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He had been a lawyer since 1983, spending 11 of those years as a deputy district attorney before his focus shifted to death penalty defense. After years of hard work, he seemed to have it all, and a dream was finally fulfilled: His name was on the governor’s desk for a position on the California bench. But then the crash came. Complaints began rolling in from clients who weren’t satisfied with his work, weren’t getting any return calls, and didn’t realize that by this time in the late 1990s, their lawyer had become too friendly with vodka and wine. “I blew them off,” says the lawyer, now 46. “I just went to the bottle. At 5 o’clock — boom — I was at the bar.” The next thing he knew, no hope of a judicial job; by 2000, no work. The State Bar’s discipline staff was breathing down his neck, and he was in danger of losing his wife and family. He finally placed himself into rehab and then about a year ago was one of the first attorneys in California to join the State Bar’s new Lawyer Assistance Program, aimed at helping barristers with substance abuse and mental health troubles — without forcing them to run the harsh gauntlet of the Bar’s discipline system. The program, which debuted on Jan. 1, 2002, is confidential, but the lawyer who struggled with alcohol talked anonymously about his experiences to get word out that the State Bar is ready to help. So did a 54-year-old, small-town lawyer who found her practice falling apart in 1999 because of depression so severe she couldn’t cope with daily routines. “I heard about the program and self-referred,” she says. “I was feeling very isolated, like the only attorney with problems or who felt overwhelmed with her life and her practice. To find out I was not alone was a really wonderful thing for me.” Mandated through legislation by state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, the program — funded partly by a fee collected from lawyers’ annual Bar dues and partly by the participants themselves — is off to a fast start. About 115 lawyers have voluntarily joined or been referred from the Bar’s discipline branch, and are attending group meetings at 12 locations around the state. That’s far better than anyone expected for the first year. The program’s promoters say they eventually would like to see self-referrals account for 60 percent of all participants, mimicking the Medical Board of California’s program for doctors — after which the Bar’s program is modeled. But it won’t be easy. As those associated with the program say, lawyers have egos as large as doctors but don’t have the wellness programs and in-house hospital support systems that funnel physicians into recovery. Lawyers don’t necessarily see treatment as an option and resist turning to the State Bar — which has traditionally disciplined lawyers with substance abuse problems — for assistance. “Attorneys are trained to figure a way to beat it,” says Janis Thibault, director of the Lawyer Assistance Program since its founding. “[They think] you need to find a better way to present, explain, argue. So all their training is an added conflict.” But if anyone is up to the task, State Bar officials say, it’s Thibault. Snatched away from the Medical Board’s program, which she had overseen for three years, Thibault is widely viewed as having the expertise and drive to get the lawyer program up and running — and more. “The force of her personality and her work ethic has been what’s made it go,” says Starr Babcock, special assistant to State Bar Executive Director Judy Johnson. Babcock was the Bar executive who initially coordinated the program’s development and who contacted Thibault at the Medical Board to get advice. When she expressed interest in heading the program, Babcock couldn’t believe his luck. “I thought, ‘My God, the hook has been set and she has taken it,’” he says, half joking. “Frankly, I couldn’t think of anyone who would do the job better.” There were a handful of other candidates, each of whom was given serious consideration, but Thibault shone brightest. “You could just see,” Babcock says, “this was a person who had good people skills, was committed and had the background.” Walking the Walk Thibault, 50, impresses immediately. She’s friendly and direct, with a voice that’s both gentle and strong. Her blond hair frames a caring mom’s face and sharp blue eyes that convey a deep understanding of addiction. And that’s no coincidence. A single mother of two college-age children, Thibault this month celebrated 18 years of living sober. “I was a full-blown, freebasing cocaine addict,” she says bluntly. “I was an upstanding citizen, homeowner, mother of two young children, and managed to freebase cocaine on a regular basis.” But she never hit rock bottom, and managed to turn her life around in a family recovery program. And while her experience helps her empathize with addicts, it’s not the root of her success as a program administrator. ‘Sometimes it helps people to know that I understand, that I’ve been there,” Thibault says. “But I also believe it’s not necessary to go through [addiction] yourself to be helpful and useful.” On the other hand, Thibault believes it’s important for program participants to know her personally, as well as the program’s five case managers and eight group facilitators. “They need trust,” she says, “and one of the ways to do that is to know who we are.” The number of lawyers estimated to have substance abuse problems is high. According to David Dawson, president of The Other Bar, a State Bar-funded network of volunteer California lawyers and judges who assist attorneys with chemical dependency problems, as many as 15 to 20 percent of lawyers nationwide have substance abuse problems — compared to 10 percent for the general population. Considering there are nearly 190,000 lawyers in California, that could mean as mean as many as 38,000 in the state with drinking or drug problems. “It’s a combination of genetics and social pressures of the profession,” says Dawson, a partner at Tobin & Tobin. “We try to get out to the attorneys and the general public that we’re dealing with a physical disease, and it has to be treated as such.” As part of their recovery, attorneys in the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program are referred to meetings of The Other Bar or Alcoholics Anonymous, while simultaneously attending therapy sessions with other lawyers under the program’s auspices. “We aren’t the primary treatment provider,” Thibault points out. “We’re kind of an assistance oversight. We coordinate it.” And if someone steps out of line, there are work monitors to set them straight. “For instance, in my case,” says the anonymous 54-year-old female participant, “since I am supposed to be taking medications, antidepressants — and I am — that is something my work monitor would be required to report [if she stops].” There’s also a substantial time and monetary commitment. The program is five years long and costs participants $220 a month, plus lab fees of less than $100 a month. However, no one will be turned away if they can’t afford the fees. Financial assistance is available. “Technically, it’s voluntary for everybody,” Thibault says. “But they have to want to participate. They truly have to choose it.” Role Models Thibault’s departure from the Medical Board left a huge hole. “Her’s was a major loss to the board,” Candis Cohen, the Medical Board’s Sacramento-based spokeswoman says. “Our diversion program remains a model for other states, as well as other professions” — and Thibault helped it keep that reputation. She was “competent, effective, dedicated first to protecting patients and also to rehabilitating impaired physicians where possible,” Cohen says. “I am definitely a Janis fan.” That’s good news for the State Bar program’s participants. The anonymous male lawyer who missed out on a judgeship says he now represents doctors with substance abuse problems, and that his fight with his own demons reassures them. He says he tried stopping drinking on his own and realized he was just fooling himself. So the Bar program is a godsend to him — and the same goes for his female counterpart. “I always loved being an attorney,” she says. “It’s something that I dreamed of as a child. I always felt pride in it and I always wanted to be a caring attorney. And when you’re a professional problem solver and you can’t solve your own problems, your own life is out of whack. It has an effect.” Thibault understands. The stigma of substance abuse and mental health problems is significant, she says. No one wants to admit they need help. “There is a widespread belief you just say no,” Thibault says. “What I promise you is that people who have these disorders believe they should just be able to do that. “Most of the time it takes some kind of outside motivation,” she adds. “Work is usually the last place [a problem] will show, especially with professionals like attorneys. Their job is their life.”

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