A (Retired) Judicial Perspective of the Idaho Lawyer Assistance Program

By Hon. Gregory M. Culet

At some point in the course of our careers as lawyers and judges, some of us have had the necessary, albeit unpleasant experience of participating in what is often described as an “intervention.”

That is to say, helping one of our colleagues, friends, or family members to acknowledge and address their alcohol or drug addiction and the impaired—often destructive—behaviors associated with it, followed by (hopefully) that individual’s entry into treatment and the long—but productive—road of recovery.

In the past, there was often no playbook for those who initiated the intervention process, and while we are all relieved if the effort results in a successful outcome, most of us would rather pass a kidney stone than go through it again.

Trial and Error

“I won’t go on the record” was the consistent qualifier I heard when, as a judge, I was receiving reports from concerned courthouse personnel about the problematic behavior of a legal professional whom they all respected highly, but whom they also believed to be impaired due to substance abuse.

I received the same qualifier from an attorney who came forward with information regarding the same individual.  In fairness to each of those reporting individuals, I knew that each of them would have stepped up if such was ultimately necessary, but ultimately, that wasn’t necessary.  

At that time, I was unaware of the existence of the Idaho Lawyer Assistance Program (“LAP”), which had only recently been established, and I was in a quandary as to how to proceed. Fortunately, I was able to reach out to a mutual friend with knowledge of addiction and recovery, and we were collectively able to “tag team” an informal intervention process that somehow got the process rolling, and the individual in question entered into residential treatment soon thereafter, ultimately returning to their family and profession while still maintaining their recovery and sobriety.

However, that individual’s entry into recovery did not come a moment too soon.  Thereafter, I resolved to never to be asleep at the switch again while someone I knew and respected became so impaired by physical, mental, or emotional illness.  Admittedly, that is easier said than done, but now there is help.

Lawyer Assistance Program as a Resource

From a judge’s perspective (albeit retired), there are notably more resources available now. The primary resources utilized by the Idaho Lawyer Assistance Program are found with Southworth Associates International, who provides confidential consulting, referrals, interventions, guidance, and monitoring regarding substance abuse and/or mental health issues not only to the Idaho State Bar and its membership, but to a number of other professional governing bodies in Idaho and their respective memberships. [i]

In addition, the LAP committee members have produced a reference manual, which provides useful insights to help members of the bench and bar identify and recognize what may be the signs of addiction and impaired behavior of our colleagues or the professionals who appear before us (or, for that matter, friends and family).

It further provides insights into how we can offer help in those situations, or otherwise take steps to address it, including where to look for expert help and advice both for the impaired individual to find help, and also help for those concerned individuals who seek to instigate the recovery process.[ii]

However, while most judges will never experience nor exhibit symptoms of addiction, a significant percentage of sitting judges have identified experiencing judicial isolation as part of a wide-ranging and deep acculturation process that comes with the job.[iii]  This isolation can be particularly acute in many of our most rural counties in which only one judge resides.

Likewise, some judges have reported symptoms of depression and anxiety as a result of the stressors of the job. An example is the vicarious trauma that can be experienced by judges who constantly deal with victims of violence and tragedy.[iv]  The Idaho Supreme Court has provided a confidential hotline for judges on its website and the American Bar Association has sponsored the National Helpline for Judges Helping Judges.[v]

In that regard, the LAP Reference Manual also provides useful insights to help us identify and recognize other behaviors that are symptomatic of these and other mental or emotional health concerns, and it further provides insights into how we can offer help in those situations, as well as providing insight to help each of us recognize when we are experiencing those same symptoms ourselves.

Benefit of Practicing in a Sparsely Populated State

Due to the rural nature of much of our state, members of both the Idaho judiciary and the Idaho State Bar are often in a unique position to interact with each other often over a period of years and even decades.

In turn, this allows greater opportunity for judges to recognize when a lawyer is exhibiting impaired behavior which may be the result of physical, mental, or emotional illness, and further allows us as fellow professionals (and in many instances, friends) to take steps to both assist the lawyer to find help, while still protecting the interests of the represented parties.

Success Stories

From a personal perspective, I have observed and interacted with attorneys both before and after they have entered the recovery process and further observed what appears to be their ongoing success in recovery.

My perception is that there often appears to be a new level of discipline in those same individuals, which I can only assume is at least partially a result of their newly acquired ability to maintain their sobriety in recovery while still handling the stresses and challenges of their professional and personal lives. The conclusion I have drawn is that in most cases the recovery process actually works. In fact, it works well!

Additional resources or information can be found on the Idaho State Bar’s website at: https://isb.idaho.gov/member-services/programs-resources/lap/, or the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs at: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/.

Hon. Gregory M. Culet served in the Idaho Judiciary for over 31 years, both as a Magistrate and a District Judge, retiring in 2012. He is now a member of the Idaho Lawyer Assistance Program Steering Committee.

[i]   Southworth Associates, Ben Seymour, Program Coordinator; 5530 W. Emerald, Boise, Idaho 83706; Southworth associates@gmail.com; web site: www.southworthassociates.net; 24-Hour Hotline: (866) 460-9014.

[ii]   The Idaho Lawyers Assistance Program Reference Manual can be found at https://isb.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/lap_manual.pdf.  

[iii]  Dr. Isaiah M. Zimmerman, PhD., Court Review, Vol. 36, Issue 4 (Winter 2000).

[iv] Dr. Peter Jaffe, Professor, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada, Presentation to Idaho Judiciary(2007).

[v]  National Helpline for Judges Helping Judges: (800) 219-6474