State Bar program focuses on helping attorneys deal with personal challenges

By Mike Scott

Legal News

Long hours, client relations, time away from family, and running a profitable firm - these are all examples of what can cause stress and anxiety for practicing lawyers.

The Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program is available to help. Since 1979, the program, paid for by Michigan Bar Association member dues, has been a resource for lawyers and judges who have personal and professional questions, issues, and or may be suffering from a variety of illnesses.

The program provides completely confidential telephone and/or personal consultations for lawyers and judges and their families, as well as outside referrals for employees of the State Bar of Michigan. Any State Bar member in good standing is eligible to receive assistance. And it helps that counselors have a good understanding of the typical stresses related to the profession.

Some of the services are free while others are priced on a sliding scale. Managed by a staff of four professionals, the program focuses on a range of topics from addictions to wellness, and just about everything in between.

''All professionals have stress that happens because of their jobs but the rules, norms and expectations are very rigid for lawyers,'' said Program Administrator Martha Burkett, who holds master's degrees in counseling and public administration.

''The indoctrination starts when a student enters law school and from there you are taught that being a lawyer is a 24/7 job.''

"The program began as a grass-roots movement by a number of lawyers who were recovering alcoholics more than 30 years ago," Burkett said.

Those recovering alcoholics recognized that some of their peers with similar substance abuse issues needed their help, so they led an effort to introduce colleagues to Alcoholics' Anonymous, engaged in interventions and patterned the program after a 12-step recovery process.

The program became more formalized over the years and in the 1980s and early 1990s a number of professional social workers helped out on a contract basis.

''Over the last few years we have been pushing to become more of a preventative program for our lawyers,'' Burkett said. ''We do a number of educational and outreach programs as well.''

The Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program offers seminars available on demand for lawyers on a number of issues, such as a 40-minute program presented by Burkett on Stress Management for Lawyers.

A number of other ''wellness'' articles and seminars also have been produced, such as a psychological perspective of time management, personal renewal and replenishment, depression, life balance and more.

"The program is also available to law school students for short-term counseling, help with past substance abuse issues and more," Burkett said. "In recent years, program professionals have been helping lawyers deal with such issues as sex addiction and gambling. We have more cases of individuals who are dually diagnosed with something like a mental health illness and substance abuse,'' Burkett said.

"While in some circles the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program still has a reputation mainly for working with attorneys that have substance abuse issues, the statewide consciousness for what the program provides is expanding," Burkett said. ''Every month we focus on a topic relating to attorney wellness. It's a quality of life issue because we want to support attorney wellness for everyone,''

Such specific health topics as acupuncture and meditation are reviewed by program materials and experts are available to help lawyers understand the benefits available to them from these types of mental and physical activities.

The program offers assistance on family-related issues, such as marriage counseling and dealing with children.

"Family counseling is valuable because many lawyers work in excess of 60 or 70 hours per week," Burkett said. "It can be hard to adjust to a family life after working so many hours. You don't want to treat your five-year-old like you would a client."

The program has a 501(c)(3) organization called the Richard Steinberg Memorial Treatment Fund through Brighton Hospital, which helps the Bar raise money for those lawyers who can't otherwise afford personal counseling or treatment for illnesses. Over the last two years more than $30,000 has been raised for the program, and the Barristers' Bar through Thomas Cooley Law School is making the fund its designated charitable group this year.

In addition to strict confidentiality, the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program can offer members a provider network of health care and counseling professionals across the state, along with a network of volunteers who want to help attorneys with any personal issues.

"Lawyers of all backgrounds do use program resources," Burkett said. "Recent law school graduates who have found it difficult to find a job have used it to help deal with unemployment and career worries."

"Older lawyers nearing retirement have used resources to help deal with a reduced nest egg and what that means for their retirement plans."

''As a lawyer you can call and ask us a general question and there is no commitment and you don't even need to give is your name,'' Burkett said. ''We try to make it both easy to use and cost effective.''

Published: Thu, Aug 19, 2010