Lawyers, like anyone else, face stress, burnout, and depression. Too often, they have nowhere to turn before the problem gets worse, and a career and life are lost to substance abuse, addiction, or mental health complications. The MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program can make a difference, offering assessment, referral, short-term counseling, and continued support to insure the long-term success of all Maryland lawyers.
JAY D. MILLER is a medical malpractice and personal injury attorney with the Law Offices of Peter Angelos, P.C., in Baltimore City, and, with Montgomery County District Court Judge William Simmons, co-chairs the MSBA Committee on Lawyer Assistance. From confidentiality to financial assistance, he notes, help is just a phone call away.
MSBA: How did you become involved with the Lawyer Assistance Program?
JDM: LAP helps lawyers, judges, law students – anyone in our profession [experiencing] problems with alcohol, drugs, or mental issues. It’s for any kind of problem you have. At one point they were there for me, so I felt it was my responsibility to give back, to see what I could do to help others.
Having had the good fortune of being a Co-Chair for at least the last 10 years, I’ve watched LAP grow from what 20 years ago was a group of lawyers that would go out and do 12-step calls with lawyers with drinking problems. We evolved into helping with drug problems, then into this whole area of mental health.
LAP will help with any kind of problem that you’re having. We have experts available to help people with alcohol, drugs, mental health issues. [However,] you can do something about somebody’s drinking, but the underlying problem that may have led them to drink is depression, stress, or anxiety. We can help people with mental health issues, depression, problems with stress if the job is overwhelming you. I’ve seen our program counselor, Lisa Caplan, help people with marriage problems. Now, we’re not a marriage counseling service, but the point is that sometimes you find out there’s an underlying problem, so you treat it.
MSBA: What if I can’t afford treatment?
JDM: We are gifted with something called the Bates/Vincent Foundation, which is an endowment available to the Lawyer Assistance Program. A lot of times, when lawyers object to going into rehab it’s because they no longer have health insurance, because, when you have problems with drugs and alcohol, what’s the first thing that goes? You stop paying things. You stop paying your health insurance. So they’ll look at us and say, “I’d love to get help, but I can’t afford it.”
We can write them a check and get them into rehab. It’s a loan – once people get back on their feet, they’ll pay the money back.
MSBA: But what about confidentiality? Will seeking help from LAP hurt my career or professional standing
JDM: That’s a great question, because I think that one of the problems we face is this fear that if I call the Lawyer Assistance Committee, my name is going to be put up on a chalkboard and everybody’s going to sit around and talk about me. However, we have no need to discuss people’s names; we have sheets with numbers on them. When we sit around a table, we discuss numbers, we don’t discuss people. The only people in our group who need to be aware of a lawyer’s name are that lawyer and the director who may be working with that lawyer.
There is actually a statute in the Maryland Code that prevents our records from ever being recovered against any lawyer who may be working with us. It prevents us from having to be forced into court to testify against anyone, regardless of how bad their problem is, and that’s pretty strong. The Attorney Grievance Commission has a diversion program that allows them to send us a lawyer, so rather than disciplining the lawyer they’ll send the lawyer to us. If the lawyer agrees to do that, as long as they’re working with us, they can stay out of any grievance issues. That’s the only time AGC is ever allowed to know we’re working with a lawyer, if they have sent that lawyer to us. You come to us and we’ll keep you away from Attorney Grievance. You keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll find yourself in Attorney Grievance’s doors.
MSBA: Many of these issues can be traced back to the earliest stages of an attorney’s legal career. Does LAP make any efforts to connect with law students?
JDM: One of our best outreach programs is where lawyers on our oversight committee will go to the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and the University of Baltimore School of Law and speak to the students to try to educate them about two things: number one, that there is a lawyer assistance program available to them when they get out into the world and practicing law, and we also let them know that there’s a program available to them now, if they’re in law school and they’re struggling. We [try] to get them early on, because when you become a first-year lawyer, you’re not interested in learning about these committees yet – you’re trying to earn a living. We hit them with some stories about how younger and younger lawyers are coming into our program earlier and earlier, and we let them know that you can nip that in the bud, that you can do something about it. We’re also here for law students who’ve already had a problem – they’ve had a DWI, or two DWIs, which is going to prevent them from being admitted to the practice. We work with them, get them the help that they may not have had, and we assist them in getting admitted to the bar.
MSBA: Does LAP perform any other kinds of outreach within the legal profession?
JDM: Lisa Caplan puts on events where she teaches stress-reduction in the practice of law. We’ve put on all kinds of events down in Ocean City, at the Legal Summit & Annual Meeting, in reference to wellness, from reducing anxiety to how to not let the practice of law overtake you. In fact, Lisa is so proactive that she puts on a wellness program for us before we start our Committee meetings. It’s a 10-minute talk therapy-type session that allows each of us to share ways that we’ve reduced stress, because we are not immune to it just because we’re on this Committee.
MSBA: How do Maryland’s lawyer assistance efforts measure up to the rest of the nation?
JDM: Having had the opportunity to travel and see what other states have, I will tell you that Maryland has and continues to lead the way. We were the first state to ever have a lawyer assistance committee with a paid director, Richard Vincent; the Bates/Vincent Foundation is named after David Bates and Richard Vincent, the two who really started the whole concept of lawyer assistance in the entire country. We are also the first lawyer assistance committee to have a foundation and endowment that enables us to help lawyers afford to go to rehab. And we are blessed because we have a President of our Maryland State Bar Association, Judge Keith Truffer, who has made wellness and recovery and lawyer assistance his platform. We have come a long way.