Florida Lawyers Assistance: Saving Lives and Legal Careers
Created in 1986 at the urging of prominent members of the Florida legal community, Florida Lawyers Assistance’s (FLA) initial focus was on assisting attorneys dealing with substance abuse, with the overwhelming majority presenting for alcohol abuse. The original Florida Bar rule that authorized FLA1 did not mention assistance to attorneys dealing with mental-health issues, and there was some controversy within the Bar as to whether drug abuse, due to the illegal nature of the substances, should be included within FLA’s purview. The Bar eventually accepted that “chemical dependency” as used in the rule was not limited to alcohol, and agreed that FLA’s mandate (and the confidentiality provisions that accompanied it) included all substances.
Shortly after its creation, FLA began working with attorneys who had no substance abuse issues, but were dealing with serious mental-health conditions that were negatively affecting their lives. In 1998, FLA requested that Rule 2-9.11 be amended to reflect this fact, and the rule was changed to include attorneys dealing with any “impairment related to chemical dependency or psychological problems that affect their professional performance or practice of law….”2
FLA was originally created as a voluntary “lawyers helping lawyers” organization. Assistance was provided to attorneys seeking help primarily through assessment to determine whether formal treatment was necessary, referral to local FLA members, and referral to the local attorney support meeting and 12-step programs. After cases such as The Florida Bar v. Headley, 475 So. 2d 1213 (Fla. 1985), and The Florida Bar v. Blalock, 325 So. 2d 401 (Fla. 1976), in which the Florida Supreme Court accepted chemical dependency as mitigation in Bar discipline cases, but required some type of monitoring, The Florida Bar turned to FLA to provide those services. Since that time, FLA’s monitoring functions have expanded to the point where FLA now monitors more individuals than any similar lawyer assistance program in the United States, and has developed what is regarded as one of the most sophisticated and robust monitoring programs in the country.3
FLA offers three interrelated programs designed to provide the Florida legal community with a comprehensive model of support. These include 1) weekly attorney support meetings throughout the state; 2) providing evaluations on behalf of The Florida Bar; and 3) monitoring students who are seeking admission to The Florida Bar, attorneys who have been admitted conditionally, lawyers who have been placed on diversion or probation through the Bar’s disciplinary system, or lawyers who are monitored by their employer.
Virtually all individuals dealing with mental-health or substance-abuse issues benefit greatly from mutual support and professional guidance. The FLA substance abuse attorney support meetings are open to any law student, lawyer (licensed or not), or judge who wishes to attend, and are provided at no cost. In addition to the live meetings, FLA also offers weekly online meetings for participants who do not have a live meeting near them or live out of state. FLA also coordinates facilitated meetings throughout the state that are run by FLA-certified therapists, which are focused on mental health and co-occurring disorders, rather than just substance abuse. Attendees at these facilitated groups must be screened by the facilitator prior to attendance, and there is a nominal cost for attending, which compensates the professional facilitator.
Requests for evaluation of an attorney usually follow from The Florida Bar’s grievance/discipline process. In some cases, FLA is called upon to perform a comprehensive assessment on the referred attorney offering insight into underlying factors that resulted in the behaviors under scrutiny. Following the evaluation, FLA provides the Bar with recommendations that would aid in the “rehabilitation” of the attorney, allowing him or her to effectively resume the independent practice of law. The recommendation is always unique to the particular lawyer and may or may not include formal participation in FLA.
Monitoring of law students and attorneys consists of the student or lawyer entering into a monitoring agreement with FLA. Terms of the agreement may vary depending on the participant’s history, whether the person is a mental health, substance abuse, or co-occurring disorder client, and whether the Bar, Board of Bar Examiners, or Florida Supreme Court have set specific conditions. Substance abuse monitoring usually incorporates random drug testing, weekly attendance at an attorney support meeting and another recovery meeting, and regular meetings with an attorney monitor/mentor who files a monthly report. Mental-health monitoring generally calls for attendance at a weekly FLA-facilitated group, continued individual or group counseling or therapy, and monthly reports filed by the FLA group facilitator or individual therapist.
FLA participates in all Young Lawyers Division Practicing with Professionalism seminars (live and video) and Bar Ethics School classes. It also facilitates the Bar’s Stress Management Workshops and partners with other Bar committees, sections, and the YLD to present panel discussions and seminars. FLA makes itself available to speak at local voluntary bar association luncheons, Inns of Court, and Lunch & Learn functions at law firms. All of these have been well received.
Each client is assessed on a case-by-case basis. The determination of whether to refer a client to an outside treatment program will depend on factors such as length and severity of the problem, type of substance(s) used, age, and financial considerations. On the mental-health side, almost all clients are requested to remain with their current therapist, if they have one, as well as attend a weekly facilitated FLA meeting. On the substance-abuse side, most voluntary clients are referred to a local FLA contact, the local or online FLA attorney support meeting, and Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Approximately 10 percent of substance abuse clients are referred either to outpatient or residential treatment, in which case, their attendance at the attorney support meeting would begin after completion of treatment (if residential).
Getting in Touch
FLA has both a Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/fla.lap1/, and Twitter account, @flalap. Our social media presence is primarily used as an information feed (articles, events, etc.). Posting on Facebook is fairly regular (once per week), while Tweets are less frequent. It is hoped these accounts will be expanded and utilized with more frequency over the next year. FLA is also in the process of revamping its website (www.fla-lap.org); it is anticipated the new website will have a blog that may be accessed publicly.
FLA is continually working to raise the visibility of its programs and to convey the message of absolute confidentiality of all voluntary communications with FLA. Often, there is such fear of exposure of a substance-abuse or mental-health issue that lawyers will suffer in silence rather than ask for help, often with devastating consequences. All Florida attorneys should know that voluntary contact with FLA is completely privileged and confidential by Bar rules and state law. Any lawyer, or prospective lawyer, who contacts FLA voluntarily is assured complete confidentiality. FLA has a wide network of lawyers all around the state who have experienced substance-abuse and mental-health issues themselves, and who have met and overcome those issues, who devote countless hours and endless energy to support FLA and its clients. If you are suffering, contact FLA today.
1 Rul. Reg. Fla. Bar 2-9.11; see also In Re Amend. to Rules Regulating Fla. Bar, 718 So. 2d 1179 (Fla. 1998).
3 Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, Annual Conference Report (Oct. 17, 2017).
Scott M. Weinstein, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and the clinical director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc. He has made several presentations and written articles about psychological challenges facing the legal profession. Dr. Weinstein joined The Florida Bar task force on mental health, supporting its efforts to increase awareness of wellness and psychological hygiene for lawyers.
Florida Lawyers Share Their Stories:
“I owe my legal career, if not my very life, to FLA. Before I started law school in 1980, I thought I was an ordinary student. Yes, I over indulged at a campus party now and then. I occasionally did not exhale. I graduated at the top of my class and was accepted to law school. Midway through law school, my alcoholic mother was killed in a car accident — she was drunk. I no longer could contain a lifetime of repressed grief and rage. I sought solace in cocaine, which launched me into a five-year nightmare of addiction. I destroyed most of my relationships, racked up a mountain of debt, lost one-third of my body weight, and came close to unintentionally killing myself. I was emphatically denied admission to an another state bar — twice. So, like many delusional addicts, I moved to another state thinking I could leave my problems behind. Wrong. After moving to Florida, I was introduced to FLA. I got clean, and I fully embraced FLA’s support. I was conditionally admitted to The Florida Bar in the 1990s. I have enjoyed a great career since then, serving as a local bar president and, ultimately, on the Board of Governors. I have personally witnessed many lawyers and law students whose careers and lives have been enhanced, if not saved, thanks to FLA. I am eternally grateful, both for myself and for others like me.”
“Thirty years ago, I finally admitted to myself, and then others, that alcohol had beat me. It no longer helped to relieve my depression and anxiety, but my abuse of alcohol had become my biggest problem. I knew I was defeated and was contemplating suicide. Realizing I would need to be clear-headed to be successful in ending my life, I resolved to go to Alcoholics Anonymous and stop drinking long enough to make a plan for suicide. I made a phone call, attended a meeting, and committed to attend a meeting every day and not drink a day at a time. I did and it worked. I felt better every day and was no longer sure I wanted to die. I was, however, unemployed with no prospects and no confidence that I could ever practice law again. Then, after an AA meeting, I was introduced to Bill Kilby, who was the program director for FLA. He introduced me to other lawyers in recovery and assured me that I could and would work again. Then, he offered me a job with his practice. My self-esteem was so low, I felt completely inadequate to accept this, but with his encouragement and help, I began to feel like a lawyer again. The years that have followed have brought great blessings as well as challenges. AA has enabled me to stay sober and deal with life on life’s terms. FLA helped me resume my career and gave me the opportunity to help other lawyers struggling with addiction and related problems. To both, I will always be grateful.”
“When I first heard of FLA back in 2008, I was in a sorry state. I felt as if my life was over (I was in my early 40s and a solo practitioner) and that I was a total failure. I was severely depressed, I had been avoiding going to the office for months, and I was neglecting my clients and my cases. I rarely left home and avoided contact with everyone unless I absolutely had to. I thought about suicide often. When I showed up in court for a hearing one day, I broke down in front of a judge and couldn’t stop crying. Luckily for me, the judge told me to call Dr. Weinstein at FLA, and I did. It was the best move I ever made. I began attending the weekly group sessions with Dr. Weinstein. Over time, I learned to accept the fact that depression was not a flaw in my character but that it was a disease that could be treated and managed, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. At Dr. Weinstein’s suggestion, I saw a psychiatrist and began taking anti-depressants. The early months were very difficult for me. I had been raised by a family that strongly believed in “not airing dirty laundry in public,” and it was hard to admit to total strangers my feelings of failure and inadequacy. Over time, though, I started realizing my own potential. The group sessions were absolutely instrumental in my healing. I was amazed to hear that other lawyers were having issues with their lives and their careers, and that I was not alone. The group became a sounding board where we all provided unconditional support for each other. Even if I didn’t have anything to say in a particular week, I always came away from the meeting with food for thought in my own life. Slowly, I started to understand that the key to happiness was within myself and not dependent upon the outside world. I started doing things that made me happy in both my work and professional life, instead of just doing the things I thought I was supposed to do. I stopped practicing law and became a paralegal instead, and I absolutely love my job. Through the insights I gained during the time I spent at FLA, I can honestly say that I am the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. I cannot thank Dr. Weinstein and FLA enough.”
“I had lost my practice. I had lost all of my savings. I had lost my marriage. I felt that I could not look my children in the eye. I had resigned myself to being disbarred and declaring bankruptcy. I had been committed to the psych ward for a total of nearly 30 days due to multiple suicide attempts. Using funds I borrowed from my parents, I was seeing a psychiatrist twice a week for medications and “talk therapy.” But I never felt that I was talking to someone who understood what I was going through and, more importantly, someone who could give me a glimmer of hope that I might be able to have a worthwhile life again, until I came to Florida Lawyers Assistance. It took many years, and lots of hard work on my part, but today I have rebuilt a life, a marriage, and a career to be proud of. FLA did that for me.”
“In Spring 2009, I made my first call to Florida Lawyers Assistance (FLA) while in my counselor’s office in a drug and alcohol treatment center. Michael Cohen answered the phone. This was my third time in treatment for alcoholism and, at this juncture, I was unemployed, unemployable, and broken. I had been a practicing attorney in Illinois for seven years and moved to Florida where I hit my alcoholic bottom. I wanted to continue to practice law but was terrified that, because of my alcoholism and numerous times in treatment, I would not be able to get admitted to The Florida Bar.
Michael shared his story and said to me, “Stay sober, be rigorously honest with the Bar, and I can help you.” It was at that moment that I no longer wanted to give up.
I proceeded to work with FLA on a voluntary basis and was then offered a three-year conditional admission from the Bar. I have gone on to have a wonderful legal career here in Florida and have continued to be involved with FLA throughout the years. It has enhanced my recovery and my life in invaluable ways, and I will always be grateful that Michael Cohen was on the other end of the phone that day in 2009 in my counselor’s office.”
Contact Florida Lawyers Assistance
FLA Toll-Free Hotline: (800) 282-8981
FLA Judges’ Hotline: (888) 972-4040
Pompano Beach Office: (954) 566-9040
Email: [email protected]
Paramount to FLA is the protection of confidentiality for those attorneys who contact FLA for help. Confidentiality in voluntary cases is protected by a written contract with The Florida Bar which guarantees the confidentiality of FLA records, as well as by Bar Rules, Florida statutes, and other state and federal regulations. Judges, attorneys, law students, and support personnel who seek the assistance of FLA need not worry that FLA will report them to the Bar, the Board of Bar Examiners, or their employer.