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State Bar Opens Online Portal to Assist Attorneys With Addictions

posted Nov 14, 2011, 5:03 AM by Pete Weinman   [ updated May 13, 2015, 12:51 PM by Lou Bara ]

Joel Stashenko, New York Law Journal, 11-14-2011

ALBANY - Attorneys seeking help for substance abuse, depression and other problems now can turn to eLAP, an online portal established by the New York State Bar Association's Lawyer Assistance Program.

Bar leaders unveiled the new site, www.nylap.org, at a House of Delegates meeting Nov. 5 in Albany. It has been up and running since mid-October.

The organization will continue to maintain its telephone hotline for lawyer assistance, 1-800-255-0569, but said that many younger lawyers who grew up in the Internet age are likely to be more comfortable making initial contact through the relative anonymity of a website, said Lawrence A. Zimmerman, chairman of the state bar's Lawyer Assistance Committee.

Mr. Zimmerman, of Hiscock & Barclay in Albany, said the eLAP program is designed both for troubled lawyers and for attorneys seeking ways to help their colleagues.

"One of our missions is to de-stigmatize and demystify the disease of alcohol and addiction," Mr. Zimmerman said in an interview.

Firms often recognize that an attorney or staff member has a problem but do not know how to deal with the issue.

"Many times they ignore the problem and enable the problem by working around it," Mr. Zimmerman said.

eLAP is available for free to all lawyers and law school students in New York, whether or not they belong to the 77,000-member state bar. There are about 200,000 lawyers in the state.

Visitors to the site are presented with a brief screening test asking questions such as if there are people in their lives who are annoyed at them because of their drinking habits or whether they feel they need to have a drink in the morning to get them going.

Even one "yes" answer is sufficient to suggest that the respondent may be a problem drinker, said Patricia Spataro, director of the state bar's LAP programs.

She said the telephone-based assistance program receives about three calls a week, but it appears that the website is attracting more interest so far. She declined to say exactly how many "hits" it had generated.

The eLAP site also contains access to some 2,000 articles about various issues on substance abuse and mental illness, short quizzes to probe attorneys about whether they suffer from depression, and ways to contact Ms. Spataro.

She said she puts lawyers in contact with local health care professionals if they ask. The process remains confidential unless the lawyers themselves reveal their identities.

By law, Ms. Spataro said the state bar is bound to report immediately threats of suicide or harm to others. She conceded, however, that it often is difficult to pin down the location of anonymous callers.

According to Mr. Zimmerman, the eLAP offering was to have been on-line several months ago, but was delayed to ensure the confidentiality of participants.

In May, the state court system announced that it had suspended the 10-year-old New York State Lawyer Assistance Trust program because of state budget cuts. The program made $1.3 million available for drug and alcohol treatment and other services for attorneys in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Several local bar associations, including the New York City Bar Association, also provide lawyer assistance programs. The New York City Bar's hotline number for attorneys in distress is 212-302-5787.

Ms. Spataro said the state bar's program is the first she knows of that allows lawyers to assess their conditions electronically and to seek to access help through a bar group's website. She said the state bar has received inquiries from bar associations in other states about the initiative.

Vincent E. Doyle III, the New York state bar's president, said his group cannot make up for cuts in public financing for lawyer assistance programs.

"Unfortunately, we can't do everything," said Mr. Doyle, of Connors & Villardo in Buffalo. "What we have been looking to do is find innovative ways to do more with fewer resources. The other thing it does is to reach the next generation of lawyers who are far more comfortable using technology to communicate with each other."

Mr. Zimmerman and Ms. Spataro said there was no way to estimate exactly how many New York lawyers have a problem with alcohol. But Mr. Zimmerman said studies have shown that the incidence of alcohol abuse in the general population is 8 percent to 10 percent. He said a Florida study in the 1990s suggested that the alcohol abuse rate among lawyers is between 18 percent and 20 percent. The New York State Bar is participating in an update of that study.

Given the stress levels of the profession and the faltering economy, Mr. Zimmerman said the percentage among attorneys may be even higher.

Rates of depression for lawyers are also higher than for the population as a whole, Mr. Zimmerman said. And depression and alcoholism often go hand in hand, he added.

"It is hard to distinguish between the two modalities," Mr. Zimmerman said. "You cannot tell if a person is depressed because of the alcohol or alcoholic because of the depression."

Ms. Spataro said it is difficult to say accurately how many attorney ultimately seek professional help through the assistance program because it is a facilitator, rather than a provider, of services. She said many attorneys who seek help are likely to have found it through private health providers because they can afford it and that the state bar does not have a way of tracking the resolution of those cases.

Mr. Zimmerman, 65, said he knows first-hand the pressures that lead some attorneys to drink, and the dangers they face personally and professionally when they do.

He said he lost two brothers to alcohol and his family disintegrated as he persisted in drinking for 35 years, culminating in a quart-of-vodka-a-day habit before he finally quit 15 years ago. He called himself a "closet drinker" who worked hard and put in the longest hours of any attorneys at his firm. Then he would drink every night, he said.

"Alcoholism is a disease of isolation," he said. "It separates you out. It makes you feel you are apart from everyone else. Because of your inability to control your drinking, you become beleaguered by that isolation."

Mr. Zimmerman said his committee's efforts have been designed to find ways to ease those feeling of emotional alienation.

@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at jstashenko@alm.com.