By Jim Ash
Under new management and infused with fresh blood, Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., is joining the “health and wellness” wave that legal advocates hope will reshape an entire profession.
The Pompano Beach-based nonprofit has been helping the legal community recover from alcoholism, substance abuse, mental health, and emotional problems since the 1980s.
But the organization is starting a new chapter and stressing outreach after the death last October of Executive Director Michael Cohen. A beloved icon in legal and recovery circles, Cohen was FLA’s public face for the past 22 years.
The loss thrust veteran assistant director Judy Rushlow from the shadows to the limelight, but the legal community has been largely unaware.
“I had a phone call from a Ft. Lauderdale lawyer who I’ve known for years, and he said, ‘by the way Judy, who’s your new boss?’” Rushlow said. “I’ve been here, but behind the scenes, for many years. We have to do a better job getting the word out.”
Rushlow’s ascent, which will be followed shortly by a website redesign, comes at a propitious time.
Legal organizations across the country are scrambling to respond to an ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study that landed in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in 2016.
Based on surveys of nearly 13,000 attorneys nationwide, it showed that one in three practicing lawyers are problem drinkers. The study also showed that 28 percent of lawyers suffer from depression and 19 percent suffer from anxiety.
Closer to home, Florida Bar President Michael Higer formed the Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers, last November after a 2015 survey showed 33 percent of Florida lawyers considered high stress a significant challenge, and 32 percent reported difficulty balancing family and career.
In the same survey, 79 percent of Florida lawyers reported that the legal profession was becoming a less desirable career.
Rushlow says Florida Lawyers Assistance is perfectly positioned to help with a wide range of mental health challenges, even if people tend to think that FLA only serves alcoholic lawyers.
“Michael and I recognized, probably 15 years ago, that we were missing the mark,” Rushlow said. “That not all of the troubled lawyers in Florida were alcoholics or addicts. There were lawyers who were depressed. There were lawyers who suffered from bi-polar disorder.”
Like her predecessor, Rushlow is a member of The Florida Bar and acknowledges years of successful recovery. A certified addiction counselor, Rushlow also serves on the advisory committee for the national Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.
“Now that we have the American Bar Association and The Florida Bar on the same bandwagon, it’s just an opportunity to do so much more to get the message out there,” Rushlow said.
FLA has a clinical director, licensed psychologist Scott M. Weinstein. With more than 20 years of experience, Weinstein provides psychological oversight and statewide mental health coordination. He has written numerous articles about the psychological challenges facing lawyers.
A few weeks before Cohen died, FLA hired outreach coordinator Molly Paris. A member of the Illinois and Florida bars, Paris is a former civil rights litigation specialist and one-time FLA client with nearly 10 years of successful recovery to her credit.
The ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study showed that highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse were among lawyers in the first 10 years of their career, and that alcohol and drug abuse often begin in law school.
So one of Paris’ first assignments was to visit all of the Florida law schools. After thousands of miles of travel, and a new transmission in her 2016 Jeep Cherokee, Paris has been to all but two Florida law schools.
“One of the things I like so much about the outreach is the fact that we do go into law schools, and we have so many law schools in Florida,” Paris said. “It’s not to say if I had someone come talk to me in law school, I wouldn’t have become an alcoholic, but I wouldn’t have felt so alone.”
Since Cohen’s death, Paris has split her time between performing outreach and assistant director duties. FLA is searching for a new outreach coordinator, but in the meantime, Paris is also reaching out to large law firms and she recently gave presentations to the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office.
Rushlow said her goal is to remind every lawyer in Florida that help is available, and anonymity is guaranteed.
“We would like to increase our usage, we would like to increase the number of attorneys who are coming to us voluntarily,” Rushlow said. “It’s just shocking to me the number of attorneys who have been around a long time, and who have been reading the Bar News ads every single issue, that they apparently have no knowledge or understanding of what our organization is.”