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Lawyer Assistance Programs Gear Up for New Client ‘Explosion’

June 3, 2020, 9:40 AM

Lawyer assistance programs are girding for an upswing in demand for services, as attorneys seek help for mental health and substance abuse issues exacerbated by the coronavirus.

These programs often operate on a state, or occasionally a city level, and are part of the infrastructure that the legal profession has set up to combat lawyers’ unusually high rates of mental health and substance abuse problems.

Though there was a lull in requests from lawyers for help in the initial weeks of the pandemic, lawyer assistance programs in several states have reported they expect an uptick and are already starting to see it. And they’re ramping up to address a new slew of calls for support.

“The research literature is clear that this type of fallout tends to occur in the wake of epidemics, quarantines, and traumatic events, of which this has been all three,” Patrick Krill, an expert on attorney addiction and mental health, said in an email.

Help Needed

Nearly 40% of U.S. adults recently surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation said that coronavirus-related anxiety and stress has had a negative effect on their mental health. There’s little hard data available on attorney mental health specifically since the pandemic, but past studies show lawyers tend to suffer disproportionately from such problems.

Approximately 21% of lawyers are “problem drinkers,” a 2016 study on attorney substance use and mental health concerns found, and they experience alcohol use disorders at a far higher rate than other professional populations. The study also concluded that lawyers experience more significant mental health distress than other professionals.

There are many pressures on some attorneys from a financial standpoint in addition to a public health one. Law firms across the country are cutting salaries, and some are laying off or furloughing attorneys as the economy and job market suffer.

Krill said that new data is beginning to emerge showing “significant levels of psychological distress, along with increased substance use,” due to the pandemic.

Lawyers are at increased risk for such problems due in part to their personalities and dispositions, the high demands of the profession, and the historical lack of prioritization of these issues within legal institutions, he added.

Radio Silence

Legal assistance providers in three states—New York, Tennessee, and Kentucky—say the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. and ensuing lockdown in March and April didn’t bring the initial huge influx of referrals and calls from lawyers that they may have expected.

“It went silent for about a month,” said Yvette Hourigan, director of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program in Frankfort. Even third-party referrals stopped, she said.

Now that a new wave is expected, there are a couple of ways lawyers can get help. They can call in for assistance, and even do so anonymously, or be referred anonymously, said Lindsey O’Connell, clinical supervisor for the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program in Nashville.

Legal assistance program personnel said lawyers may have been overwhelmed by the initial effects of the crisis. O’Connell said many were likely sidetracked by logistical issues related to moving to telework and dealing with the pandemic.

There was a period of time when everyone was just trying to figure out what was happening and how long it was going to take, said Hourigan.

Krill explained the stay-at-home orders make it more challenging for attorneys struggling to find the privacy they want for a teletherapy visit or even a phone call. He said “there is almost always a lag between symptom onset and help seeking.”

He added reaching out to ask for mental health help is “sometimes low on the to-do (or can-do) list when [attorneys] are fully overwhelmed.”

May Brings More Calls

After a relative quiet March and April, the LAP personnel say they started seeing a shift in May.

Hourigan said the Kentucky program has been getting “a lot of calls for mental health assistance” since then as well as for substance abuse issues.

There was an uptick in the number of cases and the acuity of the cases, she said, and people are “reaching out now to talk about issues that seem to have been building during the period of quarantine.”

She’s been hearing from lawyers about uncontrollable anxiety and sleeplessness,and activities done in isolation that don’t seem so normal in the return to “reality,” like opening wine at 10 a.m., she said.

She predicts there will be an “explosion” soon in people needing assistance.

Hourigan pointed to a free webinar the Kentucky LAP offered on May 22 about lawyer well-being during the pandemic.” About 750 people signed up for it, she reported, where it would normally attract about 50.

At the New York City Bar, a webinar on substance abuse and mental health that might have normally had about 100 participants recently drew about 700, according to Travis.

To meet the anticipated increase in need, LAPs are taking several steps. Travis said her program is increasing the number of dedicated support groups and developing educational programs for lawyers.

They’re also educating themselves “to be better prepared to help lawyers meet these ever increasing challenges,” she said.

Tennessee’s program is recruiting more volunteers, said O’Connell. They help with client monitoring agreements, meet for virtual coffee with clients, and can even help out in a law practice, she said.

Since April, the Tennessee program has also been providing more online resources on mitigation strategies and skills for coping during the crisis, for which O’Connell said she sees “no definitive end date.”

If you are a lawyer in need of help, there are several resources:

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com

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