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The American Bar Association issued a new call to arms for law firms to combat substance use and related mental health issues in the profession, and 13 firms have already gotten on board.

The group unveiled the initiative Monday, including a seven-point framework that it hopes all firms will embrace by the start of 2019.

“I wholeheartedly support this important effort to assist and improve the health of lawyers in this country,” ABA president Bob Carlson said in a statement. “Many lawyers have struggled with alcohol, other substance-use or mental health disorders, and many more of us have watched friends wrestle with them. This pledge campaign will give these issues the attention they deserve by raising awareness throughout the profession and making help available to lawyers in need. I hope all law firms consider taking the pledge.”

Am Law 100 firms Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & FeldDuane Morris, Latham & Watkins, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Nixon Peabody, Perkins Coie, Reed Smith and Seyfarth Shaw have already signed on to be part of the inaugural class of employers. They are joined by Am Law 200 firms Honigman Miller Schwartz and CohnSchiff HardinSnell & WilmerWiley Rein, along with Butte, Montana-based Corette Black Carlson & Mickelson. The ABA is also asking all entities that employ lawyers, including corporate legal departments, to make the pledge and join the group.

The framework, developed by lawyer and alcohol and drug counselor Patrick Krill, seeks to reduce the level of substance abuse in the profession.

It starts with the expectation that employers provide enhanced and robust education to attorneys and staff on topics related to well-being, mental health and substance use disorders.

Next on the list is a move to disrupt the “status quo” of drinking-based events and functions. Employers are asked to break from the expectation that all events include alcohol, and for events with alcohol, appealing nonalcoholic alternatives should be available.

Firms are also urged to develop visible partnerships with outside resources that can aid in reducing substance use and mental health distress, including health care insurers, lawyer assistance programs, and other experts in the field.

Participants will also pledge to provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts, including free, in-house, self-assessment tools.

The ABA also details a set of proactive policies and protocols—including a defined back-to-work policy following treatment—for employees who do seek assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems

Employers that adopt the framework will also regularly support programs to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being, in order to demonstrate the significance of self-care and help-seeking.

Finally, the framework also pushes them to highlight the adoption of these steps as a recruiting tool to attract top lawyers and staff.

One of the firms already on board, Reed Smith, has already taken action on all seven points, as part of its Wellness Works program, according to Casey Ryan, the firm’s global head of legal personnel. Some of the steps are still being built out.

“I don’t think any of them are particularly difficult to implement,” she said. “I think you need to get buy in from the folks who need them.

Reed Smith’s involvement on the early list of sponsors came as a result of Ryan’s public comments about its internal initiative, which attracted the attention of the ABA’s Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession.

“They were looking for representatives from bigger law firms to bring that voice and perspective to the working group,” she said.

The ABA has waded into this territory previously. A report from 13 months ago outlined sweeping changes that bar regulators, judges and law schools—in addition to firms—could take to fight the alarming levels of substance abuse and mental health problems among lawyers.

That report was the result of a year’s worth of work by the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being following the release in 2016 of two studies showing the degree that these twin concerns were plaguing the profession.

A study of nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers commissioned by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that between 21 and 36 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers. Approximately 28 percent struggle with depression; 19 percent with anxiety and 23 percent struggle with stress.


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