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Audit: State Bar’s substance abuse monitoring falling short

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The program that monitors lawyers recovering from drug and alcohol abuse at times fails to take action when attorneys skip lab screenings or even test positive, the California State Auditor has found.

A report, published last week, details how the California State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program has not consistently referred violations to higher authorities [PDF]. As a result, the State Bar is “leaving the public unnecessarily at risk of attorneys’ practicing law while potentially relapsing in their abuse of drugs or alcohol,” the auditors wrote.

The State Bar, which regulates California’s lawyers, agreed to follow the report’s prescribed reforms and did not dispute the findings.

Auditors reviewed files from 25 attorneys in the monitoring program. These lawyers repeatedly were “noncompliant,” according to the report. Those files showed 34 instances when lawyers broke the rules, missing or failing tests.

In six of those instances, auditors found the State Bar’s case managers did not promptly notify the disciplinary body as the monitoring program requires.

Case managers have waited weeks and even months to report violations that might signal an attorney’s substance abuse relapse. The report highlights one extreme case:

For example, one participant failed to comply with his participation plan 20 times during the first three years that he took part in the assistance program. Nevertheless, the case manager did not bring these issues to the attention of the evaluation committee until nine months into the participant’s fourth year, when this attorney had failed to comply 16 additional times.

The program director maintained that prior to April 2010, the majority of the participant’s noncompliance involved late submission of required information. The director went on to state that beginning in April 2010, the participant’s noncompliance demonstrated a pattern of missed lab tests and missed group meetings, and he was scheduled to meet with the evaluation committee in August 2010.

However, we found five instances of missed labs that occurred earlier than April 2010, indicating that the pattern of noncompliance was apparent well before the assistance program took any action to rectify the situation.

To fix such shortcomings, auditors recommend that the State Bar provide case managers with more oversight and write guidelines clearly defining when violations should be reported.

A handful of studies over the past two decades have indicated the legal community is particularly susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse. Lawyers often grapple with high pressure and long hours, according to a 1995 study by University of Arizona researchers.

“The findings of the research reported in this study, in conjunction with earlier studies, suggest that the professional and the personal well-being of lawyers is in serious jeopardy,” the article’s abstract states. It continues:

Lawyers are working more, reducing vacation time, spending less time with family members, are prone to alcohol abuse, and face high levels of psychological distress. The combination of elements suggests an impending crisis for lawyers' family lives. Although the data are not sufficient to suggest that psychological distress has detrimentally affected the lawyers' ability to practice competently, the warning signs are present.

 

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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