When do you know for sure that some sort of an impairment is affecting a lawyer’s job performance? How can you tell if it’s a drug problem? Or a medical condition? And what do you do about an older lawyer with dementia who seems sharp some days and confused and out of sorts at other times?
These are some of the kinds of questions that will be discussed Friday, October 18 at a half-day symposium sponsored by the Connecticut Bar Association, Connecticut Bar Foundation and Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.
“Somebody out there has been through this. Somebody out there knows someone going through it,” said Beth D. Griffin, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Connecticut’s non-profit lawyer assistance program. “Let’s make their situation easier, help them understand better what they’re dealing with.”
An impressive list of panelists, including lawyers, former judges and medical professionals, will discuss these issues. The panel discussions will be broken into three sections, each with separate speakers. The first will be identifying impairment. The next will discuss how to intervene. And finally there will be discussion about what impairment problems the profession needs to prepare for in the future.
Panelists include former state Supreme Court justice Barry R. Schaller, former Superior Court Judge Anne C. Dranginis (who now practices at Rome McGuigan), Chief Disciplinary Counsel Patricia King, and Dr. Robert A. Grillo, Jr., chairman of the department of psychiatry at Middlesex Hospital.
While lawyers, like society in general, have their struggles with drugs, alcohol, depression and stress, the symposium will also discuss an issue that officials expect to worsen in the coming years, as baby boomers move through their 60s — cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease in aging lawyers.
The American Bar Association recently coined the phrase “senior tsunami” to describe it.
Griffin, who will also be speaking at the symposium, was at another seminar about cognitive impairment last week in California.
“There was a time when we didn’t say the ‘cancer’ word,” said Griffin. “There was a time when nobody wanted to say AIDS or HIV. I think we’re coming out of the backside of nobody wanting to talk about these issues of aging.”
Griffin provided the hypothetical example of your “Uncle Charlie” who is a lawyer. He shows up to your door the day after Thanksgiving thinking it’s Thanksgiving.
Griffin said a concerned family member should call the Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers phone line. She would in turn ask the person more detailed questions about what is going on with Uncle Charlie. Then, perhaps, Griffin can coax the family member to get Uncle Charlie to a doctor for a complete physical examination.
Maybe there’s a medical issue, and treatment can get Uncle Charlie back to normal. Or maybe it is something more serious, and permanent. If it is determined that Uncle Charlie is really not capable of continuing practicing law, the situation gets harder.
Then Griffin might try helping that lawyer “reinvent” themselves. Maybe they are still sharp enough to do some tasks that involve using their law degree without technically practicing law.
“We don’t want them to make a mistake and be humiliated,” said Griffin. “You don’t want anyone to end a 60-year career from the law with no blemishes at all to end up with a black mark in the book because of an illness… We want to be able to give that lawyer or judge the most dignified, gracious exit from their career that we can possibly provide for them.”
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. “Sometimes a law firm has to step in and say, ‘We’re basically forcing you to retire,’” said Griffin. “Again, we can try to work with management teams, managing partners. It’s going to be a painful process no matter what. We try to make it as less painful as we can.”
Griffin said she sometimes also has to work hard to convince an older solo lawyer that it’s time to retire. “Sometimes Pat King’s office gets involved,” said Griffin. “If a client isn’t getting a response, what are they going to do? The [lawyer's] going to get a grievance.”
Mark Dubois, former chief disciplinary counsel, who is also speaking at the symposium, agreed that it can be particularly tricky to deal with a lawyer with dementia.
“When somebody has dementia or mental illness, they don’t realize it,” said Dubois, who now practices law at Geraghty & Bonnano in New London. “Part of the disease is that their thought process is not appropriate. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers will provide assistance if somebody comes looking. But what do you do if somebody is acting out and don’t realize how bad they’ve become?”
Dubois said some lawyers are placed on interim suspension or inactive status “and you have to fight your way back.”
Dubois said doctors have a statutory obligation to turn in other doctors. But he said the medical profession has a way to suspend disciplinary proceedings while seeking help. The law is different. “We tend to ignore [the problem] until it becomes so bad it has to become a disciplinary response,” said Dubois.•
The Impaired Lawyer Symposium will take place Friday, October 18 from 8:30 a.m. until 12:15 p.m. at the CBA Law Center at 30 Bank St. in New Britain. The event is free. To register to attend, visit www.ctbarfdn.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.