The Law Society’s Misguided Decision: De-Funding OLAP

By Darryl Singer

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.

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Comments

  1. I too have used OLAP services in the past. Anonymity is very important. As was the no charge part of the services. Im very hesitant about this new service. I hope that LSUC can give us more assurances about the concerns expressed in the article above.

  2. Response to Mr. Darryl Singer’s post

    A recent post by Darryl Singer that appeared in SLAW on December 15 regarding the defunding of the Ontario Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) misinforms the reader on several significant points. In other places, Mr. Singer is simply fear mongering.

    The Law Society fully respects the confidentiality of all the clinical relationships between current clients and OLAP, and has made sure that transitional support for OLAP for this purpose is in place.

    As a lawyer, Mr. Singer should be aware that organizations like Homewood Human Solutions and Shepell-fgi are required by their accrediting bodies to ensure complete confidentiality and to protect fully all client information. Unless compelled by a court or by operation of law, a client’s information cannot be shared without his or her written consent. This was always the case with OLAP and will continue to be the case with the new Member Assistance Program (MAP).

    Furthermore, there is no cost to clients for services under the new MAP. To suggest otherwise, as Mr. Singer does, is inaccurate and misleading.

    Since 2006, the Law Society of Upper Canada and LAWPRO have supported lawyers by providing more than $3 million in funding to OLAP. The Law Society and LAWPRO have funded OLAP because lawyer wellness helps lawyers better serve the public.

    At this time, evolving a program with an expanded range of services for lawyers, and now for paralegals, is in the best interest of members and their clients.

    The Law Society and LAWPRO selected as its member assistance provider Homewood Human Solutions – a Canadian-owned company with more than 33 years experience, and an industry leader in the design and delivery of assistance programs and wellness solutions.

    For existing clients of OLAP, the Law Society has already made provision to ensure that all existing clients are fully supported through the transition period. For new clients, effective December 20, full support is available through the new Member Assistance Program (MAP).

    Homewood Human Solutions will operate the MAP independently of the Law Society to provide lawyers and paralegals who are experiencing professional or personal crisis with access to a full range of professional, confidential services. These include 24/7/365 live access to counselling, consultation and resources, work-life balance solutions, as well as an expanded counsellor network in Ontario and nationally. Counsellors are registered professionals with a minimum of a Master’s level degree and an average of 15 years of clinical experience and counselling is available in person, by telephone or online.

    Integral to the MAP design is a peer volunteer support program. The new program will offer peer-to-peer addictions support and new opportunities including developing peers in the area of mental health. It will work to de-stigmatize mental illness and attract multicultural peers to work within the diverse legal community and encourage support and ‘help seeking’ across the profession.

    Homewood Human Solutions provides services to members of several provincial law societies, law firms, legislative offices, as well as lawyers working in the public sector. Anyone who uses the MAP is guaranteed complete confidentiality within the limits of the law and professional counselling guidelines. Homewood Human Solutions adheres to privacy responsibilities defined by PIPEDA along with the Privacy Act and privacy rights enforced through provincial and territorial law.

    Mr. Singer’s personal story underscores the importance of having in place a strong program to provide support to lawyers and paralegals who are experiencing a professional or personal crisis. Both the Law Society and LAWPRO remain fully committed to the wellness of the lawyers and paralegals of Ontario.

    Thomas G. Conway,
    Treasurer,
    The Law Society of Upper Canada

  3. I appreciate the concern which Treasurer Conway expresses in his reply, and I thank him for taking the time to both read my article and to provide his thoughtful reply. If I may be permitted to respond…

    As a former OLAP client and current volunteer, I have no issue with Homewood’s qualifications as an EAP provider, nor did I ever intend to suggest that the Law Society sought to terminate the sort of assistance which can be provided by such an EAP/MAP.

    The fundamental issue is not Homewood replacing Shepell-fgi as the professional EAP/MAP service provider, but rather that the decision of the LSUC to terminate the existing OLAP infrastructure fails to take into account the unique nature of our profession and the value added provided by OLAP’s staff and volunteers. OLAP is currently, and has been, cast in the role of “first responder” for lawyers in crisis. The personal nature of services provided by OLAP both before the lawyer-client is referred to the EAP and the ongoing OLAP contact through its peer network while the lawyer-client is receiving various treatment modalities through the EAP provider is essential to ensuring that members of our profession will indeed reach out for help and, critically, fulfill their treatment goals. I can only speak for myself and those colleagues with whom I have discussed the issue, but certainly in that admittedly small survey the consensus is that it was OLAP that we reached out to and considered our primary service provider and not Shepell-fgi. It was the direct contact with professional colleagues which both encouraged us to seek help and kept us on track during our recovery.

    The point of my article was not to suggest Homewood was inadequate but to stress that OLAP itself needs to remain in place as the first and continuing point of contact.

    Darryl Singer

  4. The following is the text of an email blast from Homewood Human Solutions (but sent by the Law Society) on Dec. 20, 2012 to welcome Ontario lawyers and paralegals to the new Member Assistance Program or MAP.

    This message can also be found on the web here: http://www.industrymailout.com/Industry/View.aspx?id=414801

    Dear Law Society of Upper Canada Member,

    On behalf of Homewood Human Solutions™, welcome to your Member Assistance Program (MAP). We are a trusted Canadian company with over 33 years of experience offering confidential Assistance Program services.

    Knowing the unique challenges faced by lawyers and paralegals, we have designed a comprehensive and confidential program for you. Some of the key features of the program include 24/7/365 live access to a more comprehensive suite of services encompassing counselling, consultation and resources, work-life balance solutions, as well as an expanded counsellor network in Ontario and nationally.

    Understanding the time demands on lawyers and paralegals, counselling is available in person, by telephone, or online. Appointments are booked quickly at your convenience. Counselling services cover a variety of issues including: substance abuse and addictions, personal or work-related stress, anxiety, burnout, depression, anger, relationship or family issues, grief or bereavement, or other personal or work-related challenges.

    In addition, work-life balance support is available through our Plan Smart—Lifestyle and Specialty Coaching services to help you manage those unexpected, day-to-day life issues or life transitions. Whether you want to better understand the connection between physical health and emotional well-being, or you need to acquire suitable childcare or family care options, help is available. Coaching is offered related to: parenting, elder / family care, financial or legal concerns, career planning, workplace issues, pre-retirement, shift work, nutrition, weight management, and smoking cessation.

    For knowledge seekers of a self-learning nature, we also offer a variety of online resources and tools for anywhere, anytime e-learning. You can select from: the Health and Wellness Companion, an online health resource containing interactive health risk assessments and access to a comprehensive library of medical information; a variety of e-Learning Courses developed by a psychologist specialized in health promotion; child / eldercare service locators, and health libraries offering trusted information on physical and emotional wellbeing.

    Integral to the MAP design is a peer volunteer support program. Homewood Human Solutions has a long history of supporting a wide variety of peer programs, consulting and developing new peer initiatives, as well as designing and implementing customized basic and advanced training for peers. The new program will offer peer-to-peer addictions support and new opportunities including developing peers in the area of mental health. It will work to de-stigmatize mental illness and attract multicultural peers to work within the diverse legal community and encourage support and ‘help seeking’ across the profession.

    Homewood Human Solutions provides services to members of several provincial law societies, law firms, legislative offices, as well as lawyers working in the public sector. We are accredited by Council on Accreditation (COA), and have standardized practices for service delivery, ensuring consistent, confidential, professional, and high-quality service. Also, anyone who uses the MAP is guaranteed complete confidentiality within the limits of the law and professional counselling guidelines. We adhere to privacy responsibilities defined by PIPEDA along with the Privacy Act and privacy rights enforced through provincial and territorial law.

    As an organization with a core focus on mental health and addiction, and bench strength in clinical quality, we are committed to supporting all members in achieving their health and wellness goals.

    To connect with your MAP, contact us by phone: 1.855.403.8922 (TTY: 1.866.433.3305) or visit us at: http://www.homewoodhumansolutions.com. Private, confidential support is available by phone, in person or online.

    Sincerely,
    Homewood Human Solutions

  5. I too echo Darryl Singer’s comments and concerns. I have also had to access OLAP’s services at a time when every area of my life fell apart. Not only did the OLAP staff help me stay afloat by linking me with Shepell-fgi programs, as well as advising me of LSUC programs that could benefit me, they understood what I needed specifically as a lawyer. As Mr. Singer indicated for himself, I would not have reached out to any EAP provider without OLAP there to guide me through the process. If it were not for OLAP, I have no idea what my life and practice would be like today. I am glad that I was able to contact OLAP while it existed, and give a hearty thank you to all of their staff and volunteers for a job well done.

  6. As a former client of OLAP who was helped immensely by this service, I feel compelled to congratulate Mr. Singer on his excellent piece and to ask Mr. Conway a few questions from his puzzling response.

    First, Mr. Conway suggests that “evolving a program with an expanded range of services for lawyers, and now for paralegals, is in the best interest of members and their clients.” How so? I suppose the first question is: “What was OLAP doing wrong that the Law Society felt the need to pull the rug out from under this immensely valued service. I have yet to hear a word from LSUC suggesting that OLAP did anything but stellar work on behalf of clients. So, if it ain’t broke, Mr. Conway…. OLAP offered support groups for lawyers. Will Homewood? OLAP offered a lawyer on the front lines who understood my situation immediately because that case worker was a lawyer. That immediate connect went a long way to leading me to feel safe and understood and I fear what will happen to the poor depressed lawyer who will call Homewood only to speak to a generic call centre employee who knows nothing of the legal culture or lawyers. If I were to call with a concern over a Law Society discipline matter or a spot audit, what will the Homewood person do? Will they then send me to a generic counsellor who again knows nothing of the law or lawyers or LSUC? How is that expanded service, Mr. Conway?

    And on the same note, how is Homewood an expanded service to that which Shepell offered? They are both “an industry leader in the design and delivery of assistance programs and wellness solutions”, and they both offer “access to a full range of professional, confidential services. These include 24/7/365 live access to counselling, consultation and resources, work-life balance solutions, as well as an expanded counsellor network in Ontario and nationally.” So essentially, the Law Society will offer Shepell minus everything else OLAP offered that was lawyer-specific. Can someone please explain to me how that is an “expansion” of services?

    Oh, and in another testament to change for change’s sake, Mr. Conway suggests that a robust peer-to-peer volunteer service will be provided by Homewood. This, of course, is what OLAP already does, brilliantly. I note that Mr. Conway avoided addressing Mr. Singer’s concern about there being a dearth of volunteers who would be willing to do so for a for-profit entity. I suspect that as an OLAP volunteer, Mr. Singer knows infinitely more about this subject than does Mr. Conway. So again, how is this expansion of services?

    Mr. Conway states that Shepell.fgi and Homewood “are required by their accrediting bodies to ensure complete confidentiality and to protect fully all client information.” Is he suggesting that if a lawyer called Homewood, was given a peer – a lawyer – as support, and promptly told that lawyer that he or she was spending trust funds for his own purposes, that that volunteer would not be bound by the rules of professional conduct to report their colleague to the Law Society? What if they told the volunteer that they were too depressed to go to work? Is that reportable? Because it appears that Mr. Conway is suggesting that the Rules of Professional Conduct will somehow be overriden by those other legislative privacy regimes. That would be good to know for someone like me who may be in trouble and may need help.

    Finally, Mr. Conway’s cold, defensive response to Mr. Singer’s very personal and heartfelt post is ultimately illustrative of the Law Society’s modus operandi in this entire shameful affair. Note that in order to defend the Law Society’s flawed and damaging decision, Mr. Conway feels the need to attack Mr. Singer, a courageous survivor, on the very subject of lawyer wellness, as though the irony of his heartlessness would not be seen to mirror the heartlessness of the Law Society’s destruction of OLAP. I have no doubt that this decision will cost lives. The suicidal lawyers who called OLAP in the past, is obviously less likely to call Homewood, and will be tragically imperilled. For shame, LSUC. Thank you, Mr. Singer, and most especially, thank you, OLAP.

  7. Willson McTavish Q.C., LSM

    The Law Society made the decision not to fund OLAP at an in camera meeting of Benchers in convocation without notice to OLAP. A news release was issued the next day, late Friday afternoon, September 28th 2012. As a result I attempted to purchase at my own expense ($1,600.00) an advertisement in the October 19th Ontario Reports but the publisher Ann McDonagh wrote to me on October 10th that “…we do not publish because we can be liable for defamation or libel…We have made the decision that this material will not be published.” In the ad I asked for the help of the Law Society’s members to reverse the decision and to support and respect the independence, privacy and confidentiality of lawyers in distress who reach out for the services of OLAP’s “lawyers helping lawyers.” I did not defame or libel anyone.

    After I retired in 2002 as the Children’s Lawyer for Ontario, I became a director of OLAP appointed by the County and District Law Presidents’ Association. Over the years I have come to admire the courage, skills and humanity of the recovered volunteer lawyers, some of whom are OLAP directors. I agree with Darryl Singer’s blog and also his positive response to the Treasurer’s blog. There has been no discussion by the Law Society as to why the OLAP wall between the member and the Law Society is so important to the distressed lawyer or paralegal who is trying to reach out for help. Homewood Human Solutions does not appear to have any trained volunteer lawyers or paralegals to assist distressed members on a peer to peer confidential basis.

    A draft Memorandum of Understanding and a Chronology as to what happened to provoke the Law Society’s decision has been in the possession of the Law Society’s new CEO Robert Lapper since June 19th 2012. There has been no specific reply. In my ad I offered to send the two documents to any interested member of the Law Society.

    Why I ask does the Law Society not respond fairly and openly to all lawyers who are under distress rather than stopping my advertisement in the Ontario Reports and avoiding the issue of the perception of distressed lawyers who need help from a peer to navigate daily life and become again a productive lawyer. Surely it is in the public interest for the Law Society to fully support OLAP. Perhaps the Attorney General, as the protector of the public interest under section 13.1 of the Law Society Act, should be asked to investigate what happened and recommend the reversal of the decision so that OLAP is an independant part of the new Members Assistance Program.

  8. Charles Rotenberg

    As an OLAP volunteer and board member, my frustration with the Treasurer’s comments lies in the lack of information about the LSUC’s plan for a peer to peer program. The key to such a program is having “peers”. The LSUC has steadfastly refused any information about what their peer to peer program will look like, how it will operate, or where the peers are to come from. Many of the volunteers in the OLAP program have indicated that they will not participate.

    As a long time volunteer, I believe that the peer to peer support is as important as, and possibly more important than, the identity of the professional EAP provider. Both Shepell and Homewood are good service providers, and both will provide good service to the legal profession. But the peer to peer component is crucial, as anyone in recovery can attest. I do not understand why the LSUC will not provide information about their peer to peer program unless they themselves do not know what it will be.