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Attorneys Find Defense Against Dependency

Michael Brady helped write a law creating an assistance program for lawyers battling substance abuse just as he did nine years ago.


Sacramento attorney Michael K. Brady's drinking got worse in 1993, after he watched a client die in San Quentin's gas chamber.

He soon began using cocaine and methamphetamines to wake from the alcohol-induced stupor. Then he quit practicing law altogether.

Brady, a once-prominent criminal defense attorney, was arrested six times in eight weeks in 1998 for crimes ranging from misdemeanor drug possession to auto theft and receiving stolen property. He pleaded no contest to two felonies and was sentenced to civil commitment at the California Rehabilitation Center for substance abuse.

When he was released in April 2000, Brady pledged to help other chemical-dependent attorneys before their lives spiraled out of control as his had.

Within weeks, Senate leader John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) hired Brady, 50, to research and help write the law creating the State Bar of California's new Lawyer Assistance Program.

"The goal is to have more competent attorneys practicing law in California," said Brady, who was disbarred as a result of his felony convictions. "Lawyers who are chemical dependent cannot competently practice law, so clients' cases are in jeopardy."

The legislation--introduced in January 2001 and enacted six months later--requires the State Bar to offer its members early intervention and treatment for chemical dependency and mental health problems.

Brady said the American Bar Assn. estimates that 15% to 18% of the nation's lawyers are alcoholics, compared with 10% of the general adult population. He also cited a Law and Psychology Review article concluding that 10% of practicing lawyers suffer from psychological distress.

Based on those statistics, he believes as many as 38,000 of California's 135,805 attorneys suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, depression or other mental disorders.

Brady can personally attest to the pressures of law practice. He graduated from McGeorge School of Law and passed the bar in 1984. During the next 14 years, he completed more than 200 jury trials, including six death-penalty cases, and earned $500,000 annually.

"I had always been a drinker and kind of a workaholic," he said. "I thought I was bulletproof."

He said his downfall was believing he was emotionally prepared to watch convicted murderer David Edwin Mason die. "I felt like Lady Macbeth. I couldn't get the blood off of my hands," he said. "I didn't want to be a lawyer anymore"

By 1996, his wife and 3-year-old son left him. He lost his house and car--and eventually his law license and his freedom.

"All of the signs were there," Brady said, but no one urged him to seek treatment before his incarceration. "When I sobered up, I realized, whew, what have I done."

In response to the legislation, the bar began its assistance program in March. Already, 70 attorneys have signed up--half of them voluntarily, Director Janis Thibault said. The other half was referred to the program through the bar's disciplinary system.

"These are disorders that get worse without some intervention or some change," she said. "There is a certain amount of negligence in not responding" before they worsen and cause harm to clients.

The Lawyer Assistance Program is modeled after the California Medical Board's long-running substance-abuse treatment program for addicted doctors.

The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs reports that "a majority of [lawyer] disciplinary problems involve chemical dependency or emotional stress."

In California, about 40% of all lawyer disciplinary proceedings end in default judgments, in which the attorney simply does not respond to the allegations, said Starr Babcock, a bar executive who oversees the assistance program. Of the remaining cases, about 25% cite substance abuse and mental illness as mitigating factors.

In addition to protecting the public, supporters say the assistance program over time should reduce the cost of disciplining lawyers. The bar spends $30 million a year on its discipline system.

"In the past, the State Bar would not find out about [chemical dependency] until some kind of discipline problem surfaced," said Richard Carlton, acting deputy director of the Lawyer Assistance Program. "What we want to do now is find out about these problems much earlier so we can intervene."

Every state has some kind of program--driven either by paid staff or volunteers--to help attorneys deal with substance abuse and mental illness, said Donna L. Spilis, director for the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.

Before now, California had two small programs--the Lawyers Personal Assistance Program, which provides temporary counseling to lawyers for myriad personal problems, and The Other Bar, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping lawyers deal with alcoholism.

And since 1992, California lawyers have been required to attend a one-hour session on the prevention and treatment of substance abuse as part of their mandatory continuing legal education program.

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