John E. Keefe Jr. should have been celebrating.
It was May 2017, and he was a successful and experienced civil trial lawyer, his family was thriving and he was next in line to become president of the New Jersey State Association (NJSBA), the state’s largest organization of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals.
But then came a cancer diagnosis that leveled him.
“It was very sobering. It was surreal,” said Keefe. He underwent months of grueling treatments that kept him mostly out of the office. His partners and close friends maintained his caseload, ensuring he had a relatively easy reentry when he was strong enough to return to work and be sworn in as president of the NJSBA. Keefe said he was lucky to have that level of support, but knew that many don’t, especially in a state where over two-thirds of attorneys in private practice are in solo or small firms.
“What would I have done without my family, my lawyer friends and colleagues to help me?” Keefe said in an interview about his goals as president. “I want to ensure that we lend our hand to our members, especially lawyers in solo and small firms who don’t have partners or associates to rely on if they get sick.”
With that perspective and a profound sense of gratitude, last spring Keefe formed the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Task Force to examine the ways the legal community can provide assistance to attorneys facing acute medical crises that require them to temporarily step back from the practice of law. Keefe said the task force is borne out of the need he sees in the legal community and a desire to pay forward the assistance he received.
The task force is comprised of attorneys and judges who have suffered health challenges or helped colleagues navigate those waters. It has spent the past several months researching services employed around the country; creating documents practitioners can use to keep track of critical information that would serve as a guide if an attorney has to stop practicing suddenly; and crafting proposals that are expected to go to the NJSBA’s Board of Trustees this spring.
Once the task force makes its recommendations and the board acts, the NJSBA will launch an online portal with resources attorneys can access in a time of need, including checklists, sample letters, information about disability insurance, and more.
“This is a pay forward for all of the good things that have happened to me and all the people who have helped me. We need to help each other,” Keefe said.