CHARLESTON -– The state Supreme Court has approved a three-year pilot program to help attorneys who have addictions, or physical or mental health conditions that affect their ability to practice law.

The program initially was proposed by the West Virginia State Bar, through its Committee on Lawyer Assistance and Intervention, in November 2008. The Proposed rules at that time were published for comment. After review of the comments, the committee amended the proposed rules in August 2011, and the Court published those for public comment in October.

The Court considered those comments, amended the rules and has now approved a three-year pilot program known as the Lawyer Assistance Program. The rules implementing the Lawyer Assistance Program replace Rules 5.0 through 5.15 of the West Virginia Rules of Lawyer Disciplinary Procedure.

The new program replaces the Committee on Lawyer Assistance and Intervention.

Justice Brent Benjamin began work on the project when he was Chief Justice in 2009.

"The program is designed to help attorneys with dependency issues, with physical issues, with mental health issues that affect their ability to practice law," he said. "First and foremost, it's to protect the public and clients from harm that can be caused by lawyers who are impaired.

"Secondly, it's also there to help the attorneys themselves who may need help. To help them begin recovery, continue recovery and support them through their recovery. And, it's meant to educate judges and lawyers and the public about issues related to dependency and mental health issues. Education is always an important thing.

"Finally, it's important that we come up with prevention programs when we can. It's hard to look at sometimes. But when we ignore it – and you can't just ignore it -- it just continues and gets worse."

At the conclusion of the first two years of the pilot project, the Board of Governors of the West Virginia State Bar is required to file a report with the Court so the Court can evaluate the program at that time.

The Supreme Court order setting out the new rules is available on the Supreme Court website.

"This is an attempt to reach out a hand to someone who might be struggling before it causes irreparable harm to anybody," Benjamin said.

The Lawyer Assistance Program will be funded through the West Virginia State Bar. The total annual salaries, costs, and expenses of the program may not exceed $60,000 each year. The program will be managed by a volunteer 15-member board appointed by the West Virginia State Bar's Board of Governors. Services provided by the program and information given to the board and staff will be confidential.

Benjamin said referrals for the program will come from three sources: self-referrals by the lawyers themselves, third-person referrals (which can be confidential) and from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. He stressed that the attorney can decide to refuse help. The lawyer will be responsible for the cost of therapy and such.

Benjamin said he sees the importance of starting this program each time the Supreme Court has to deal with lawyer ethics issues from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

"Time and time again, what we see motivating a lot of those problems are dependency issues and mental health issues," he said. "A good number -- probably a majority of them -- are related to depend and mental health issues."

Benjamin also said it's important for lawyers to help one another.

"It's a very stressful, high-pressure job," he said. "Lawyers sometimes don't know who to turn to. A lot of things they deal with are confidential, and it's hard to ask for help sometimes."

Benjamin said others deserve credit for getting this project going, notably Karen Kahle, chairwoman of the Committee on Lawyer Assistance and Intervention; immediate past president of the state Bar Gary Nickerson; current state Bar President Jim Wright; and Anita Casey, executive director of the state Bar.

"They have been tireless in trying to make this a reality. It's been a long time coming. A great majority of other states already have these programs in place. I'm glad to see that we finally are doing this. It ultimately will be beneficial to the public, clients and attorneys."

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