Join Us in Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Lawyer Assistance Program – By Susan J. Kohlmann, President

Susan J. KohlmannHelp us mark this important milestone by joining us in person on May15 at the New York City Bar Association, in celebration of the Lawyer Assistance Program’s 25th Anniversary. Register here.

Twenty-five years ago, in announcing the creation of the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), City Bar President Michael Cooper said, “It is time, indeed, past time, that we took care of our colleagues suffering from this scourge.”

The scourge that was the impetus for the creation of LAP was the persistent substance abuse and mental health issues afflicting a concerning number of members of the legal profession. At the time, the ABA estimated that 15-18% of lawyers suffered from alcoholism or substance abuse, compared to 7-10% of the general population.

In 1999, it wasn’t a secret that a career in law came with unique challenges. Is endemic stress surprising in a profession built on the adversary system, high stakes and a business model where time is money? The holdup in addressing the problem was stigma. Seeking help in addressing substance abuse and mental health issues was seen by many as a sign of weakness. Alcohol was for blowing off steam or rainmaking. The traditional, big law firm culture was among the last places you would expect a topic like wellness to come up.

It wasn’t until about a decade ago that the concept of wellness was formally embraced by the legal profession, with the well-publicized findings in 2015 of the ABA Survey of Law Student Well-Being, and in 2016 of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. For the first time, many in the profession shared searing and heartfelt first-person accounts of spiraling careers and personal lives, along with inspiring stories of healing and lives turned around. Then came the ABA’s Wellness Pledge, whereby law firms formally acknowledged and committed resources to addressing substance abuse and mental health in the profession. Today, law firms have wellness programs, wellness committees and wellness managers, and the New York City Bar Association has a Mindfulness & Well-Being in Law Committee.

How did we get here? Through the efforts of courageous individuals who, one by one over time, dared to seek help and who broke the silence by sharing their stories, and through an infrastructure that was built up to serve them: the Lawyer Assistance Program created at the City Bar.

For 25 years, the City Bar’s LAP has provided assessment, intervention, supportive counseling, monitoring and an ecosystem of peer counseling – lawyers who have been through the travails of substance use and/or mental health issues and generously offer their time and support to assist their colleagues. LAP aids with many issues affecting well-being, including anxiety, depression and chronic stress. LAP provides training and education sessions to raise awareness and reduce stigma at law schools, law firms, bar associations and non-profit organizations, and works with the Character & Fitness and Grievance Committees in the Appellate Divisions, First and Second Department, helping bar applicants with issues get admitted to the bar, and assisting attorneys with grievance issues, as well as suspended and disbarred attorneys, get reinstated to practice. 

When President Cooper announced the City Bar’s LAP, he said that the program would be staffed by “a qualified professional.” That most qualified professional turned out to be Eileen Travis, who has directed LAP ever since and has had so much to do with the shift to a wellness mindset in the culture of the legal profession over the past quarter century.

I hope you will join us on May 15, in person at the New York City Bar Association, in celebration of the Lawyer Assistance Program’s 25th Anniversary. We are delighted that our keynote speaker will be the Hon. Dianne T. Renwick, Presiding Justice, Appellate Division, First Department.

Register here.