New Jersey Lawyers’ Assistance Program:
A Case Study in Creative and Compassionate Caring

The Bencher—January/February 2016 

By Justice Helen E. Hoens (Ret.), William J. Kane, Esq., and Nancy Stek, MS, LCADC

Thirty-five years ago, four New Jersey lawyers gathered for coffee after a meeting. Not just any meeting, not just any lawyers, and not just idle sitting and sipping. On that night, those men, in that place, set their sights on a goal and charted a course that led to the creation of the New Jersey Lawyers’ Assistance Program (NJLAP).

They had much to lose and little to gain, back in the days when discipline for “impaired lawyers” was so swift and severe that even revealing their identities as part of their quest posed extraordinary risks to their hard-earned reputations and to their livelihoods.

But they also knew that the AA meeting they’d just left was not enough, that the similar professional challenges they shared in the practice of law created deep and enduring bonds that not only could sustain them, but that could serve as the connection to a wider community of caring. A community of lawyers caring for lawyers. A supplement to AA, not a substitute.

Theirs was a vision fueled by compassion and concern for other lawyers suffering in obscurity, a compassion forged in the fires of their individual battles with alcoholism, a common goal that set the wheels in motion for a program that today is both unique in design and far-reaching in orientation.

Those four men could not have known that concerns about confidentiality, about potential violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs), about program structure and funding surrounding their plan all would be debated during a decade of discussion among leaders of the state bar association and the New Jersey Supreme Court. But they also could not have known about strong voices that soon would be added to theirs, more than quadrupling their size within six months, so that their number included an incoming state bar president who was independently considering ways to provide lawyers with career assistance and another prominent attorney, also in recovery, who brought his experience working with Employee Assistance Programs to the world of the legal profession.

Nor could they have known that the Supreme Court was facing alcohol-related issues in matters on its docket, or that the judiciary itself was not immune to struggles with alcohol.

The debates were significant: How to balance the court’s role as the protector of the public with the recognition that confidentiality was the key to reaching lawyers battling addictions. How to temper the court’s authority as the enforcer of the RPCs and policer of the profession with compassion for lawyers whose very survival was threatened. How to find a stable secure funding source for a program when the demands for its services were unknown and incalculable.

There were other programs around the country addressing similar issues, each one a model that was well-suited to the needs of the profession in its state, but none that the court believed would meet the weighty and significant concerns it confronted. In order to address the recognition that many lawyers who needed help would not do so at the risk of losing their licenses or jeopardizing their livelihood, the program had to be separate from the court and its stern disciplinary arm. But in order to ensure that the program was not serving the needs of lawyers at the expense of the public, it also had to be accountable to the court’s oversight.

For the program to succeed, it needed to be readily available to all lawyers, meaning that in a state in which membership in the state bar association is entirely voluntary, the operation could neither be limited to nor funded by that entity.

In the end, fully a decade and a half after those four brave souls first set about their task, the NJLAP was inaugurated, a distinctive model designed to address all of the concerns that had consumed the court’s consideration and informed its debate.

As established by the Rules of Court, the NJLAP is governed by a board of trustees, a mix of lawyers and lay people appointed by the court but independent of its oversight and control. Funded by an annual assessment on every licensed New Jersey lawyer, its budget is administered by the state bar association through a contractual agreement with the court. And, apart from quarterly and annual reports, its work, its records, and the meetings of its board of trustees are entirely confidential.

But simply having a vision and creating a means to turn it into reality was not enough. In its earliest days, reaching the people that the NJLAP’s program was designed to serve, convincing lawyers to come forward, gaining their trust, and assuring them that help was both freely available and completely confidential were daunting challenges. New Jersey’s uniqueness again worked to its advantage, allowing the NJLAP to embrace its status in the nation’s most densely populated state and to capitalize on its compact geography by selecting a central location near large populations for its headquarters. Even so, with a known but unquantifiable need and a program ready to offer a helping hand, there was much work to do if the NJLAP was to achieve the goals that the first four lawyers envisioned and to fulfill the mission that the New Jersey Supreme Court established.

Responsiveness and outreach became the guiding principles for the director of the program and his small staff.

Responsiveness meant answering every telephone call, setting up personal visits, seeing or hearing from people within 24 hours, an enormous undertaking even in a small state, but driven by the unshakeable belief that the voice on the phone was a life in crisis, a life worth saving, not a problem to be left for a more convenient time or fit into an inflexible or pre-existing schedule of meetings.

Outreach meant spreading the word about what the program could offer, because people could only get help if they knew it was available. But merely creating ways to publicize the program would not have been enough to reach those who needed help the most. For that, the outreach initiatives needed to be widespread and relentless; the program’s existence and the help it had to offer needed to be proclaimed with missionary zeal. In the earliest days, before the advent of laptops and personal devices, the NJLAP was not content to rely on word of mouth among recovering attorneys, instead mounting a campaign of routine mailings and appearances at conferences and seminars.

In the decades since the NJLAP’s inception, its pursuit of responsiveness and outreach have changed in ways neither the first four lawyers nor any of the individuals or entities having a hand in creating it could have predicted. And all for the better.

Responsiveness has taken the NJLAP far beyond its original charge of aiding and assisting lawyers struggling with alcoholism. Initially, the mission expanded to other sorts of addictions through the creation of programs and supports for lawyers battling substance abuse and gambling addictions. But responsiveness soon came to mean actively and intentionally listening to the voices on the telephone asking for other kinds of help, leading to new programs and support groups for lawyers dealing with anxiety and depression, job or career stress, family issues, and then to further initiatives that focus on the distinct concerns of judges and of women in the profession, that assist lawyers in transition and that address the growing needs of the LGBT lawyer community.

Responsiveness itself has changed, taking a more proactive turn with the Stress Hardiness initiative, a program designed to teach lawyers resiliency skills that will enable them to more successfully weather the storms of practice and the crises that come with life. Maintaining that level and quality of responsiveness has meant assembling a staff of diverse backgrounds, each of whom is exceptionally experienced, credentialed, and dedicated to providing the highest levels of service to the profession.

Outreach has changed over time as well. Today, the NJLAP serves not only lawyers and judges but extends its reach to law students and prospective bar admittees, counseling these soon-to-be-lawyers and setting those who need a helping hand on the path to recovery and wholeness. Consistent with the fast-changing world in which we now live, the NJLAP makes maximum use of the modern technology available to it, operating three separate websites. Two of those websites, one designed for lawyers and a second intended for judges, feature helpful information about the NJLAP’s wide range of services, along with an ever-changing offering of articles and links to other resources. The third website permits a lawyer in need to submit an anonymous question and be assured of a quick individualized response while remaining cloaked in complete confidence.

By any measure, the NJLAP has been a tremendous success. Not merely in the numbers of lives it has saved and practitioners it has restored to health, not only by transforming itself and its mission to meet the changing needs of the profession in the twenty-first century, but also in the way in which it advances the goals of professionalism.

Although not designed with that intention in mind, the NJLAP is premised on the same principles that motivated the creation of and continue to guide the operations of the American Inns of Court. Just as Inns of Court are founded on the pursuit of professionalism and civility through mentoring and mutual respect, so too does the NJLAP advance the profession by according dignity to our brothers and sisters at the bar when they are most in need.

Just as the Inn movement was conceived by a small group of visionaries, the NJLAP owes its existence to a tiny handful of men with a vision of a better world for recovering lawyers. A group of men who met for coffee after an AA meeting. A group of men who looked beyond themselves. A group of men who shared qualities often overlooked in the practice of law. A group of men who were compassionate. Caring. Concerned.

Courageous.  A group of men who Margaret Mead surely had in mind when she so famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Hon. Helen E. Hoens, (Ret.), New Jersey Supreme Court, is a Master, co-founder, and executive committee member of the Justice Marie L. Garibaldi AIC for ADR in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. She served from 2006 through 2013 as the New Jersey Supreme Court’s liaison to the NJLAP. William J. Kane, Esq., director, NJLAP, is a member of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and lecturer with the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Studies for 36 years. Nancy Stek, MS, LCADC, associate director, NJLAP, holds a masters degree in psychology, is a Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor and Certified Stress-Hardiness specialist.

© 2016 Helen E. Hoens, (Ret.), William J. Kane, Esq., and Nancy Stek, MS, LCADC. This article was originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.