Just like lawyers, doctors occasionally suffer from the debilitating impacts of alcohol and drug addiction, mental illness and age-related mental decline.

But unlike their brethren in the legal profession, which is governed by a code of professional conduct that takes a punitive approach when impairment issues arise, Connecticut doctors can continue to practice as long as they take steps to get help. Under a 2007 state law, medical professionals are allowed to keep working as long as they are getting treatment under a state-supervised program.

The different approaches were part of an Oct. 18 seminar called the “Impaired Lawyer Symposium” attended by 70 attorneys at the Connecticut Bar Association in New Britain.

Mark Dubois, a lawyer with New London’s Geraghty & Bonnano and president-elect of the CBA, said the symposium offered participants a chance to discuss the problems that aging-related dementia, mental illness, gambling, and drug and alcohol abuse bring to the profession.

The seminar was jointly sponsored by the CBA, Connecticut Bar Foundation and Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Dubois called the gathering a launching point that will lead to further discussions by bench and bar leaders about possible long-term policy solutions.

Of the many topics under consideration, Dubois said he found especially interesting the discussion on how the state handles impairment issues for medical professionals.

“We understand there are stresses that are unique to the legal profession,” he said. “But it may give us some ideas with how we reorganize our approach to impairment.”

One of the panelists, Dr. Robert Grillo, a psychiatrist at Middlesex Hospital in Middletown, told the group he has treated both doctors and lawyers for substance abuse and depression.

“These types of problems can be devastating for a person’s career,” Grillo said.

Grillo said that “the vast majority of cases” he has seen involved mood disorders and depression. But while personality traits and long work weeks are contributing factors to mental breakdowns and substance abuse for both lawyers and physicians, that’s where the two professions part ways.

Grillo explained that a law passed in 2007 created a program called “Haven,” which allows confidential assistance for health care professionals who are licensed by the Connecticut Department of Public Health. If any licensed health care professional is reported to be suffering from physical or mental illness, emotional disorders or chemical dependency, state health officials hold an administrative hearing to determine if treatment is an option. Under the program, every effort is made to get the professional help and allow him or her to keep working. “It’s been very successful,” Grillo said,

After an evaluation, the medical professional works under a probationary status as long as he or she follows the treatment recommendations.

“If they don’t do what they’re told, they immediately get reported to the Department of Public Health,” said Grillo. The next step, he said, is often a license revocation.

Before the program was created, the public health department took a “much more punitive approach and just pulled licenses” of impaired doctors, he said. But the result was “a huge blow” for both doctors and their patients, who often suffered because they lost their continuity of care.

“About 90 percent of the impairment matters that are referred to us, the professionals are fully reinstated and return to practice,” Grillo said. “The reason it’s so successful is we monitor them very closely.” For example, the program has the authority to order random drug and alcohol tests for participants.

Dubois said the information Grillo provided could lead to further discussions about how to handle impairment issues within the legal profession. He said Connecticut attorneys have a “less developed and less robust” counseling program available through Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. But the non-profit group cannot stop state disciplinary officials from suspending a bar license. Lawyers, Dubois said, “cannot practice during treatment.”

Looking ahead, Dubois, the former chief disciplinary counsel in Connecticut, said impairment will be a growing challenge for disciplinary officials. The biggest contributor, he said, is an aging group of lawyers in the state.

“There are some proactive things, ideas for offering training in succession planning, that the bar wants to be part of,” he said.

Beth Griffin, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, said the symposium was a way to get CBA members together to think about ways to “better understand” what people with aging issues, mental health and substance abuse concerns are going through.

Griffin said her organization is fortunate to have a working relationship with the Connecticut chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, “which could bring another valuable collaborator to the table in this area.”

Her organization, Griffin said, is “always open and available to discuss educational opportunities that will serve the Connecticut legal community, to save careers, lives and families.”•