December 2000 

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President's Page Headline
Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers

by Kent A. Gernander

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Note: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers has an office at 450 N. Syndicate #117, St Paul MN 55104; it can be reached by telephone at (651) 646-5590.

My uncle Arthur was the only lawyer among my relatives. I remember him as tall, handsome and dashing -- he was one of the last horse cavalry officers during World War II. He was quick-witted and commanded an immense vocabulary. I have yet to meet a smarter lawyer. Unfortunately, for most of his adult life, Art was disabled by manic-depressive illness.

Originally from Minnesota, Art taught law in the East for several years before returning to Minneapolis. While otherwise unemployed, he agreed to help a friend, whose property was being condemned. One day they discussed the case over martinis in downtown Minneapolis, after which Art was unable to locate the lot in which he had parked his car. Finding himself near a police station, he asked for help in locating his car. To his surprise, the police were uninterested in his problem. When he protested and refused to leave the station, he was charged with disobeying a police order and held for a court appearance.

The presiding judge happened to be a law school classmate, who suggested deferring the case. Art insisted on a plea in abatement of the charge. He asserted that he was a foreign lawyer within the jurisdiction to defend the civil liberties of a citizen, and therefore immune from arrest. The authority for this proposition was an act of the British Parliament, incorporated in the common law of Minnesota when it became a state. The law was enacted to protect London barristers from harassment when defending unpopular causes in remote districts; Art asserted that it applied equally to his situation. He hadn't the citation at hand, but he had learned of the law in Maynard Pirsig's class and was sure he would confirm it. The judge retired to chambers to call Professor Pirsig, who said he recalled the law, and while he wasn't sure it still applied, he was of the view that if it weren't the law it ought to be.

Many lawyers suffer from mental and emotional illnesses, and from alcohol and chemical dependencies. Studies show that lawyers have the highest incidence of depression of any occupation. As many as one-fourth of surveyed lawyers exhibit symptoms of clinical depression, more than twice the incidence in the general population. The ABA has estimated that nearly one-fifth of all U.S. lawyers suffer from alcohol or substance abuse, more than three times the incidence in the general population.

The effects of these illnesses are not limited to the impaired lawyers. Families, friends and associates share the pain, and clients and the public are often harmed. There are estimates that chemical or mental impairment is a factor in more than one-half of all attorney discipline cases.

These afflictions, by their nature, often need intervention and support from others. For many years, a dedicated group of attorneys, organized as Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL), have offered confidential assistance to alcoholic and chemically dependent lawyers, judges and law students, and their families. Founded in 1976 by a group of recovering lawyers, LCL now has 400 members and has assisted in the recovery process of more than 500 lawyers.

The sometimes-tragic consequences of depression were illustrated recently in Minnesota, when two lawyers committed suicide in the aftermath of discipline for ethical violations. Ed Cleary, director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, Justice Paul Anderson, and others urged an examination of emotional illness in the profession. The MSBA's Life and the Law Committee established a Depression Task Force, composed of lawyers, judges, and mental health professionals and chaired by lawyer Jill Clark. The task force recommended establishment of a lawyer assistance program (LAP) for mental health issues. LCL, led by lawyers Gerald Freeman and George Widseth, proposed expansion of LCL's organization and program to encompass such lawyer assistance. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Supreme Court granted the petition of the MSBA and LCL to establish an LAP, funded by lawyer registration fees ($7.00 per lawyer annually). To protect the confidentiality of disclosures by lawyers seeking assistance, the Court also amended the Rules of Professional Conduct to exempt such communications from the requirements for reporting attorney misconduct.

The LAP will continue to offer intervention and support through volunteers for alcoholism and chemical dependency. It will also offer intervention, support, and referrals to mental health professionals for depression and other mental illnesses. It will offer education on mental illness and chemical dependency to the legal community.

LCL has operated with minimal staffing and a modest budget. Most of its funds have come from contributions. Support from lawyer registration fees will provide added funds, but the staffing and budget will remain modest. LCL will continue to need volunteers and contributions. It is an organization and a program worthy of support. They save careers, families and lives.

Kent Gernander

Kent A. Gernander is president of the MSBA. A general practice and trial lawyer in the Winona firm of Streater & Murphy, P.A., he is a graduate of Harvard College and of the University of Minnesota Law School.