also is the state Supreme Court's designated monitoring and advocacy program.

"TLAP receives referrals from the courts and disciplinary boards as a probationary condition where the lawyer claims or is identified to have a treatable medical or clinical health condition," Albury said.

TLAP then monitors law professionals to make sure they follow through with any continuing care plans that are recommended, whether it is support group meetings, drug testing or therapy sessions.

TLAP averages about 240 new referrals a year, with 34 percent coming from West Tennessee. This number spiked to more than 300 in 2002 because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Albury said.

Referrals can come from the affected attorney, a concerned third party or disciplinary bodies in organizations such as a firm, a law school or the Board of Professional Responsibility.

Albury stressed TLAP is not a disciplinary body and will not report a lawyer who comes in for help.

"That is to encourage members of the profession to seek assistance before the problem becomes a career-ending or life-threatening problem," Albury said. "They know there is a safe and confidential peer assistance resource that they can access without fear of winding up in any more trouble than they would have already been in as a natural consequence of their behavior."

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