VI. Supporting the Profession, Embracing Social Issues
By Eileen Travis
Director, Lawyer Assistance Program
The New York City Bar Association’s engagement with the social issues of the day has been key to many of its programs, among them the Lawyer Assistance Program, which helps the legal community deal with mental health, substance use, personal, and professional issues.

In 1962, a City Bar report on “Mental Illness and Due Process” led directly to state legislation safeguarding the rights of mentally ill patients to be treated as a sick person first and a legal problem second. In 1986, the City Bar formed its Committee on Drugs & the Law, which in 1994 released its landmark report, “A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition,” describing unintended consequences of drug prohibition policy.

These studies essentially called for the decriminalization of mental-health and substance-use issues and for a new way of thinking about them. Focusing on its own back yard, and recognizing the high incidence of alcohol and substance-use problems among lawyers, judges, and law students, the City Bar formed the Special Committee on Lawyer Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in the 80s. And in 1999, the City Bar created the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), with then-President Michael A. Cooper writing in the January 1999 issue of this newsletter, “It is time, indeed, past time, that we took care of our colleagues suffering from this scourge. Consequently, we plan to establish a New York City Lawyer Assistance Program staffed by a qualified professional, who will be able to respond to self-referrals and referrals by others (i.e., colleagues, judges, disciplinary committees and family members), intervene when a lawyer threatens to harm himself or others irreparably, coordinate the monitoring of attorneys in recovery, and conduct a vigorous outreach program to inform lawyers, judges, and the community at large of the availability of the program.”

Supported by New York States’ Chief Judges and its Courts over the years, LAP has expanded its scope to include all addictive disorders, including gambling, sexual and eating disorders, specific mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, trauma, ADD, and anger management, as well as any issue for which an attorney, judge, or law student needs support.

The transformation in how substance-use and mental-health issues are viewed in the legal community is a feel-good story in itself. Following a well-received and widely-discussed research study it co-sponsored in 2016, the ABA has developed a “Well-Being Pledge,” calling on legal employers to recognize that substance use and mental health problems represent a significant challenge for the legal profession and acknowledge that more can be done to address these issues. Many of the big law firms in New York City have signed on and are partnering with LAP on presentations to their lawyers and staff. A recent multipart series in The American Lawyer and first-person accounts in the New York Law Journal of lawyers struggling with addiction and depression have resonated throughout the legal community.

Today, we can look back at those 1962 and 1994 reports as pioneering the path toward a “wellness” and “well-being” mindset in the legal profession.

The Association issues the report “Mental Illness and Due Process.”.
Formation of the Special Committee on Drugs & the Law.
The Association advocates reform of New York’s Rockefeller drug laws.
The City Bar and the Trust host the Northeast U.S. Regional Conference on the role of law schools in addressing the issue of substance abuse in the legal profession.
The City Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Committee submits written testimony in support of the adoption of a Unified Diversion Rule in New York State’s Attorney Disciplinary System.
The Association establishes the Special Committee on Alcohol & Substance Abuse.
The Lawyer Assistance Program is launched.
The City Bar hosts a Convocation for the Bellacosa Commission to present its findings to Chief Judge Judith Kaye, recommending the establishment of the NYS Lawyer Assistance Trust.
Chief Judge Judith Kaye
The City Bar supports the State Bar’s efforts to have questions about an applicant’s mental health history removed from the NYS Bar Application.