The Beginning of Lawyer-Assistance Programs

“My name’s Rick and I’m an alcoholic.” These words were the key to my first involvement with the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, TLAP. By the time I said them at a TLAP function, I had become used to doing so at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in and around Lubbock. I had a lawyer friend, though, who knew there were a group of lawyers in Texas who did what they could to support one another’s recovery and to help colleagues deal with the stress of the practice of law in pro-social ways in order to avoid the need for a program of recovery. Mike B. told me about a convention in Austin that combined training for TLAP volunteers, of which I was unaware, and meetings for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a group very loosely related to TLAP but not part of the State Bar, who were in recovery from mental illnesses, alcoholism, addiction to substances, and suicidal ideation.

Those of you who know me know I felt right at home immediately! As it turned out, Mike wasn’t able to make it to the convention, so I was on my own to a greater or lesser degree. I met people there who had histories like mine and who were living lives happy, joyous and free, even in the practice of law. In fact, even if they weren’t practicing law right then due to grievance issues. I met people who had been disbarred and earned their way back into the profession, people who had voluntarily left the profession but kept active in the recovery of other lawyers, and those who weren’t sure whether or where they might fit in.

At the first convention, there were yoga classes in the morning, AA-type meetings of LCL members throughout the day, and speaker meetings a couple times a day. There was also training designed to help us help our brothers and sisters who struggled with the issues that got us there. This was the first time I realized what Quinn Bracket, a truly venerable Lubbock lawyer, had done for me a little over a year before. He knew what I needed to do and who I needed to know in order to survive the death spiral I had put my law practice into. He had a patience and depth of understanding that I had only seen in a counselor whom I had paid for years to listen to me lie to her about my issues. Quinn was a stabilizing force in Lubbock for many lawyers who were trying to lose their way.

The Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program (TLAP) has been an active program of the State Bar since 1989. Chris Ritter is the third director to head up the program. What follows is Chris’ compilation of the history of TLAP, edited for length.

Early Years

A flurry of articles and research in the late 1980s and early 1990s documented the secret that some already knew: the high incidence of substance abuse and mental health disorders in the legal profession. While generally accepted figures at that time estimated that 10 to 11 percent of the general population in this country suffered from the disease of substance dependence, surveys in Arizona, Washington, and Maryland indicated that the illness affected 15 to 18 percent of lawyers. A study by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1990 found that, of all the professions surveyed, lawyers had the highest rate of clinical depression. A 1992 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indicated that male lawyers in the United States were twice as likely to commit suicide than men in the general population. Unfortunately, many involved with lawyer assistance programs across the country anecdotally echoed that fact: suicide among lawyers was all too common.

Establishment of Lawyer Assistance Programs

Lawyer assistance programs in some form or another have been around for a long time. Many states report that independent, grassroots lawyers-concerned-for-lawyers groups have been  operating discretely and effectively for 20 years. Grounded in the principles of service work and anonymity from Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, these programs fashioned responses to the crisis of lawyers and colleagues in trouble with alcohol and drugs. TLAP credits the lawyer-support groups in Dallas and Houston as two of the longest-running grassroots organizations in the state. Both groups report a history of meetings dating back to the early 1980s. No doubt there were other such support groups in existence throughout the state.

In 1989, as part of the national movement toward instituting employee- and peer-assistance programs, the State Bar of Texas institutionalized outreach to lawyers by creating and funding TLAP. Mindful that the goal of the organization was to provide a safe and confidential place for lawyers to seek help for addiction and other disorders, TLAP was authorized as the approved peer-assistance program for lawyers in Texas; as such, it benefits from the statutory confidentiality and immunity protections afforded peer-assistance programs under the Texas Health and Safety Code. Texas was one of a handful of similar formal programs in the nation. In 1988, when the American Bar Association (ABA) created the Commission on Impaired Attorneys (it was renamed the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs in 1996), there were only four states that had formal statewide lawyer-assistance programs. Today, all 50 states, the Canadian provinces, and Great Britain have comprehensive assistance programs, most with paid directors and staff.

At their core, lawyer-assistance programs seek to provide outreach, support, peer assistance, and confidentiality for communications and information relating to actions taken by staff, volunteers, and participating lawyers, judges, and law students. Separation from the discipline authority for lawyers was identified as an early prerequisite for many lawyer-assistance programs and the Texas program was no exception. Agreements between the Texas disciplinary system and TLAP were hammered out long ago: TLAP staff and volunteers remain independent of the disciplinary process and do not advocate for or against a lawyer who finds him or herself in that system. The discipline system, in turn, respects and appreciates the confidentiality of all communications and actions of TLAP.

Attorney-Discipline Issues

The issue of alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental health disorders within the legal profession gets the most attention when juxtaposed against and within the disciplinary system. In 1987, as lawyer peer-assistance programs were being put in place in different jurisdictions across the United States, controversy raged over whether alcoholism was a disease or simply a character flaw. In the midst of these arguments came a U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decision, In re Kersey, 520 A.2d 321 (1987), which stated that a lawyer’s alcoholism could be considered in mitigation for disciplinary offenses. This was a watershed moment for all concerned as it was estimated at the time that a majority of attorney-discipline cases involved alcoholism or substance dependency. Balancing the system’s need to protect the public, deter future unethical conduct, and maintain the integrity of the profession with the need to acknowledge and address the underlying causes of the conduct became the fulcrum on which the decisions of courts and disciplinary systems would rest. Eventually, an acknowledgment of the scope and the validity of the issues required that all jurisdictions take some measure to help with the identification, treatment, and disposition of cases involving impairment.

The disciplinary system in Texas was particularly responsive to developments in the understanding of alcoholism and the addiction process and the fact that they comprised illnesses and not moral failings. In 1992, the State Bar of Texas provided that an attorney’s demonstration of his or her good-faith recovery from these disorders may be considered as a mitigating factor when imposing sanctions for disciplinary adjudications. The disciplinary system in Texas also established a unique avenue for disposition of cases involving impairment that rose to the level of a disability. Monitoring, diversion, and education became the watchwords for this time period and the development of the Texas Professionalism Enhancement Program and, more recently, the Client Attorney Assistance Program further demonstrate the state bar’s commitment to the human issues underlying the rules violations in disciplinary cases.

The Future of Lawyer-Assistance Programs

The nature of lawyer-assistance programs is changing. The 2002 ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs survey of lawyer-assistance programs indicates that a majority of  lawyer-assistance programs have moved to provide outreach services for lawyers with mental health issues as well as the traditional outreach to those dealing with alcohol, drugs, or other addictions.

Texas has been at the forefront of this challenge. Since the mid 1990s, TLAP has offered its services to lawyers, judges, and law students who are challenged by mental health and substance abuse disorders. TLAP statistics indicate that once TLAP advertised that its outreach included mental health issues, the number of these cases increased to a 50/50 split between substance abuse disorders and mental health concerns. Today, a lawyer with complex, poly-substance abuse and mental health disorders is more the norm than the exception. While the number of cases increases yearly, pure addiction cases and pure mental health cases make up a smaller portion of the TLAP caseload. The response remains the same: crisis assistance and counseling, education, peer assistance, intervention, referral, and outreach.

If the future holds anything, it holds the promise of continued success, collaboration, and innovation. Here are a few noteworthy developments:

  • The ABA has adopted a 2004 Model Lawyer Assistance Program that speaks to the issues of concern: addictions, mental health disorders, and quality-of-life issues.
  • More and more lawyer assistance programs are being asked to directly monitor lawyers or develop monitor programs for law firms, disciplinary systems, and boards of law examiners.
  • The State Bar of California has produced an innovative outreach system that, in the words of Deputy Trial Counsel for the State Bar of California Cydney Batchelor, “has produced astonishing changes in the lawyers’ professional and personal lives.”
  • In 2003, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued two ethics opinions regarding a lawyer’s duty to report the misconduct of another lawyer and in doing so recognized the assistance of lawyer-assistance programs throughout the United States.
  • The ABA National Legal Malpractice Conference has developed and presented a series of seminars related to law firms and impaired lawyers.

Until very recently, I attended the TLAP/LCL Convention every summer, only missing because of conflicting responsibilities. Until my last child moved out of the house, the kids accompanied me on the trip each year. It was a great way for me to celebrate recovery, share it and a trip with my children, and enjoy the friends I’d made among whom I trudge the road to happy destiny. Maybe the single most personally changing thing that ever happened to me at these celebrations was meeting and getting to know Kelly Pace at depth. He was committed to the cause of TLAP and LCL, serving on both the State Bar Committee and the LCL Board of Directors. His example of a lawyer with a busy trial practice and the associated stresses and strains who stays above the fray with an eye always open for the colleague who is in need challenges me and informs me today. Kelly was honored with the Ralph Mock Award, the highest award given by TLAP and LCL, signifying incredible service to recovering lawyers for significant periods of time, and I now have the honor of serving on the State Bar Committee for Lawyers Assistance and the Board of Directors for LCL. I hope to share with others what Kelly and many at TLAP and LCL have freely given me.

Lubbock’s LCL group hosts a hybrid meeting each Friday during lunch. Our fearless leader, Bob N., has arranged for us to use a state bar conference line to include call-ins with those of us who can meet in person at his office. It is a weekly home for eight to 12 practicing lawyers, law students, and lawyers working to earn their licenses back, who share their experiences, strength, and hope with one another. There are very real reasons to be proud of our state bar, its Lawyers Assistance Program, and the grassroots LCL groups around the state!

TCDLA
TCDLA
Rick Wardroup
Rick Wardroup
Rick Wardroup is TCDLA’s curriculum director/staff attorney. He has served as co-course director for TCDLA’s Forensics seminar for the past eight years. His greatest strength is his desire to help attorneys in the development of their trial skills and coping/life-balancing challenges. He can be reached at and 806-763-9900.
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