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Bar News - March 23, 2007


A Comment on New Hampshire Supreme Court Rule 57 Amendments

 

Editor’s Note: Due to the nature of this commentary, the author has asked to remain anonymous.

 

First of all, I applaud the court for addressing the problem of substance abuse among lawyers. Other occupations have initiated similar efforts. The current proposal seeks to do two things. Part One deals with prevention, intervention, and access to the tools of recovery; Part Two will rethink the way the disciplinary system disposes of conduct cases where addictive disease is a factor. Both of these are important in addressing alcohol and drug addiction among lawyers.

 

It helps to look at each part independently to see what elements are necessary to achieve particular goals.

 

I have a brand-new idea for Part One. I propose a new CLE requirement that every NH Bar member and every law school student planning to apply for the NH Bar attend three meetings of AA/NA or Al-Anon per year.

 

This may sound far-fetched, but please think about it for awhile. Think about what is available to us through the AA and Al-Anon programs. Requiring a few AA meetings will eliminate the reluctance of lawyers and judges to attend these meetings because there can be no stigma about attending something that is compulsory. Lawyers will meet people who are not ashamed of their alcohol addiction. They can witness the struggles and joys of those in recovery. AA meetings cover the disease of alcoholism and addiction, in general, to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, money and more.

 

The inclusion of all lawyers and judges in Part I eliminates isolation, and reinforces our sense of community as lawyers and judges working and learning to help our colleagues who have addiction health issues. Attending AA meetings also strengthens the AA network. Perhaps most importantly, mandatory attendance in AA will break down the barrier created by our mythical, stigmatizing ideas about the program. Lawyers attending AA could eventually have a positive influence on the meetings as well, by reinforcing the principle of anonymity, for example, which is important to everyone, not just lawyers.

 

The word “alcoholics,” can refer to all addicts. AA members speak about the warning signs, the patterns of alcoholic thinking, and what to do and not do for intervention. Al-Anon focuses on those who suffer along with the alcoholic and helps them understand personal boundaries, co-dependence and enmeshment. People learn to be aware that indulging the defects of an alcoholic will not help them, and will actually further harm the drinker and those in range. Attendance at Al-Anon meetings would help lawyers and judges devise effective responses when dealing with alcoholics.

 

AA teaches that isolation, fear, defiance, and denial are the cornerstones of addiction. Resentment and anger are potential killers. Addiction is actually a spiritual disease; the subject of the addiction is merely a symptom. AA teaches that willingness, honesty, and humility are the cornerstones of recovery.

 

There is a significant difference between spirituality and religion. The court needs to maintain the separation between church and state. AA may be a spiritual program, but it is definitely not religious; it is certainly not a church. There is no obligation to pray or believe in God or say anything at the meetings. You are not a member unless you call yourself one. Anyone can come to any open meeting; even atheists feel welcome in AA. Many who attend AA are primarily or secondarily drug addicts as well.

 

Lawyers tend to be high-functioning alcoholics, accomplishing many tasks while under the influence. The folks in AA have done exactly the same things. And they all understand that alcohol doesn’t discriminate between Type A or Type B, well-educated or welfare. It does the same thing to everyone. While the problems of a working-class mother might not be the same as those of a lawyer, she is often no less high functioning.

 

With regard to Part Two, I am concerned that a recovery program exclusive to our profession will increase an alcoholic’s sense of isolation and fear if presented as the only thing necessary for recovery. Exclusivity reinforces the erroneous and paranoid idea that lawyers need protection from the general population, a layer of insulation (isolation) from the rest of society.

 

A doctor was required to enter his “doctor’s-only” treatment program in order to show the Physicians’ Committee he was fit to practice and regain his license. He could not keep sober. It wasn’t until he was willing to work the AA program that he could stop drinking. This has happened to psychiatrists, insurance executives, airline pilots...there are a lot of micro-programs out there. They do serve as a crucial first step, and as a monitoring and support system if need be, but they cannot be expected to be enough to achieve recovery. The alcoholic must eliminate that feeling of isolation or the person will not recover.

 

Helping those who have bottomed out face their misdeeds, successfully recover, and have a new chance at life seems to be the central goal of Part Two. I applaud the court’s effort to avoid permanently condemning a lawyer who screwed up because of an addiction or relapse, and to protect the public from suffering undue harm.

 

It is important that the disciplinary process take into account the effects of addiction in making its recommendations. Currently, alcoholics can choose to reveal their personal problems to the professional conduct committees. A Bar Committee could be set up to engage these decision-makers to redesign penalties meted out in cases where the lawyer or judge shows that their case involves their disease of addiction. This seems simpler than the proposed scheme.

 

Last night at an AA meeting, I explained that I was putting these comments together, and asked for feedback. I got many blank looks: most of the people had no idea I was a lawyer. One response was, “I think it’s hilarious that lawyers would be concerned about their reputations!” There’s a comedian in every crowd. I heard a few stories.

 

A priest felt he could not attend AA because of what he was. He was told there was no reason to worry: alcoholics are so self-absorbed that no one would even remember, let alone care. He went and listened, and found that people talked about problems related to alcohol. Now he wears his collar to meetings.

 

Someone talked about a Delta airline pilot who can’t hold onto sobriety. Delta has a treatment program for pilots that he’s been required to attend for years, but he still drinks. He attends AA meetings sporadically. Delta has given him the message that he is not an alcoholic, but an alcoholic pilot. Consequently, he remains in his dark, isolated, and frightened place, where we alcoholics all have been. The story teller doesn’t think this pilot will recover until he can see that he’s no different than anyone else, no better, no worse, and the Delta program is not making it easy.

 

Lawyers are not necessarily going to find that other lawyers become their best mentors or sponsors. This is not to say that alcoholic colleagues in recovery aren’t a good first line of intervention, or are not a safe way to begin to recover. But it would be a fatal error to limit the pool of sponsors and mentors to lawyers and judges.

 

With regard to privileged records: can a lawyer, who has recovered through LAP, and subsequently seeks a position as attorney general, judge or commissioner, be sure a future court won’t find it has a duty to the public to disclose his LAP record? Can the court assure lawyers that privileged information won’t ever be released to the Governor and Council, or a judicial vetting committee? Lack of certainty would dissuade members from voluntarily participating. People in need of treatment services, but still basically functioning, are not likely to voluntarily advise the court and the NH Bar of their problem, let alone invite them to oversee and critique their recovery. Who would want a permanent record of their disease kept by the court?

 

The NH Bar Association can gather and transmit a list of treatment providers and facilities from BCBS and the NH DHHS, and a list of lawyers in recovery willing to take phone calls and help with interventions. The AA CLE requirement form can be available online to take along to meetings. The Bar Association would be a more appropriate venue for Part One of this assistance program.

 

Donations at an AA meeting are voluntary. Intervention, sponsorship, and mentoring by AA members are services that are freely given. The requirement of AA attendance by all members of the Bar goes to the heart of the isolation and fear issues associated with recovery programs, and is the most effective and economical way to educate all lawyers about addiction.

 

My proposal for Part One would eliminate any significant cost and administrative burden. Ideally, the funding for Part Two would be a trust funded by donations, not a yearly assessment. It would make a significant difference in everyone’s attitude toward the program if they see that it arises from, and is primarily about, caring for others, not disciplining them. It would also lend more autonomy to the program. Maybe there will come a day when a trust fund, along with the Bar committee, is the sum total of Part Two, making financial assistance available to those who need it for in-patient or out-patient treatment programs, and third-party monitoring as needed.

 

Proposed SCR 57 will not de-stigmatize the process of recovery. It will not effectively educate all members of the Bar to deal with addiction when they encounter it. The goals of Part One and Part Two can be accomplished largely, if not entirely, through existing programs outside the jurisdiction of the courts.

 

Alcoholics think that no one can understand them, that they are unique, that no one else bears the burden so well for so long under such circumstances, and that they are so important that they can’t break down. What alcoholics really are is self-absorbed, selfish, oversensitive, childish, and arrogant. Everyone in AA is exactly like that, too; completely understands them; and unconditionally loves them. This resource should not be overlooked as a direct route to a brighter future for the legal profession.

 

Bring a friend, spouse, son or daughter with you to a meeting. There are different kinds of meetings and each has its own character. AA people are friendly. (Whoever is running the meeting will sign your court papers.) I would be happy to take a colleague to a meeting, I love road trips.

 

It is necessary that I remain anonymous to honor AA’s Eleventh Tradition, which states:

 

“Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.”

 

If you wish to reach me, please contact the Bar News at 603-715-3250 or 3264. Thank you.

 

 

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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