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January 2020 President's Message

New Year's Resolutions for the Oklahoma Bar Association

By Susan B. Shields

A new year often brings a commitment to making resolutions. Most often my personal resolutions take the form of goals to write more letters to friends and family or to take trips to see loved ones, since I find that I have a much better chance of success at those than a promise to get up at 5 a.m. every day to go to the gym. This year, however, my resolutions are centered around working on several initiatives with the Oklahoma Bar Association that I hope to advance during my year as president.

One of my top priorities will be education surrounding attorney wellness issues for our OBA members. In recent years, bar associations across the country have been focusing on the troubling statistics about attorney mental health, substance abuse and wellness. In 2017, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published their study1 of nearly 13,000 currently practicing lawyers. The study found that between 21-36% of lawyers self-identify as problem drinkers and that 20% or more struggle with some level of depression, anxiety or stress. As stated in the study, “the parade of difficulties also includes suicide, social alienation, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, a ‘diversity crisis,’ complaints of work-life conflict, incivility, a narrowing of values so that profit predominates, and negative public perception.” Young lawyers and law students also experience high rates
of problem drinking and depression.

These statistics reflect that at least 1 in 5 of us are suffering – meaning me and you and our lawyer friends and colleagues. What can the OBA do to combat these alarming statistics and to help our fellow lawyers who are struggling whether from mental illness, depression, alcoholism, substance abuse or other addictions – and why should the OBA play a role?

The “why” is that these issues not only affect the lawyer and his or her family but also greatly impact the lawyer’s clients and can lead to loss of income and disciplinary issues. Every state bar association in the country has a form of lawyer assistance program in place to help our fellow lawyers and also to try to head off problems before they become disciplinary issues.

One way the OBA can help is through the OBA’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program (often referred to as LHL). For many years, the OBA has had dedicated volunteers working on our LHL committee. Through the leadership of our LHL committee, our LHL program was evaluated by the ABA’s Committee on Lawyer Assistance Programs in 2018 and the outcome of the evaluation reflected that the OBA’s LHL services should be expanded and improved. As a result, the

OBA’s 2020 budget has significantly increased the funding for LHL in order to broaden the resources of the LHL crisis hotline and confidential counseling services offered to members in need and to better fund our education outreach to help more Oklahoma attorneys.

Another important change, led by Past President Chuck Chesnut’s CLE Task Force in 2019, will be a change to the ethics category of CLE to include attorney wellness issues.2 Beginning in 2021, Oklahoma attorneys will be required to obtain two “ethics” hours each year, which may be in any of the categories of legal ethics and professionalism, legal malpractice prevention or mental health and substance use disorders. Our CLE Department will be working over the next year to increase the course offerings in these categories, and you will notice that many of the live CLE programs will offer an ethics hour focusing on mental health, substance abuse and attorney wellness. Education on these issues is so important.

A further goal of mine this year is to promote the services offered by the OBA for our members, including the OBA’s law practice management assistance programs, the services of our ethics counsel, our sections and committees and the OBA’s quality CLE programs. One of the CLE highlights coming up this spring and being planned by Past Presidents Melissa DeLacerda and Stephen Beam, along with Bob Burke, will be an all-day CLE program about the 25th anniversary of the Murrah federal building bombing. This CLE will take place Friday, April 17, in Oklahoma City and is not to be missed.

Our bar association functions at a high level because of the dedicated work of our Executive Director John Morris Williams, our excellent OBA staff and because of the creative and devoted leadership of our volunteers, including section and committee leaders and members. If you are not already doing so, I encourage each of you to make a commitment this year to get involved in a section or committee or with your local or county bar association. Lawyers supporting one another and the bar association supporting its members is what the OBA is all about. My hope as the president for 2020 is that all of us feel a part of the OBA community and take advantage of the member services that are in place to make lawyers’ lives better and more productive.

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve as your president for 2020 and fortunate to follow in the footsteps of Past President Chuck Chesnut and the bar presidents before him, to have the able assistance this year of my vice president (and former state YLD chair) Brandi Nowakowski, the Board of Governors and of Mike Mordy as our president-elect. I am also thankful for my colleagues at McAfee & Taft for their support and their encouragement of me to take on this challenge.

Please do not hesitate to contact me with your questions, comments and suggestions at susan.shields@mcafeetaft.com. I wish each of you the very best in your professional and personal lives and hope that all of your resolutions for the New Year are successful.

1. You can find the full text of the study at lawyerwellbeing.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Lawyer-Wellbeing-Report.pdf.
2. As this article went to press, the MCLE rule change was awaiting approval by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 91 pg. 4 (January 2020)