On September 28th 2012, the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) terminated, as of December 31st, funding of the Ontario Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP), an arm's length/Chinese-walled service provider for 35 years to LSUC members suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, financial stresses, marital breakdown, stress, burn-out and a myriad of other personal and professional issues that impact a lawyer's ability to properly practise law and serve one's clients. Their replacing OLAP’s services with Homewood Human Solutions (Homewood) ought to be discomfiting to all members of our profession and the public. Why?
Because OLAP is a not-for-profit charitable organization staffed by a lean complement of highly trained and qualified professionals supported by a group of lawyer volunteers. OLAP's dozens of volunteers are themselves for the most part former clients of OLAP, who, having suffered and overcome their own demons, and now choose to give back to our profession by acting as peer counsellors, speakers, authors, and ambassadors for OLAP.
For 35 years, OLAP’s current EAP service provider, Shepell-fgi, obtained the services of professional therapists and counsellors at no cost to OLAP’s clients, many of whom do not have extended health coverage; and even for those that do, the types of counselling generally offered or required are neither covered by OHIP or if at all by private health plans only in limited amounts. By the time a distressed lawyer reaches out, that person will likely be unable to afford the costs of their own treatment.
But most significantly, there is no direct relationship between Shepell and the LSUC. This ensures complete confidentiality between lawyer-clients and the treatment providers, with the lawyers being able to focus on themselves without fear of intrusion by the professional regulator. This is important. Not only must the lawyer-clients be protected by confidentiality, but there must also be the unequivocal perception of such confidentiality lest members be fearful of reaching out for the help they need.
Today, except for serious misconduct or criminal activity, anything disclosed to the OLAP case worker or any OLAP volunteer by the lawyer-client is not sent to LSUC. This ensures that lawyer-clients in trouble can openly talk about their problems to get the best treatment regimen possible for their particular dilemmas. OLAP assists its clients to get back on track both personally and professionally. It has significant experience helping distressed lawyers transition out of practice in a way that takes into account professional obligations to LSUC and clients, thus upholding the highest standards of professionalism and the protection of the public.
While Homewood may adequately provide services of similar nature and quality to Shepell, the demolition of the wall between the LSUC and the EAP provider is the fundamental problem here. Homewood will not just replace Shepell with professional services, but in fact replace the OLAP infrastructure in its entirety. No longer will distressed lawyers be able to seek assistance from OLAP case workers who know the unique pressures of our profession and the sensitivities of members in trouble.
And what of the peer volunteers? The psychic and emotional benefits to a distressed lawyer of being able to be counselled and mentored through the process of recovery by a fellow lawyer who has "been there" cannot be overstated. An informal survey conducted amongst OLAP's volunteer base recently indicated that approximately half of the existing volunteers are not interested in giving of their time to benefit the bottom line of Homewood. The other half appear to reluctantly agree out of a sense of continuing commitment to their peers. It is conceivable that many of them will drop out and be difficult to replace, given that the volunteer relationship is directly with the EAP and no longer with a safe not-for-profit intermediary like OLAP.
The expectations of our peers, our families, our clients, and society at large serve to put additional unnecessary pressures upon lawyers that can lead into financial difficulties. The situation is even more acute for those lawyers practising outside the confines of large Bay Street firms, particularly sole practitioners, whose presence as defendants at LSUC discipline hearings is over-represented, perhaps due to their vulnerability to the pressures of the profession.
LSUC has yet to provide any satisfactory evidence that the necessary safeguards have been negotiated to ensure that future lawyer-clients of Homewood could open up freely without fear that any admissions could be compelled by the LSUC. Homewood obtained the contract based on a bidding process. This alone should make clear that this is first and foremost a business arrangement.
Also, no significant transitional period has been arranged to move the existing hundreds of clients from OLAP-Sheppell to Homewoood. What is the emotional and health related costs to those individuals? OLAP has provided services on a continuous basis for over 35 years and it is important that these services remain in place. The integrity of our profession demands it.
I know of what I speak. After fifteen years of professional and financial success, I ended up in a three year spiral of addiction and depression which cost me my health, my savings, much of my professional reputation, and scared (and scarred) my children. I shudder to think of where the bottom would have been had I kept falling down into the abyss. OLAP was the life raft that saved me when I was near drowning. From my first meeting with an OLAP case worker who made me feel safe, secure, let me know I wasn't alone and that lots of members of our profession go through this, to the contact with volunteer lawyer peer counselors, to the excellent services provided through Shepell, I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in several years. An action plan was developed with the OLAP case worker which involved divesting myself of my practice and taking concerted steps daily to ensure I would recover and get back to the the person and professional I had always been.
Today, I am happier and healthier than at any time in my 45 years. My children are happier as I am a more attentive parent. My professional reputation is restored, my law practice is busier and more lucrative than ever. I am a better father, son, friend, boss than I ever was, and the next woman to marry me will get a version of me that neither of my ex-wives would believe possible. I owe it all to the initial visit with OLAP one winter day in 2009. My story is not unique.
In the last year, I personally know of two lawyers who attempted suicide; several with degenerative genetic illnesses that have hindered their ability to properly service their clients; many who have gone through divorce; a scarily large number who show the signs of depression; and many more who used to be able to pay their bills but cannot seem to find their footing in this new economic reality. There are tens of thousands of lawyers in Ontario. That means thousands in need of OLAP's services.
As a measure to cut costs, increase profit, or get what is wrongfully perceived as a better return on investment, LSUC's decision to essentially abolish OLAP is myopic. It is not just lawyers in distress who will suffer, but the very public the LSUC claims to protect, and the very image of the profession it governs.