30 Years of the LAP: Countless Lives Saved and Careers Resurrected

By Brandon Vogel

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On the surface, Jeffrey (not his real name) was a leading litigator who had won many criminal and civil cases and argued before the Court of Appeals.

Underneath, he harbored a dark secret.

Raised in an affluent Jewish family on Long Island, Jeffrey’s father routinely and intensely abused him, starting at the age of 5. “It wasn’t until I decked him at 16 that it stopped,” said Jeffrey. “I have handled Family Court cases with way less abuse than I dealt with. My mother went into ‘Sophie’s Choice’ mode.”

“I was a long-distance runner, a martial artist, a natural debating champion,” said Jeffrey. “You don’t come out unscathed. I had a tremendous professional fail and lost all of the prominence I had. It ultimately came out on the front page of the newspaper and I was stripped of armor.”

Jeffrey was initially suspended and agreed to be monitored by a prominent judge, whom he initially resented for her “tough love approach.” He started going to the NYSBA Capital District Lawyers Helping Lawyers (CDLHL) meetings not long after. 

Jeffrey is just one of many lawyers whose career and life the Lawyer Assistance Program and its outreach programs saved. Now celebrating 30 years of helping lawyers face challenges, its work is more varied and perhaps more relevant than ever.

“The pioneering effort of the Lawyer Assistance Program has saved the lives of countless struggling lawyers, helping them restore their good health and resurrect their careers. Over the past three decades, we have seen many clients of the Program completely rebuild their lives – both personally and professionally. I extend my sincere thanks to the volunteers and staff of the Program for their tireless and noble work,” said President Scott M. Karson. “We all must recognize that the mental and physical well-being of attorneys is critical to the effective practice of law, protection of the public trust and the vibrancy of our profession.”

“When I first started going, I was so choked up. It is difficult for me to speak about what I went through; I kept it inside. I thought these people are drug addicts and alcoholics but there’s a universality of human experience,” said Jeffrey. “People have some very, very different experiences. The great thing is they are all lawyers and we can relate on that level. It is a profoundly amazing group of very smart, supportive good people.”

Now that Jeffrey has been involved for a few years he speaks readily and is in a capacity to help people, despite his survival mechanism to bottle it up. He also has learned to forgive himself.

How it began

The history of the New York Lawyer Assistance Program starts in 1978 when then NYSBA President Hon. Robert P. Patterson, Jr. asked his law partner Raymond O’Keefe to chair a new NYSBA committee, originally called the NYSBA Special Committee on Lawyer Alcoholism. O’Keefe agreed to chair the committee, which began with a dozen attorneys.
Meetings were held frequently to discuss the structure and future plans of the committee and how its members could most effectively deliver the hope of recovery to suffering attorneys. Buffalo attorney David Pfalzgraf relates that it was generally agreed that the original purpose was and continues to be to bring all lawyers who suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction the hope of sobriety and a better life through practicing the principles of 12 Step Programs. Within two years, the special committee become a standing NYSBA committee, the Committee on Lawyer Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

O’Keefe wrote a letter to all of the 62 county bar associations in New York urging each to form similar local committee consisting of lawyers who had found a way out and to urge local volunteers to attend the NYSBA Committee meetings. At the beginning, Pfalzgraf says, the effort was “strictly a volunteer operation with no professionals involved.”

By 1983, O’Keefe had moved to Florida to become a professor and dean of faculty at St. Thomas Law School. Westchester attorney Jack Keegan assumed chairmanship of the NYSBA Committee, serving until 1990 when he became chair of the ABA Commission on Impaired Attorneys (later called the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs). By 1984, there was a local committee or contact person in 33 counties.

At Keegan’s urging, NYSBA began the process in 1989 to hire a full-time staff professional to head a stand-alone Lawyer Assistance Program. “It was clear to Jack that we volunteers needed the assistance of a professional to assist us in our efforts to identify those addicted, coordinate interventions and place lawyers in appropriate treatment programs,” said Pfalzgraf.

The committee put together a proposal to allocate funds for a full time director and administrative assistant, which the Executive Committee approved. Three committee members and three State Bar staff members interviewed six candidates and chose Ray Lopez who served as director until his retirement in 2005. Lawyer Assistance Program Assistant Linda McMahon has been with the program since its inception in 1990. Stacey Whiteley is the current program director.

Who it serves

Today, the program serves attorneys dealing with issues ranging from alcoholism to drug abuse to depression and anxiety and other mental health struggles.

“You meet so many men and women in and out of recovery who need hope and a path to recovery. That is what has given me the most gratitude. It helps me remain an active and sober member,” said Pfalzgraf. “The AA 12 Steps Program is to carry the message of recovery to another person, another alcoholic. It looks like it’s designed for the new person, but it’s really for the person in recovery. The truth of the matter is that it’s part of what I have to do to maintain my sobriety”

Tom Nicotera experienced severe depression after the suicide of his son and lost his practice as a result. After he was reinstated to the bar, he got involved in the Capital District Lawyers Helping Lawyers. A friend suggested he join the Lawyer Assistance Committee, to which he agreed. Nicotera is grateful to work with people who are facing difficulties and having the ability to make a difference.

“The Lawyer Assistance Program is a fabulous resource; it covers everything from soup to nuts. If you have an issue you are dealing with, a resource will be there or a resource will be found,” he said.

He noted that for attorneys it is confidential, unless you choose to make it public. “It doesn’t go on your sleeve if you reach out.”

Elaine Turley got involved through Suffolk County Lawyers Helping Lawyers and then got involved with the NYSBA Lawyer Assistance Program. Sober for decades, Turley became a lawyer later in life.

“The most rewarding thing is to see people’s lives change,” said Turley. “There are some lawyers who followed me who have been with us, who have struggled terribly and talk about about a tremendous improvement in the quality of their lives. There’s a total turnaround. Not only is it manageable, they have happy successful lives and that’s what I love seeing.”

Lawyer Assistance Committee Chair Tom Schimmerling first got involved in 1991. Jack Keegan asked him to serve on the committee after he had been sober for 6 years. “It is a great way to give back.”

“What is most gratifying is watching attorneys, new to the program, come in and throw the shackles off addiction and get involved in recovery and re-establish themselves giving good client service, rather than dying,” said Schimmerling.

Schimmerling is rightly proud of the committee and the program. Even with COVID-19, the group is still going strong virtually.

If an attorney needs help, Schimmerling said, “There is another way. I would tell them my story and what I did about it. There are alternatives. If they try to get into recovery, chances are they will succeed.”

If you need help, please call the NYSBA Lawyer Assistance Program at 1-800-255-0569 or email [email protected].

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