Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Group aims to help attorneys conquer addictions

Recovering alcoholic leads state version of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers

Attorney Coe Swobe has been more than a successful lawyer. He spent a dozen years in the Nevada Legislature as both an assemblyman and state senator and negotiated a deal to save Lake Tahoe.

But saving himself proved a little harder.

Swobe is a recovering alcoholic whose drinking nearly destroyed his life and career. Swobe remembers feeling as if had nowhere to turn. So, now, a quarter of a century later, he has made sure other lawyers suffering from addictions can get confidential help.

Swobe, who is now 81, has been a force behind Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, the state's version of the national group that provides help to attorneys who suffer from addictions. The organization counsels attorneys with alcohol, drug and gambling addictions and recently expanded into dealing with depressed lawyers.

Swobe recounted how a few drinks here and there evolved into a devastating problem.

"It started out in college drinking beer. I went to wine, then I went to hard liquor. I found out I drank more and more as time went on," Swobe recalled. "The other progression of the disease is denial."

When Swobe was 55, his family forced an intervention. After about a dozen years of sobriety, he discovered Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a group founded in 1985 by attorney and recovering alcoholic Ben Graham.

Graham found support for his new group from Michael Cherry, another lawyer recovering from alcoholism. Cherry is now a Nevada Supreme Court justice.

"Mainly the (State) Bar supported us with money," Cherry recalled. "They supported us from the beginning and we patterned this after what was going on (with a similar program) in Oregon."

The State Bar supports Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers financially, but does not receive any confidential information on those being counseled, Swobe said.

"We are an independent organization, because we are effective being independent of the Bar," Swobe said.

Cam Ferenbach talked about Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers shortly after he was named State Bar of Nevada president over the summer. He emphasized the need to keep the support system going and in the public eye.

"It's a place lawyers can go to get help without worrying about disciplinary action. Everything is kept confidential," Ferenbach said. "We want to see this program continue."

The idea of the State Bar learning of attorneys' problems terrifies lawyers with addictions. So, Swobe is quick to distance his group from the State Bar, which administers discipline.

"Lawyers are paranoid about the (State) Bar finding out," he said. "We had a phone line that went to the (State) Bar and attorneys hung up when they heard, 'State Bar.' So now we have a different number."

Swobe gained the support of Nevada's lawyers, judges and Supreme Court in 1994 as he worked to ensure that they were educated about substance abuse and other addictions in the legal profession. A few years ago, The Nevada Supreme Court adopted a rule allowing Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers to keep all client information confidential.

The support group has become important from both humanistic and business reasons, State Bar of Nevada officials said.

Addiction ramifications in the legal profession go beyond attorneys' suffering. Costly addictions such as compulsive gambling and drugs often factor in client complaints filed with the State Bar of Nevada, said Dave Clark, the bar's deputy council.

"When it comes to serious misconduct, (addictions) are a serious factor," Clark said. "Alcohol is the traditional favorite, but Nevada offers a variety of addictions. We see a few cases (of attorney misconduct) a month."

That misconduct often involves clients' money.

"They accept retainers from clients and never do the work because they are just funding their addictions," Clark added.

Cherry credits his 24 years of sobriety for allowing him to achieve career success and, more importantly, for saving his life.

"Had I not stopped drinking, there's no way I would have become a Supreme Court justice," he said. "It was killing me. I probably would have died."

By Valerie Miller, vmiller@lvbusinesspress.com, 702-387-5286

Source: Las Vegas Business Press

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