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Lawyers who represent attorneys facing State Bar discipline are upset over a proposal that could limit who participates in a treatment program for individuals with substance abuse or mental health problems. “This program doesn’t just save careers,” Los Angeles attorney JoAnne Robbins said last week. “It saves lives.” Robbins was one of four attorneys who showed up at a State Bar committee meeting late Thursday to express their concerns over State Bar chief trial counsel Scott Drexel’s proposal ( .pdf) to narrow the eligibility requirements for the agency’s alternative discipline program. Launched five years ago, the so-called ADP is aimed at treating the source of troubled lawyers’ substance abuse or mental health problems, while simultaneously holding them accountable for their misdeeds. Participants already face possible punishment, unlike many of those in the State Bar’s similar lawyer assistance program that caters to troubled attorneys who participate voluntarily or have been referred by others. Drexel believes the criteria for taking part in the ADP are too broad, allowing the program to become the last refuge for attorneys trying to escape the full consequences of their actions. About 20 percent of attorneys disciplined by the Bar go through the ADP. “Some people, in effect, game the system,” he said by telephone Friday. “We’ve had people who have denied having a substance abuse or mental health problem and go through the normal proceedings �and only at the last moment after they can’t get the deal they wanted � [seek] an eleventh-hour referral to the ADP.” Drexel would like to see the program limited to individuals whose misconduct wasn’t severe enough to warrant disbarment, who have a reasonable likelihood of rehabilitation and who aren’t participating simply to avoid harsher punishment. He also wants some solid nexus between the attorney’s misconduct and underlying substance abuse or mental health problems. “I’m not trying to kill the program,” Drexel said Friday. “I’m just trying to make the public protection aspects of it stronger and � institute safeguards to keep people from gaming the system.” The State Bar Court, which handles ADP cases, objected to some aspects of Drexel’s plan and suggested modifications at Thursday’s meeting of the State Bar Board of Governors’ Regulation, Admissions and Discipline Committee. Chiefly, the court wanted to ensure that Drexel’s proposals didn’t unnecessarily restrict its judges’ discretion and/or unfairly penalize attorneys who participate in the ADP. Committee members, however, put a crimp in both Drexel’s and the State Bar Court’s plans Thursday by taking no action on a recommendation that the ideas be sent out for public comment for 90 days. Instead, committee members told Drexel to meet with Robbins and other defense lawyers to address their concerns and come back to the committee at a later date. “It doesn’t hurt us to give the defense bar an opportunity to [air its differences],” State Bar Governor Marguerite Downing said, “because they are part of the [discipline] process.” Downing, a deputy public defender in Los Angeles, also acknowledged that many of the lawyers who now represent attorneys in discipline cases once worked as State Bar prosecutors. “The defense bar,” Downing said, “has walked in Scott’s shoes, but he has not walked in theirs.” Robbins had made that point earlier while trying, and failing, to convince the committee to appoint a 10-member group � comprised mostly of prosecutors, defense lawyers and State Bar Court personnel � to study the proposals. After the meeting, Robbins � a former State Bar Court judge � and fellow defense lawyers William Balin and Jonathan Arons of San Francisco and David Carr of San Diego said they couldn’t point to any one thing in Drexel’s proposals that bothers them. In fact, they said they might agree with some of the ideas, but want the chance to have a detailed discussion with Drexel. “These rules are very complex and very involved,” Arons said. All four were also bothered by insinuations made during the meeting that defense lawyers were only interested in their clients and not protecting the public at large. “Sometimes,” Balin said, “we are the best voice to get our clients to change their behavior.” Added Carr: “All I care about is the process is fair and the outcome is correct.” Drexel said Friday he hopes to meet with defense lawyers in early June.

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