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There are days when Ray Lopez more resembles an undercover spy than a social worker. As the first director of the New York State Bar Association’s Lawyer Assistance Program, his work often involves clandestine meetings with desperate attorneys and judges. Lopez meets them on street corners, in restaurants or anywhere else where his lifeline reaches a drug- or alcohol-dependent lawyer or jurist. Discretion, he said, is the name of the game — so much so that neither his secretary nor boss has any idea who he sees or where he sees them. “Sometimes,” Lopez said, “I feel like I work for the CIA.” For nearly 14 years, Lopez has run a program out of the State Bar that assists lawyers who have lost control of their professional and personal lives to alcohol or drugs. The program, which has become a national model, is the only statewide service available for attorneys and law students. But Eileen Travis’ very active 6-year-old program of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and a growing number of local assistance programs are beginning to fill geographic service gaps. Nationally, it is estimated that 10 percent of the population has an alcohol or drug problem, and most experts and surveys suggest that the dependency rate for lawyers is somewhat higher. While no one knows for sure how many alcoholic or addicted attorneys practice in New York, officials know for certain that a high percentage of attorney disciplinary matters and claims against the Lawyers Fund for Client Protection are rooted in substance abuse. They also know that the inherent stress of the profession takes its toll on everyone from law students to jurists. “I had a judge, a very powerful person, but the day I saw him he appeared anything but a judge,” Lopez said. “He was dirty. He was drunk. He was belligerent. He smelled like a distillery, and he knew it. When I called him “your honor,’ he said, ‘I’m not very honorable.’ We got him help.” The State Bar began taking a serious look at the problem in the late 1970s, when it formed its Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, now chaired by Buffalo attorney Charles Beinhauer. In 1990, the bar association hired Lopez, himself a recovering alcoholic, to run the Lawyer Assistance Program. For nearly 14 years, Lopez, a licensed social worker with specialized training in alcoholism counseling and interventions, has fielded about 5,000 calls annually. Some of those calls are from attorneys or judges who recognize they have a problem. “A self referral is a person who can’t take it any more, who’s finished and knows it and thinks maybe, just maybe [he or she] can trust us,” Lopez said. “We are carriers of hope where there is none, just a little subtle shine in their life. But when you are in a cave for a long, long time and you come out, the sunlight may be blinding unless you have a guide to help you. The light can be too strong.” A cadre of nearly 400 attorneys in recovery is available to provide that initial guidance and Lopez also helps his clients get professional treatment, be it inpatient or outpatient. Many of the calls, however, are from the partners, staff or family of an alcoholic or addicted attorney. “Sometimes the person who has a need makes the call himself or herself,” said David R. Pfalzgraf, a Buffalo attorney and former chairman of the State Bar’s Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. “More often than not, it is from a partner or suite mate or friend or spouse who has a real concern over the lawyer’s drinking or drugging. Often times, calls come from the courts. A lawyer will appear in court at less than the top of his game and we’ll get a call from a judge.” Since alcohol is a “disease of denial,” half the battle is getting the person to admit to having a problem. “The biggest defense lawyers have is not necessarily denial — ‘I don’t have a problem’ — but intellectualization,” Lopez said. “It’s, ‘I can’t have a problem like this because I am too smart. I can’t have a problem like this because I am rich.’ … I call it terminal uniqueness — they are so unique that they are going to die. I tell them, ‘You are not here because you are intelligent. You are here because you have a drinking problem.’” HUGE BOOST The lawyer assistance initiative got a huge boost a few years ago after Lopez invited Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye to the State Bar program’s annual retreat in the Adirondacks. At Lake George, the chief judge saw dozens of attorneys who had battled or were continuing to struggle with substance abuse, and decided then and there to do something about it. She appointed a commission, named then-Court of Appeals Judge Joseph W. Bellacosa to chair it and quickly approved its main recommendation: establishing a trust fund to help foster and nurture lawyer assistance programs in every county. That trust taps a portion of the attorney registration fee to help establish local assistance programs. Barbara Smith, formerly counsel to the state Ethics Commission, is executive director. James C. Moore of Harter Secrest & Emery in Rochester is chairman. In her recent State of the Judiciary address, the chief judge applauded the program as “another successful effort to maintain the high quality of the profession and serve the public well.” Moore said about $100,000 has been distributed in the 18 months the fund has been active, with the goal of reaching more troubled lawyers and students. He said the high-pressure law school culture, a precursor to the high-pressure law profession culture, is a land mine for those most susceptible to alcoholism. The Rochester attorney, a former president of the State Bar, said he is encouraged by a new program in the Fourth Department, which attempts to help lawyers whose alcohol or drug problems resulted in a misconduct charge. If the misconduct is not so egregious as to warrant suspension or disbarment, the lawyer is offered an opportunity to undergo treatment and monitoring. If the attorney successfully completes the program, the charge is dropped, Moore said. A similar initiative is under way in the Second Department. “The message we want to get out is there is help available, and help can be provided on a confidential basis,” Moore said. WARNING SIGNS One of the trust’s projects has been to publish a pamphlet for distribution to all attorneys, warning them of the signs of alcoholism or drug dependency and telling them where to turn for help. The first sign is often a preoccupation with alcohol or a drug — what Lopez refers to as a “constant nagging.” When a person finds himself or herself constantly thinking of when and how to obtain that next drink, that is a strong indication of a serious problem, even if the person is a high-functioning attorney or judge. “There is really no hard empirical evidence about the extent of the problem, but the common wisdom is 15 to 18 percent of lawyers suffer from substance abuse to the extent that it affects their ability to represent clients,” Moore said. Smith agreed that the statistical extent of lawyer alcoholism and drug abuse is something of a mystery. But she noted that the increase in referrals to Lopez in Albany and Travis in Manhattan indicate that the problem is widespread. “I don’t know that an increase in referrals means the problem is worse,” Smith said. “I think it means we are better at defining the problem and getting people to help. I like to think one of the values the trust has brought is we are providing a lot of information people otherwise would not have had. I think we are making a dent in letting more people know about the resources available.” Lopez said one recent trend is an increase in referrals involving women. A few years ago, roughly 25 percent of the cases involved female attorneys or judges. Now that number is approaching 40 percent. Uniformly, however, he said sobriety is a liberating experience. “Once a person is comfortable with their sobriety, other things — title, money — just don’t matter,” Lopez said.

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