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Assisting a stressed profession

July 15, 2011
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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William leary
William Leary

With so many attorneys working through a court system at a pace often defying logic, members of the profession face numerous professional and personal challenges. A Connecticut attorney who entered his field in somewhat less complex times has been instrumental in giving back by reaching out to lawyers who are experiencing addiction and mental health problems in his state.

“The economic challenges for lawyers today are far greater,” says William Leary, 72. “A lot are just not making it.”

Leary defied odds himself early in his career, as heavy drinking behavior that had started during his school days continued over the course of a career as a private-practice attorney and probate judge. A Thanksgiving weekend binge in the mid-1970s, followed by three hospitalizations for pancreatitis by the end of that decade, would eventually lead him to a 12-Step group and sobriety in 1981.

Much of Leary's service to others since that time has taken the form of growth in the Connecticut organization Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, from a somewhat informal outreach service into a full-fledged lawyer assistance program in the state.

“We're now a broad-based lawyer assistance program that is based on the [American Bar Association] model; we also focus on mental health issues,” says Leary. “We get a number of referrals from the courts-all of the judges in the state are aware of us.”

Growth process

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers started in Connecticut as a narrowly defined organization sponsored by the state bar association, offering a weekly 12-Step meeting and a hotline for attorneys in crisis. A visit by Leary to a national meeting of lawyer assistance programs in 1998 convinced him that the profession in his state needed to do so much more.

That realization would launch a multi-year process of persuading justice system officials and legislators in the state to embrace a broader-based assistance program. State legislators would open up an important source of funding for the effort, agreeing to allow an enacted increase in the client security fund fees paid by all lawyers in the state to be used to finance expanded lawyer assistance services.

“With most of our clientele, we try to get them into a 12-Step program,” says Leary. “We do an assessment. We can't provide medical services, and we're not involved in disciplining people.”

The organization's mission also incorporates mental health issues now, a factor that Leary sees as critically important when working with this professional group. “What we're seeing is a lot of depression and anxiety, oftentimes co-occurring with substance use,” he says.

The program's services to attorneys are guaranteed to be confidential, and the program does not issue any type of progress report back to the referring court official or other party. “A lot of times, law partners or colleagues will refer someone,” Leary says.

Enjoying life

Leary, who also served as a Connecticut state legislator in the late 1960s, is largely retired from law practice. He still attends the same weekly 12-Step meeting he first joined more than 30 years ago. Other passions include the athletic programs at Providence College, his undergraduate alma mater, where a room in the college's athletic complex is named after him.

When Leary graduated from law school in the 1960s, it was easy for someone such as him with a small-town upbringing to get hired at a prominent local firm, he recalls. He built a successful practice while continuing his heavy drinking behavior that had started in his college years. In essence, he believes he was the classic high-functioning alcoholic that is referred to so much in today's literature.

Leary once considered admitting himself to a residential treatment program, but changed his mind. He didn't believe visiting a psychiatrist was the answer for him either, but he did receive important advice from a physician who himself had been in treatment. That individual led him to a 12-Step group that ultimately helped him change course.

“I owe my life to him and to that group,” Leary says.

Leary believes there are so many more lawyers who need help today, saying that the extent of substance use problems in the profession far exceeds the rates seen in the general population.

“There is a lot of pressure on the profession,” he says, and thus he believes his work and that of his colleagues must continue.

Addiction Professional 2011 July-August;9(4):88