Despite their collective education, intelligence, and earning potential, lawyers are not immune from the world’s problems. In fact, in some cases, they’re more susceptible to them.
For example, a recent survey of 13,000 lawyers revealed that 28% suffer from depression, 19% have severe anxiety, and 11.4% reported having suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months.
Another study revealed that nearly 21% of lawyers are problem drinkers and as many as 9% are thought to be addicted to various prescription drugs.
With statistics like these, it’s no wonder that bar associations across the country maintain active Lawyers’ Assistance Programs (“LAP”). The California State Bar LAP “helps attorneys (active, inactive, or disbarred), State Bar applicants, and law students who are struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, substance use issues, or personal and career concerns.”
LAP is an incredibly valuable, if underutilized, service in California. Here are the most important things for you to know about this program.
Like any good substance-abuse program, the LAP goes a long way to help educate people about the dangers of substance abuse before there is a problem.
In California, for example, the LAP hosts free, one-hour MCLE programs for lawyers, law firms, bar associations, government agencies, and conventions. Topics include both substance abuse and mental health issues.
The program also offers free pamphlets and flyers that can be placed around the office, courtroom halls, or other places where lawyers gather.
This is a great way to bring awareness of the program to those who are not yet familiar with its services. If you work in a physical office, consider taking advantage of these free printable resources.
What if you suspect that you have a mental health issue or a substance abuse problem — or you suspect that someone you care about may be facing those issues?
The LAP provides free self-assessment tools to help you decide whether it’s time to seek professional assistance with your struggles. Those tools include: (1) Twenty Questions of Alcohol/Drug Abuse; (2) an Anxiety Assessment; and (3) a Depression Assessment.
LAP also publishes a Wellness Guide for Senior Lawyers and Their Families, Friends, and Colleagues that can help legal professionals assess whether they may be suffering from dementia or other cognitive impairment.
Importantly, each self-assessment tool includes contact information for relevant professionals in the event you determine it is time to reach out for help.
What to do if you’re in trouble
So, what happens if you go through the self-assessments and determine that you need some assistance?
We’re glad you asked.
LAP provides voluntary counseling and career coaching services for those who are struggling. Benefits include two free individual counseling sessions with a local therapist who specializes in working with legal professionals and two free career counseling sessions for those who find themselves at a crossroads professionally.
LAP also offers weekly group counseling sessions with other legal professionals who are wrestling with similar issues. These groups are facilitated by licensed counselors.
Like most people, sometimes lawyers don’t realize they are in trouble until something major happens. Perhaps you received a DUI, were caught drinking at work, or got into some other sort of trouble due to substance abuse or mental illness.
In those cases, you may be referred to Monitored LAP. This program is often used to satisfy specific monitoring or verification requirements imposed by an employer, the State Bar Court, or some other entity with authority over the attorney.
Monitored LAP is more structured than voluntary LAP, offering long-term services and the ongoing assistance of a case manager.
Regardless of which program you find yourself in, it’s important to know that LAP services are confidential and the program is set up to save, not destroy, your professional career.
You are not alone
As with any mental health service, there may be a stigma around lawyers reaching out for help from the LAP.
That hesitancy is understandable, but waiting to ask for help hurts you a lot more than any damage your reputation might take because you sought assistance.
Despite the grave prevalence of mental health and substance abuse issues in the legal community, only 192 attorneys sought the assistance of the California LAP last year, according to the program’s 2021 annual report.
That number accounts for a 36% increase over the prior year, with the increase thought to be caused by the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 2016 and 2021, California LAP assisted an average of 154 professionals per year.
Of those who did seek assistance in 2021, 150 did so for mental health reasons as opposed to substance abuse reasons. Perhaps encouragingly, in both 2020 and 2021, far more attorneys used the LAP voluntarily than did those who used Monitored LAP.
Still, the fact that only 192 out of the 266,000 licensees in the state utilized LAP in 2021 is a testament to the need for education and understanding in these arenas.
For those who are worried about the stigma, consider this: mental health challenges can affect your judgment and your effectiveness at work. Would you rather deal with the emotional discomfort of asking for help, or face ethics complaints and malpractice claims because you haven’t gotten the help you need?
If you or another legal professional you care about are struggling with substance abuse, mental health, or career transitions, why not give California LAP a try? You’re certainly not alone in your need for help and you may just turn your life around by reaching out.