The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates voted on Monday to change the ABA’s Model Rule for Minimum Continuing Legal Education to include a recommended one hour of CLE training every three years focused on substance abuse and mental health issues. Currently, only three jurisdictions–California, North Carolina and Nevada–require such courses. The decision to amend the Model CLE Rule, which has not been revised since 1988, was made this week during the ABA’s mid-year meeting in Miami.
As we discussed in our blog here, lawyers suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues at an alarmingly high rate. The ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation commissioned a study of 15,000 attorneys across 19 states. Their research found that between 21% and 36% of lawyers drink at levels consistent with an alcohol use disorder. For comparison, those numbers are roughly 3-5 times higher than the government estimates for alcohol use disorders in the general population. A report summarizing the research was published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in February 2016 (click here). The report stated: “Compared with other populations, we find the significantly higher prevalence of problematic alcohol use among attorneys to be compelling and suggestive of the need for tailored, profession-informed services.”
Those who defend lawyers charged with professional ethics violations would certainly concur that a correlation exists between substance abuse or mental health issues and violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct. As one report, written by two leading ethics lawyers, noted, “the abilities of lawyers to perform their fiduciary duties to their clients—to put the causes and needs of their clients first—often become seriously impaired when lawyers are more concerned with their substance addictions. Deadlines are missed, responses are not filed, and more subtle lapses—some of which the client may not be able to discover—occur with increasing regularity.”
Attorneys at all levels, including those pre-attorneys still working their way through law school, need to be cognizant of the risks of mental health and addiction disorders in the legal profession. Whether the ABA’s proposal is going to change anything remains to be seen. At least it is a start.