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Changing social mores in the legal profession

By Richard Carlton

Richard CarltonThere is no evidence, anecdotally or otherwise, that the magnitude of the challenges experienced by legal professionals with substance abuse and mood disorders has waned in recent decades. If anything, the frequency of depression experienced by legal professionals has increased. From my somewhat unique perspective as the acting director of the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program, what has appeared to change in recent years are the “social mores” with regard to acceptance of heavy drinking and related problems among legal professionals. 

Certainly the reception that I receive when I deliver continuing education presentations on the topics of attorney substance abuse, depression and stress has changed dramatically since I began speaking on these topics in 1987. When I delivered a talk at a law firm during the ’80s and ’90s, a chill would pass over the room the moment I set foot in the door, accompanied by some nervous snickering and occasional wisecracks. I had great difficulty making eye contact with anyone in the audience, and the question-and-answer period generally lasted less than 60 seconds. Today, I am generally greeted with smiles and nods of understanding. While not everyone in the room appears to be paying rapt attention to what I have to say, interaction with the audience, both in the form of questions and comments, is frequent.

Also, the almost institutional denial of the scope of these problems that existed when I started in 1986 — prior to the implementation of Minimum Continuing Legal Education requirements that every member of the bar obtain one unit of continuing education in the detection and prevention of substance abuse and mental illness every three years — has abated. Twenty-plus years of this MCLE requirement appears to have resulted in a membership that is generally more aware of the occurrence of these problems.

Knowledge of available resources to assist the bar with these problems has increased as well, thanks in large part to MCLE presentations, but also to the more easily accessible programmatic information found via the internet. Today, when I ask attorneys who contact our program how they found us, by far the most common response is the State Bar’s website. Knowing that the web is where attorneys and bar applicants bar go to find out if they might benefit from our services, I decided to make it easier and more entertaining to learn about the benefits of participating in our program by posting two short videos online. The videos feature actual participants in the LAP program, as well an explanation of the consultation process and how to reach us. Please check us out by going to the section about LAP on the State Bar website and clicking on our video link. Thanks for visiting with me.

Richard Carlton is the acting director of the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program.