CHARLESTON -– The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia has approved for public comment proposed rules and rules changes needed to implement the West Virginia Lawyer Assistance Program, one of Justice Brent Benjamin's target issues during his year as Chief Justice in 2009.
The program will provide help to attorneys who have addictions, or physical or mental health conditions, that affect their ability to practice law. It is designed to encourage them to get help before the conditions impair their practices, and to encourage other attorneys to identify fellow lawyers who might need help. The program was proposed by the West Virginia State Bar Lawyer Committee on Assistance and Intervention, which drafted the rules and presented them to the Court with a letter explaining their genesis, which is attached to this press release.
"It's to help alleviate problems before they start," Benjamin said.
"Alcohol and drug dependancy, depression and mental disorders, family issues –- these are all problems which confront people. For lawyers, such problems often occur at a higher rate than for people in other professions, and the impact of such disorders can extend beyond the lawyer to his or her family and clients.
"The Lawyer Assistance Program will help such lawyers by not only identifying problems as early as possible, but also by assisting lawyers to get appropriate care. In this way, we not only help the lawyers, but also their clients."
The State Bar Lawyer Committee on Assistance and Intervention for more than twenty years has served as a volunteer peer group primarily to attorneys struggling with drug and alcohol problems. During the past few years, the Committee became aware that many other states were moving from volunteer peer-assisted committees to funded programs led by paid directors.
Karen Kahle, Chairwoman of the Committee, said most of those states have had a jump in referrals, at least in part because paid directors have time to travel around their states and provide education about attorney assistance and explain its value.
"There have been less than a dozen referrals to my Committee this year. Other states have gone from numbers like that to hundreds of referrals within a couple of years after changing from all volunteer to funded programs," Ms. Kahle said. "We know there are a lot more lawyers out there in West Virginia who need this help than those we are hearing about, and there are people who care about them and don't know what to do.
"As volunteer committee members, we do this in our spare time. It's near and dear to our hearts, but most of us still work full-time. When you hire an executive director, one of their most important duties in the beginning is education. To do that, typically new state directors will go around to every CLE they can get to and speak, if only for five or ten minutes.
"We know there are people out there that need help. The general population has about a ten to fifteen percent rate of alcoholism and drug addiction, and a similar rate of depression. Those percentages generally are slightly higher in attorneys. "Maybe it's stress. Maybe it's the personality types of those who choose law as a career. There are different theories about why you see it, but you see it," she said.
With the help of the American Bar Association's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, the West Virginia State Bar Committee wrote proposed rules for West Virginia. The rules are based on ABA model rules as well as rules adopted by several other states. West Virginia's proposed rules have been unanimously endorsed by the West Virginia State Bar Board of Governors.
The Supreme Court on December 8 approved a thirty day public comment period. After the public comment period, the Rules will come back to the Court for final approval.
The Lawyer Assistance Program will be managed by a 15-person Board of Directors appointed by the West Virginia State Bar Board of Governors. The Bar's Board of Governors also will add a certain amount to its annual assessment of members to underwrite the salary and expenses of the Lawyer Assistance Program Executive Director, whom the Board of Directors will hire.
The Executive Director will act as a contact point for referrals and will help those referred secure counseling and treatment. The Executive Director also will monitor attorneys for whom monitoring is appropriate or ordered and will operate a list of volunteer attorneys and judges to help attorneys who need help, among other duties.
The duties are delineated in the rules. The rules are available on the Supreme Court Web site at http://www.state.wv.us/wvsca/rules/LAP.htm