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Wellness & Beyond

Remembering Tom Patton, Prime Mover of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program

March 01, 2024

By Denise Perme

Lawyer assistance programs all over the country rely on the support and dedication of legions of volunteersTom Patton committed to offering a lifeline to lawyers in need of a helping hand. Among these tireless champions was Thomas Earl Patton III, one of the longest-serving and most committed volunteers of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP).

Patton, who passed away in January, was a beacon of hope in the community of recovering lawyers in Washington, D.C., leading efforts to help those whose drinking had become unmanageable.

Along with a small number of equally committed friends and colleagues, Patton, who himself achieved sobriety for over four decades, dedicated his life to helping others going through the same struggle. The D.C. Bar LAP owes its creation, in part, to Patton and his colleagues, a small group of passionate, hardworking lawyers who came together in 1981 and started saving lives and legal careers.

Alcohol use disorder, the current name for a condition that at that time was widely viewed as a character flaw and a moral defect, affected lawyers at a higher rate than the general population. Unfortunately, that has not changed, which is why lawyer assistance programs and their volunteers are as important as ever.

Today’s D.C. Bar members are a beneficiary of Patton’s dedication and effort, not simply because he worked to start a program that offers direct help to members with alcohol use and other disorders, but because he and his colleagues also battled to shift the mindset — in the disciplinary system and the courts — about lawyers with alcohol problems.

In June 1981, the D.C. Bar Board of Governors established the nine-member Special Committee on Alcohol Abuse tasked to develop and implement a program to assist lawyers struggling with alcohol use disorders. The committee, which included Patton, recommended the creation of a nonprofit charitable corporation to assist lawyers licensed in the District with accessing treatment for substance use disorders. That recommendation resulted in the creation of the Assistance Program for Alcoholism Among Lawyers (APAL) led by Patton and the other committee members.

Almost immediately after its creation, APAL mobilized for an important, precedent-setting case involving Franklin Kersey, a Washington lawyer who suffered from a severe alcohol use disorder for practically his entire life. Between 1980 and 1982, Kersey committed violations that resulted in the Board of Professional Responsibility’s recommendation of disbarment.

“We did an amicus brief through APAL. Tom was the last reader of the brief,” says Steven Tabackman, a close friend of Patton and fellow APAL member.

In the brief, APAL contended that “alcoholism is a mitigating factor to be considered in determining discipline. To fail to consider alcoholism as a mitigating factor would be to defy both scientific information and common sense.” But for Kersey’s alcohol use disorder, APAL argued, his misconduct would not have occurred.

As a result of APAL’s efforts, Kersey’s disbarment was stayed. He was placed on probation with the requirement that he remain in recovery and demonstrate continued sobriety.

In 1985 the Board of Governors approved the creation of the D.C. Bar’s own program to offer a broader array of services to more individuals, including members of the D.C. Bar, judges of the District of Columbia Courts, and law students enrolled in District law schools — paving the way for establishment of the LAP. To date, thousands of lawyers have found help and support through the LAP.

Patton not only played a pivotal role in the LAP’s creation nearly 40 years ago, but he also volunteered with the program until his retirement from law practice in 2021. “Tom Patton was dedicated to getting help for lawyers and convincing the Bar that they had a prominent and active role to play in helping lawyers do what they do better,” Tabackman says. “He was committed to that in his bones.”

Thomas Earl Patton III was born on November 25, 1940, in Indianapolis, Indiana, and spent most of his life in Virginia. He attended Catholic University both for his undergraduate and law degrees and began his legal career at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City. Later, he moved to Washington, D.C., and worked with the legendary trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams at Williams & Connolly.

The D.C. Bar LAP staff and clients are truly fortunate for Patton’s decades-long dedication and commitment to help thousands of people get and stay sober, and for helping to spread a message of hope.

On behalf of the LAP staff and the members and volunteers of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Committee, thank you, Tom. Your legacy endures.

Denise Perme is associate director of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program.