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D.C. Bar President Ellen Jakovic Stresses Crucial Role of LAPs to Promote Attorney Well-Being

September 30, 2022

By June P. Johnson

COLAP conference panel
The National Conference for Lawyer Assistance Programs offered a session on aging attorneys featuring panelists (from left) Tom Gilbertsen, Denise Perme, Aisha Cassis, Linda Jackson, and Dr. Jonathan DeRight.

As the legal profession continues to push for culture change to improve lawyer health and well-being, D.C. Bar President Ellen Jakovic underscored the important work of lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) at bar associations across the country to assist legal professionals dealing with stress, substance use, and trauma.

Delivering the opening remarks at the American Bar Association’s National Conference for Lawyer Assistance Programs last week, Jakovic said that “the practice of law is and will remain stressful,” but the confidential, hands-on services and support that LAPs provide “help attorneys to recover, preserve their families, and protect the public.”

“Clients will continue to bring us complex and pressing matters and expect nothing short of stellar results in often unreasonable time frames. And attorneys will continue to sacrifice their mental and physical health in order to provide the best possible representation for their clients,” Jakovic said. “The work that you and your colleagues do is incredibly challenging. And it is also incredibly important. … You are helping to make the law a healthier and happier profession.”

A groundbreaking study by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in 2016 revealed the prevalence of substance use and mental health problems in the legal profession, with 21 percent of lawyers surveyed dealing with problematic drinking and 28 percent struggling with some level of depression.

A 2020 survey  conducted by the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar confirmed as much — of the nearly 3,000 respondents, more than half screened positive for risky drinking, with women attorneys drinking more hazardously and experiencing higher levels of mental health distress. 

Ellen Jakovic“As lawyers, we are trained to project confidence and take control. To negotiate harder than our counterpart on a deal. To draft a tighter document than our opposing counsel. To be better prepared than our adversary in the courtroom,” Jakovic said. “Once our competitive juices start to flow, it’s hard to stop them. We begin to think that anything less than complete mastery is unacceptable, a failure. … As a result, our mental health suffers; we neglect our family, friends, and activities that bring us joy; and many of us develop substance use problems.”

Because of the often adversarial and competitive nature of their work, Jakovic said it is no surprise that lawyers experience stress at debilitating levels but also are reluctant to seek help. “Thanks to you, the lawyers, judges, and law students who are drinking too much or experiencing mental health symptoms have people to whom they can turn for help,”

The conference, hosted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, featured programs addressing issues such as addiction and substance use, self-compassion, treatment and monitoring of attorneys as safety sensitive professionals, and the aging legal profession.

The session “Aging Attorneys: A Multi-Disciplinary Examination of the Clinical, Legal, and Professional Challenges & Benefits” featured Aisha Cassis of the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility; Dr. Jonathan DeRight of Woodbridge Psychological Associates, PC; Tom Gilbertsen, partner at Dueffert Gilbertsen PLLC and chair of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Committee; Linda Jackson, partner at ArentFox Schiff LLP; and Denise Perme, associate director of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program. The panelists shared their expertise as well as moving stories on how they creatively assisted attorneys in challenging situations while also preserving their career, reputation, and dignity.

“All of us at LAP have spent time establishing trust and rapport. This isn’t something that happens over one appointment — it takes time and trust. We treat all of our clients with a lot of care,” Perme said.

The panel discussed the signs and symptoms of cognitive decline in aging lawyers, the potential risks of impairment, employer rights and responsibilities under anti-discrimination laws, lawyer discipline, and how lawyer assistance programs can offer a supportive environment for attorneys dealing with substance use and mental health disorders.

The D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program , for example, offers free and confidential services to Bar members, judges, and law students in the District looking for support. These services include confidential management consultations on issues about individual lawyer performance or well-being; assessment, evaluation, referral, and short-term counseling; access to an LAP volunteer mentor; and educational presentations to raise awareness about attorney wellness.

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