Posted by: Suzanne Craig Robertson on Jan 1, 2021

Journal Issue Date: Jan-Feb 2021

Journal Name: Vol. 57 No. 1

Eight months after his sister went into treatment for addiction, Buddy Stockwell sat on the side of his bed with a loaded pistol in his mouth. He’d been in denial about his own situation. “The more I tried to control the drinking, the worse it got. I was going to take my own life,” he says. “I did not want to live in the pain.”

Buddy Stockwell

Stockwell was 27 when that happened — it was Nov. 22, 1982. “I can remember like it was yesterday.” He says he was thinking, “At least I won’t be here anymore.” But the reason that he’s alive today, he believes, is because he reached out to someone, admitting that “this ain’t working.” He doesn’t know why he took that gun out of his mouth that day. “It could be God or lack of guts” that stopped him, he says.

Since that day 38 years ago, Stockwell, now 64, has earned a law degree (10 years into his recovery), practiced law and received a lot of training that informs the work he does leading the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP). But this story with his sister, the alcohol, the gun, and hitting rock bottom are the credentials he leans on most every day for his job. 

“Everything good and bad that happened to me was part of the qualifications for this job,” he chuckles. “I’ve been there,” which is often the most important piece of information he brings when he talks to someone in need.

Stockwell was appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court on July 1, 2020, as the new executive director of TLAP. He comes from south Louisiana where he had been a volunteer and program monitor for the state’s Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse since 1993, and the executive director of Louisiana’s comprehensive Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP) program for the past 10 years. He is a certified clinical interventionist through “Love First” training at the Betty Ford Center.

Over the years he has supported hundreds of bar members, bar applicants and family members of the bar with a wide range of substance use disorders and mental health issues. Stockwell earned a bachelor of science degree in management from Louisiana State University in 1989 and his law degree from LSU Law School in 1993. He also has been a framing carpenter, an auto mechanic and has done a lot of manual labor. He is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain and seasoned ocean mariner. He also served in the Navy prior to college. 

 “I’m one of the most crazily diverse lawyers,” he laughs. “I can take cars apart and put them back together.”

Rule 33 Confidentiality: There is No risk

If there is one thing Stockwell wants to make clear, it’s the confidentiality of the program. 

“In Tennessee, by court rule everything is absolutely confidential and private,” he explains, pointing to Rule 33.1 “If you call me up, no one will ever know about it. I have never ever broken confidentiality.” 

He also wants you to know what will happen if you do call TLAP, either for yourself or on behalf of someone else: “If you call us, you don’t lose control. I am going to give you good, specialized advice — I will tell you what you need to do to go down the right path. But then you decide what to do.” And no matter what a person chooses to do, he says, “You’re always welcome back.”

“If you call about a friend, we talk about how to help that person. But then it’s up to you,” he says. TLAP is “a resource that is extremely powerful, more powerful than people can imagine. There is absolutely no risk to people calling.” 

One of the failings of the treatment system over the years has been insufficient diagnostics up front, he says. So many times a person’s problem is not just alcohol or drugs, but a combination of issues. “There are other things probably going on, too. It’s not one size fits all. We look at the individual so they can get the treatment they need, with a monitor.”

Not every case ends well, he acknowledges. Over these 38 years in recovery Stockwell has learned a lot by trying to help. “People are gone, for whatever reason they couldn’t make it. We are responsible for the effort not the outcome. I will drive all night. I will do everything. But then it’s up to God and the individual. But if I’m standing next to the gravesite, which I’ve done, I want to be able to say I’ve done everything I could.”

Stockwell says his “number one mission” he puts above everything is “to convince someone to reach out and trust before things [get to the point] that they can’t be reversed. The dirty nasty thing about addiction is that the inflection point where people will give up usually means consequences are bad and could have been avoided. The disease often impairs the perception of what’s ‘bad enough.’”

The Size of the Problem and the Tools Needed

A ground-breaking study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs in 2016,2 confirmed that there is a 20-percent addiction rate and 30-percent depression rate among lawyers. “Depression outstrips alcohol,” Stockwell says, “and 32 percent of young lawyers had the highest problem with alcohol. It blew us away. You expect that, maybe later in the career span — but this turned everything on its head.” 

Stockwell suggests that factors include student debt anxiety and the job market but says there’s not a solid answer for what is driving that. He points out that law school functions and traditions are often too alcohol centered, but he does see a hopeful societal shift in thinking. “There has to be a better way to provide tools for young people to deal with the stresses — law school is the starting line, not the finish line. We need a new generation’s viewpoint adopting these tools.” 

The Virginia State Bar undertook in 2019 to look deeper into why wellness deficiencies exist within the legal profession, identifying at least some of the occupational risks of the practice of law. These included incessant conflict, chronic stress, and the adversarial nature of law practice, which distinguishes it from other professions. The report recommends: “Lawyers need to be taught and to understand that the practice of law does not involve only logic and analytical skills, but also an understanding of their own emotions and the emotions of those around them.”3

And in 2020, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division published its report on its Law School Student Loan Debt Survey, in which among many things, it found that concerns such as stress, anxiety, depression, anger and mental wellness were prevalent. 

“Mental health emerged as a pattern despite being unprompted,” the report reads. “The answer set for this question focused only on purchases and life events; nowhere in the survey did it refer to mental or psychological effects,” yet, “mental health was one of the most cited effects, if not the most cited theme, in open-ended questions.”4

“Practicing law makes some people sick,” Stockwell says. “We are professional pessimists — the nature of the work we do puts us at higher risk. That makes me by profession looking for the worst in every situation and never making a mistake,” he says. “That’s part of the landscape of the profession.” But the key is learning how to not take that home.

Another study, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being,” outlines what should be happening to help lawyers cope better, Stockwell says. The crux of it is that to be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. The study’s findings “raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. … “This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.”

This report’s recommendations focus on five central themes: including the role each of us can play in reducing the level of toxicity in our profession; eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors; emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence; educating lawyers, judges, and law students on lawyer well-being issues; and taking steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.5

Putting the need for overall well-being into practice, Stockwell did something radical 15 years ago. In 2005 he sold his Baton Rouge law office, home and vehicles, and he and his wife, Melissa, moved aboard a large catamaran and sailed the seas for six years, covering 19,000 nautical miles. Why? He saw his clients doing similar things he had done, and “they were going to nursing and funeral homes.” The realization hit him that if he and his wife “were going to have an adventure, now is the time.” It was after Stockwell returned from that quest that the director in the Louisiana Lawyer’s assistance program planned to retire, Stockwell was hired, and he began on the new journey. He did all these things by paying attention to his higher power, he says. 

“I love practicing law — I gave it up to do this,” he says. “I’m pretty much how I’m supposed to be, and I’m grateful to be here. I’ve had a wonderful life and have been fortunate to be an alcoholic, in recovery,” he says. “But I don’t wish this on anybody.”

Happiness Plays a Role, Too

“The wellness message of my generation of lawyers was ‘Man up and shut up. We’re tough,’” Stockwell says, and it turns out that hasn’t worked very well.But again, he sees hope in the future. “The young lawyers are okay with taking care of themselves. They are not going to go for wearing yourself down like we did. It’s going in a better direction.”

Recognizing happiness is part of that. Stockwell cites a study about where lawyer happiness comes from.6 The takeaways were that the number one factor for lawyer happiness is autonomy. “You have to be passionate about the work you’re doing,” he points out.

The second factor is choosing an area of law you like and getting experience. “Large law firms can be more difficult because you don’t get as much experience as fast. In a large firm, you’ll be doing a lot of grunt work. You’ll be holding the briefcase. Some of that can be a detriment,” he says, but “some large firms are now trying to give as much autonomy as they can.”

And there’s an important takeaway for law students, too: “Grades and law review have zero impact on happiness.”

TLAP and Stockwell are big proponents of having the tools to deal with the stresses, to nurture happiness. “I love being a lawyer and everything about the legal profession – it’s the greatest profession in the world. We work for results worth having, and it’s the hard things that define us. So what tools do we need? What gives us the best chance to enjoy what we do when when get up in the morning?

Specific to these pandemic times, Stockwell has suggestions for well-being, including 

  • making sure you get up and get out of house
  • eating right
  • practicing mindfulness and meditation, and
  • trying to minimize your use of screens and media. 
  • And cut yourself some slack. Have compassion for yourself.

“If you are doing the hard stuff, don’t watch more scary stuff — don’t slime yourself. You don’t have to expose yourself to everything. You need to be aware and take care of yourself,” he adds.

Ending the Stigma

There has been tremendous progress in the last 30 years, Stockwell says, when it comes to people being willing for others to know that they are in recovery. “Most of us are not self-conscious about it. That’s a good thing,” he says, but notes that what hasn’t changed is the stigma surrounding the other mental health problems. “They are treatable and need to be taken care of like tennis elbow or appendicitis,” he says. “When are we going to get where mental health issues are just health issues? That’s taking a lot more time.”

And that is one of the biggest obstacles for people getting help — the stigma. “People don’t want anyone to know, or admit, there is a problem. They don’t want to be weak, or they think ‘you might use it against me,’” he says. “It’s not a moral failing; it’s a health issue.”

Help Specific to Professionals

The Tennessee Supreme Court created TLAP with three goals, Stockwell says: to protect the public, to assist people confidentially and to educate. “Tennessee is one of the states with a program with all the bells and whistles, a comprehensive program.”

He explains that TLAP’s standards mirror those of programs for doctors, nurses and airline pilots — “safety-sensitive occupations, where your cognitive functioning is expected to be 100% intact.” These professions are similar because they have to manage a deep body of information and make decisions in real time about what to do in stressful situations. 

“Some mistakes can’t be repaired,” Stockwell says. “You don’t get a do-over. The public expects their lawyer is not going to have mental health issues.” The result of forming lawyer assistance programs with this in mind is that there are now more treatment facilities with a professionals track treatment.

“When you have an impaired lawyer or judge — it’s everybody’s problem,” Stockwell says. “Their problems are not in isolation. It affects everybody. It’s not something that just happens when they go home.”

During the pandemic Stockwell and the TLAP staff have met via Zoom every workday morning. They provide help for those who request it on the phone, unless it’s a personal intervention. Most of what they do is remote anyway, he says, and the surge in calls that some anticipated from the pandemic has not yet materialized.

“It was not a tsunami of people calling in,” he says, speculating “that people drew their curtains and hunkered down. All of that is going to come to a head. Maybe they can function and skate by for now, but it’s all going to run its course.” And when it does, TLAP will be there.

Go Ahead and Call

“If you have an issue, confidential help is here at an unprecedented level of sophistication,” Stockwell says. “We know what works. You can trust the confidentiality.”

In addition to these basic services, however, he points out that you don’t even have to have a problem to seek help from TLAP, which also offers “better tools to live.” Stockwell promises that you can call TLAP and say, “I’d like to be a happier lawyer; whatcha got?” and they will help you find the tools you want. 

You might not need traditional assistance — or you might need referral to therapist. “Think of us as a friend sitting around a kitchen table. We know a whole lot about it. We have real answers,” he says. “I want you to be happy and healthy in the practice.”

Suzanne Craig Robertson is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal. Long ago she was the staff liaison to the TBA’s Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Committee, a predecessor to the Supreme Court’s Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program.

 

 


NOTES

1. Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 33, Lawyers Assistance Program, http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/rules/supreme-court/33.
2. “ABA, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Release First National Study on Attorney Substance Use, Mental Health Concerns,” Feb 3, 2016, https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/about-us/news-media/press-release/2016-aba-hazelden-release-first-study-attorney-substance-use.
3. “The Occupational Risks of the Practice of Law,” Report of the Virginia State Bar President’s Special Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, May 2019, https://www.vsb.org/docs/VSB_wellness_report.pdf.
4. ABA 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt Survey, https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/young_lawyers/2020-student-loan-survey.pdf.
5. “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” American Bar Association National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, Aug. 14, 2017, https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf.
6.. “What Makes Lawyers Happy? It’s Not What You Think,” by Paula Davis-Laak, Forbes, Dec. 19, 2017, citing “A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success,” by Lawrence S. Krieger and Kennon M. Sheldon, Florida State University College of Law, 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauladavislaack/2017/12/19/what-makes-lawyers-happy-its-not-what-you-think/?sh=4ccf5c0d17e5.