CHARLESTON – What initially began as a grassroots movement to provide assistance to legal professionals is now a full-fledged assistance program in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Lawyers Assistance Program (WVLAP) was created in 2013 by the state’s Supreme Court. The free and confidential program provides vital assistance to legal professionals, including lawyers, judges and law students. WVLAP provides consultation, referral, intervention, crisis management, monitoring and peer support for legal professionals struggling with retirement, stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, or any mental, physical or emotional health issues. With recent studies showing that nearly one in five lawyers suffer from addiction, the need for services is firmly grounded in scientific fact.

Robert E. Albury Jr., who took over the position of executive director following the retirement of George Daugherty, brings a lot of experience to the position as a former practicing attorney and licensed health care professional. He previously served as the executive director of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Lawyer Assistance Program and has a combined 35 years' experience in the legal profession and behavioral health care. Albury took time to speak with The West Virginia Record concerning the programs offered by WVLAP and the organization’s plans for the future.  

“Since July 2016, our efforts have been focused on obtaining addition funding and staffing, implementation of a monitoring program, developing policies & procedures expending scope of services to include lawyers, judges, bar applicants and law students, as well as developing working referral relationships with Office of Disciplinary Counsel, Judicial Investigation Commission, Board of Law Examiners and Law School,” Albury told The West Virginia Record. “Services have also been expanded to include not just substance abuse issues, but any mental, emotional and/or physical health issues (i.e. depression, anxiety, age/retirement, stress, burnout, work/life balance, substance abuse, co-dependency/relationship issues, conflicts with colleagues or family, compulsive behaviors, grief, trauma and more).”

Key to the success of the program will be the ability to reach out to legal professionals in the state, and a strong outreach effort has been undertaken by WVLAP in recent months. A total of 91 client files were reported at the end of August 2016, and 31 new files have been opened since that time. Additionally, the program has received nine new monitoring contract referrals since August, from entities such as West Virginia University Law School and the West Virginia Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

As of February, WVLAP reported 141 case files and 12 monitoring request cases. The caseload is impressive considering the operating budget. As set by the Supreme Court rule, only $60,000 per year is guaranteed from funds provided by The West Virginia State Bar. According to Albury efforts are now underway to improve fundraising to provide additional services to the legal community.

“Funding for WVLAP was initially provided for by Supreme Court rule, but capped funding at $60,000 annually, with additional resources coming from WVLAP Board fundraising efforts,” explained Albury. “While funding has been insufficient to provide for the potential program development opportunities and expanded scope of services, the WVLAP Board is currently working with the Bar’s Board of Governors and Supreme Court to obtaining funding sufficient to provide for program development and expanded scope of services.”

Expanding services is important to Albury who notes that the link between the stress of the legal profession and the need for mental health or substance abuse treatment is well documented.

“It should be noted that studies reveal that legal professionals suffer from substance abuse and/or mental health issues at up to three times that of the general population and that thru education, intervention, evaluation, treatment and monitoring up to 92 percent of participants are able to achieve and maintain a long-term personal program of recovery,” Albury concluded.

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