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In the six years since the New Jersey State Bar created a confidential forum for lawyers seeking help from gambling or substance-abuse problems, a fair number of would-be participants have been turned away. “A lot of the people that come knocking at our door just don’t have addiction problems,” says Lawyers Assistance Program Director William Kane. To offer early intervention for those feeling overwhelmed by stress, family problems or difficulties with clients, the LAP will this fall begin running a lawyers’ support group. Ramon Ortiz, the LAP’s attorney coordinator, says that the group will run for eight weeks as a pilot project. “When you continue to get the phone calls, you just feel that something should be done for these folks,” Ortiz says. The group will address issues ranging from practice problems, concerns about clients, career direction and general life circumstances. Retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Alan Handler, who served as a liaison to the state’s LAP for many years, says the plan fills a longstanding need. The same issues that give rise to substance abuse also apply to other types of problems lawyers face, he says. “Regardless of the reasons or the cause, such lawyers are in difficulty and their clients are at risk,” says Handler, who received the 1999 State Court Judge Appreciation Award from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs. “If there can be timely interception, lawyers can be aided and brought back to a level of stability and functioning. “It’s not only a service to them, but it protects the public interest,” Handler says. The sessions are confidential, Ortiz says, even if a participant discloses a violation of legal ethics. And the sessions are free, though participants are asked to provide refreshments. “I hope that attorneys avail themselves of this,” says Jim, a former attorney who works as a certified mental health counselor and who heads a branch in Mercer County N.J. of the national organization “Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.” His group, which focuses on non-addiction issues, meets weekly and is not affiliated with the Bar’s LAP. “Very often, the hardest part when an attorney is struggling … is to reach out for help. If an attorney is reluctant to talk to people who are not attorneys, this group should overcome that reluctance,” he says. “It could be used for people who suffer from depression, work-related stress, or just the rigors of daily living,” he adds. Although there is no set criteria for eligibility, the LAP hopes the group represents a cross section of the legal community in terms of age, gender, race and other factors, Kane says. After the sessions conclude, participants will evaluate the program. The feedback will be used to improve subsequent groups, Kane says. The general theme of the support group will be to help blend everyday life and law so that attorneys can manage more effectively and know when to separate the two areas, according to Ortiz. The danger is that if an attorney ignores a serious problem, it can eventually erode his or her professional and personal life, Ortiz warns. The problems may be manifested by reckless or uncharacteristic behavior or a lack of civility on or off the job, explains Ortiz. Lawyers who are feeling jaded, stressed out, pressured or morally compromised may be questioning whether they even want to remain in the profession, Ortiz says. The group will be run by an attorney with counseling experience, such as Kane, who has a background in social work and is a certified clinician. The leader will be in contact with therapists and psychologists on how to guide the group, he says. Kane describes the process as “much more than a rap session but less than formal group therapy.” The program is based on a group therapy technique called the “Jo-Hari Window” method that allows participants to help each other through “personal disclosure and loving feedback,” Kane explains. Members can be helped by merely being a part of the group, he says. “When you have this interaction in a group experience, people learn in an indirect way, the way a baby learns to walk,” Kane says. The fact that a lawyer will lead the group should help make the participants feel more comfortable, Kane says. “Lawyers trust other lawyers,” he adds. This is the first time such a program is being introduced in New Jersey. The LAP tried to set up the group this spring at the Bar’s Law Center in New Brunswick, but because of difficulty in coordinating schedules, organizers tabled the idea temporarily, allowing more time to work out administrative details, Kane says.

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