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NYSBA President Scott Karson. Courtesy Photo

Aiming to find “measurable” solutions for the health and substance abuse problems that plague many lawyers, the state bar association has launched a 9-pronged initiative, staffed by current and former judges and past bar association presidents, among others, that will attempt to comprehensively lay out what to do about the problem.

The initiative aims to build off a major 2016 American Bar Association-driven study of lawyers’ health and well-being by laying out specific ”mitigation efforts,” or solutions, that can be employed by organizations and lawyers spanning the legal field, according to interviews with the co-chairs of the initiative, New York State Bar Association President Scott Karson, and an NYSBA spokeswoman.

In explaining the launch of its new Attorney Well-Being Task Force, the state bar association said that while the range of health and substance abuse problems riddling the legal profession have been well-documented, especially in recent years, it believes it can help address what appears to be a lack of concrete ideas for aiding lawyers in overcoming severe struggles that many of them face.

The 2016 study of 12,825 lawyers, conducted by an ABA commission and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, discovered, for example, that 20.6% of the lawyer-respondents exhibited “signs of problem drinking,” and that “among those who used drugs (both legal and illicit), 74.1% used stimulants, 51.3% used sedatives, and 21.6% used opioids,” according to a recent New York City Bar Association report that recounted some of ”the breakthrough” study’s findings.

“The study also found that 28% of lawyers suffer from depression, 19% reported problems with anxiety, 23% suffer from stress, and that lawyers exhibit increased levels of suicide, work addiction and sleep deprivation,” the city bar report said.

What the NYSBA hopes will set apart its new attorney well-being initiative, said the four bar association representatives in recent Zoom interviews, is how comprehensively its task force will dig into the range of lawyer health and substance abuse issues, how detailed the recommended solutions will be, and—they hope—how much and how often it sees its recommendations implemented throughout the state, from legal employers to lawyers’ groups to law schools.

“I believe that, in the end, we will make recommendations that will change the culture of lawyering in New York,” said Libby Coreno, a co-chairwoman of the task force who has been involved with lawyer well-being efforts at the NYSBA for more than a decade.

“Our goal will be practical implementation of all of the known empirical data of the problems for lawyer well-being,” Coreno also said. She added that the task force’s final report, expected to be issued in about a year, will focus on setting out “measurable and actionable” solutions.

Her co-chairwoman, Karen Peters, a former presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Third Department, emphasized during a recent joint interview with Coreno that “we are looking at attorney well-being from the beginning of her law school experience to the beginning of her practice to her retirement.”

“It is important to look at the whole of the attorney,” said Peters, while also noting that the initiative will have nine subcommittees aimed at addressing a great range of areas affecting attorneys, including legal education, law culture and employment, judiciary and the courts, and public trust and ethics.

The bar association and its task force is “looking at how to actualize the data [on physical, mental and substance-use struggles] that we know exists,” she said. She added that another task force goal is “to become a model for the rest of the country,” .

Karson, the newly installed president of the NYSBA—he took over June 1—said that he had thought for months about wanting to make lawyer well-being and health a centerpiece of his time as president, if he were to get the position.

“It had been done by the ABA, and it really hadn’t been done in a serious way by our association,” he said. He also noted that Coreno, who he’s long known as a leader inside the bar association, and Peters had both assured him that “there is plenty of room to occupy” in addressing well-being problems beyond what the ABA has done in recent years. In the wake of its 2016 study, the ABA launched a Presidential Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession, published a “Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers,” and started a campaign asking legal employers to pledge to implement a recommended framework for addressing lawyer health and substance use issues. But Coreno and Peters say further solutions and programs are still needed.

And so in May, the NYSBA began forming its task force, explained Karson and NYSBA spokeswoman Susan DeSantis in a Zoom interview. Once Karson took over as president, the task force’s representatives started meeting.

Karson said he’s already “sat in on a couple” of the task force’s early, remotely held meetings, and is pleased so far, he said, especially because the group has taken what he calls an important “holistic” approach to examining how lawyers live, work and often struggle.

“Studies have shown rates of mental illness, fatigue, physical health problems, and substance use for attorneys that far exceed the national averages for other professions,” Karson said in a recent statement announcing the NYSBA’s initiative. “We need to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health treatment and make it easier for all lawyers to seek out the help that they need,” he added.

In separate interviews, Karson, and then Coreno and Peters, also said that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into much sharper relief the need for concrete solutions aimed at helping lawyers stay healthy as they tackle the legal field’s pressures and long work hours.

“I think we’re just at a crescendo moment and COVID-19 ripped the lid off of it,” Coreno said about lawyer-wellness issues plaguing the industry. “It exposed the mental health and the cultural issues” in the field to a greater degree, she said.

Coreno and Peters said that by finding current and former judges, former state bar association presidents and others immersed deeply in their areas of the law to staff the task force, they hope that its eventual recommendations will be detailed, carefully planned and well-vetted, and more likely to be implemented widely.

The task force’s nine subcommittees, or “working groups,” and their chairs are:

• Law Education — Rosemary Queenan, associate dean for student affairs and a professor at Albany Law School • Law Culture & Employment — Kathryn Grant Madigan, Levene Gouldin & Thompson and a past NYSBA president • Physical Well-Being — Robert Herbst, general counsel • Emotional Well-Being — Meredith Heller, Law Office of Meredith S. Heller • Substance Use & Addiction — Hon. Sallie Krause, acting justice of the Supreme Court at New York City Family Court (retired) • Judiciary and the Courts — Hon. Stan Pritzker, associate justice, Appellate Division, Third Department • Public Trust & Ethics — Marian Rice, L’Abbate, Balkan, Colavita & Contini • Bar Associations — Glenn Lau-Kee, Lau-Kee Law Groups and a past NYSBA president; and • Continuing Legal Education — James Barnes, Burke & Casserly.

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Jason Grant

Jason Grant is a staff writer covering legal stories and cases for the New York Law Journal, the National Law Journal and Law.com, and a former practicing attorney. He's written and reported previously for the New York Times, the Star-Ledger, the L.A. Times and other publications. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter, please find him @JasonBarrGrant

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