Executive Directions: Lawyers Helping Lawyers: A Message of Hope John F. Harkness, Jr., Executive Director, The Florida Bar

Lawyers Helping Lawyers: A Message of Hope

by John F. Harkness, Jr.

Looking only at the cover of this issue, you may begin to question what our Editorial Board was thinking when it approved a special issue on attorney impairment. Do we want to end the millennium on a down note, focusing on members of our profession who face personal crises only tangentially related to the practice of law?

As you read the articles that follow, however, I hope and believe you will agree with the board’s logic in delving into this difficult topic. First, the board decided, issues of addiction, depression, and alcoholism affect us all; rare is the family that has not been touched by these problems.

Second, these problems have a very real impact on us as a profession. Research by the American Bar Association and our own disciplinary staff has shown that more than half of the grievances filed against attorneys have addiction or some other form of mental disorder as a significant contributing factor. That translates into not only a substantial investment of your annual fees being spent in ameliorating these consumer complaints, but also reflects on all practicing lawyers who daily labor in the face of headlines recounting lawyers’ misappropriation of client funds, abandoned practices, and the many other troubles besetting impaired attorneys.

And, finally, the board found, in the case of our state, this is a story with an optimistic, if not happy, ending: We have been engaging this problem for over 15 years, with a great deal of success in many instances. Our efforts have been copied by other states, and lauded by the ABA — most recently with an award to Chief Justice Major B. Harding for his ongoing support of Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., as noted in this issue.

What started out as a small band of attorneys successful in their battle with alcoholism coming to the Board of Governors with a request to fund a toll-free hotline that attorneys with alcohol problems could call for confidential advice has grown to a fully staffed service prepared to aid and advise the court, the Bar, and the Board of Bar Examiners on drug, alcohol, and depressive disorder issues. Where once we who are charged with protecting the public against impaired lawyers or candidates for Bar admission had nowhere to turn, we now have experts in the area, as well as an ever-expanding group of volunteer lawyers who have conquered their problems and are prepared to assist others in engaging their problems and turning their lives around.

Our monetary investment in this program is minuscule. Not only are we saving countless thousands in prosecution costs, but we are protecting the public against potential harm by correcting potential problems before they grow to the level of disciplinary offenses. Add to that the incalculable benefits to affected lawyers’ spouses, children, partners, and communities, and I believe you readily can see the Board of Governors was correct in supporting this program, and the Editorial Board was correct in deeming it worthy of showcasing in this special issue, with the hope that more of our members who may face the downward spiral of addiction and depression will be convinced to seek help.

The documented results are heartening. Florida Lawyers Assistance has helped more than 2,000 attorneys since its inception, and presently has more than 200 lawyers under contract at the direction of the Supreme Court or Board of Bar Examiners.

There are too many lawyers who have donated their time to this program’s success to name them all here. Those in the vanguard of this selfless movement include the late Justice James C. Adkins, Jr., past Board of Governors member Harry Goodheart, the late Judge Mike Hanrahan, FLA directors Charlie Hagan, Michael Cohen, and the late Bill Kilby, to name but a few. Instrumental in pulling this issue together were Steve Hooper, Mary Wakeman and Joe Murphy, again to name only a few. Hundreds of lawyers serve as recovery-network resources in their communities to help lawyers in need. Each deserves our thanks.

I hope after you spend time with this issue you will come to share my view that contained in these pages is a great message of hope for those in our profession suffering from these disorders.

That, I feel, is a fitting note upon which to open our next millennium.

P.S. So long, Giff. We’ll miss you.