A Way Out for Lawyers in Despair
Chugging beer in high school was Michael J. Cohen’s first way to get buzzed. College years in the ’60s introduced him to the heroin experience that skulked into a bad habit in law school and plagued nearly six years of practicing criminal defense law in Massachusetts.
“I had gotten thrown out of the office, my wife left me, and I was out of money. I just didn’t know what to do. I was under the impression if I picked up the phone and asked for help, I would lose my license,” says 60-year-old Cohen.
Since 1995, Cohen has been executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc. — a program created by the Florida Supreme Court to help attorneys impaired because of drugs, alcohol, or psychological concerns.
He wants to debunk the No. 1 misconception that asking for help will get lawyers in trouble.
“If somebody picks up the phone and calls us voluntarily or calls about a partner, it’s completely confidential. FLA is not a Bar agency. It’s not part of the Bar. It’s not affiliated with the Bar. We work with the Bar in discipline cases,” Cohen says.
The second misperception is that FLA is only for drug and alcohol abuse. When Cohen went to the Florida Supreme Court to meet the four new justices, he said many on the court were surprised to learn FLA handles mental health issues, with psychologist Scott Weinstein serving as FLA’s full-time clinical director. For the past few years, about half of the calls to FLA deal with stress-related depression.
“We’re seeing a lot more coming in with severe depression and some with suicidal thoughts because of the status of the economy,” Cohen says. “What we are seeing that we’ve never seen before are mid-career lawyers without jobs and no prospects of getting jobs.”
Waiting at the other end of the hotline is peer-to-peer help geared specifically for lawyers. That’s important, Cohen says, because lawyers “are off the charts when it comes to narcissism, arrogance, and intellectualism.”
“We’re the only profession trained to use words to win our arguments. If my starting point is, ‘I don’t have a problem,’ I’m going to use all the skills taught since day one in law school to convince a judge or police officer I don’t have a problem. The ability to defend denial through use of words and trial skills is unique to lawyers,” Cohen says.
“We are taught all the way through law school we are the ones who solve problems. It’s incredibly difficult to get lawyers to understand they can’t think or reason their way out of their addiction and mental-health problems. It makes as much sense to believe, ‘I can use my great mind to cure my cancer.’”
Cohen’s openness about his own addiction gives him credibility with desperate lawyers who don’t see a way out. Once that desperate lawyer was Cohen.
In 1986, Cohen got caught smuggling drugs into a client in jail. He was arrested and jailed before successfully completing six months in a residential treatment facility.
Getting caught saved his life.
“I don’t think I was that far away from dying of an overdose or committing suicide or being locked up for a long time,” Cohen says.
The year of his arrest, he moved to Miami and became a client of FLA.
“I can tell you from personal experience what it was like to walk into my first FLA meeting and realize I was not alone. I was in a roomful of judges and lawyers who had all dealt with it successfully.”
Weekly FLA support meetings have remained part of Cohen’s personal program since 1994, when he became a member of The Florida Bar on conditional admission, the year before he was hired to lead FLA.
“I still think I’m the poster child for conditional admission to the Bar. The program works, and thousands of lawyers practicing and serving clients and the community wouldn’t have the opportunity to do it without the Bar taking a proactive stance on rehabilitation and the bar examiners accepting conditional admission,” Cohen says.
After two dozen years of operation, FLA has opened a total of 3,675 formal cases. In just the past year, FLA has responded to more than 700 telephone calls and personal interviews with impaired lawyers, judges, and law students or their family members and colleagues.
Most calls to the hotline — 800-282-8981 for lawyers; 888-972-4040 for judges — are not opened as formal files, but are referred to local 12-step and FLA support meetings, FLA certified mental health care providers, or a local FLA volunteer. You can get more information at FLA’s website: fla-lap.org.
I am proud that The Florida Bar has been one of FLA’s strongest supporters. About 60 percent of its funding comes from an annual allocation from the Bar, which amounts to about $5 a lawyer.
When Cohen recently returned from a meeting of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, he was proud that FLA enjoys a national reputation as well-administered, with one of the lowest funded programs on a per capita basis. That is thanks not only to FLA’s dedicated six-person staff in Ft. Lauderdale, but to nearly 400 volunteer lawyers around the state who work with lawyers in crisis and act as mentors.
Almost 70 percent of cases opened during the past year resulted from voluntary contacts.
“That’s important,” Cohen says. “I’d love to put myself out of business on the discipline side. Our primary mission is to get involved before lawyers get in trouble.”