Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2014

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Justices mull mandatory drug education for Nevada lawyers

While studies suggest lawyers have a higher rate of drug and alcohol abuse and mental problems than other professions, the Nevada Supreme Court isn't sure ordering one hour a year of education is the answer.

The court Monday heard a petition from Francis Flaherty, president of the State Bar of Nevada, to require one of the annual 12 hours of continuing education for attorneys be devoted to this problem.

And Laurence Digesti, a former member of the board of governors of the bar, said these problems do not stop at the courthouse door but carry over to the family and other areas.

Justice Kristina Pickering said no one disputes there's a problem. But she questioned why the state bar decided on one annual hour and asked, "Is education the best way to go?"

"We want to do the best we can and consider alternatives," she told Flaherty, a Carson City lawyer.

The court directed the state bar to answer a number of questions and report back by the end of the month.

Coe Swobe, a Reno attorney running Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, said many of the cases of drug and alcohol lead to domestic violence.

Swobe's organization is voluntary for lawyers who recognize they have problems.

Justice Nancy Saitta said the bar needs to look at other programs around the county to see which are successful and which are failures. "We don't want to repeat the errors," she said.

In its initial petition, the bar said almost 23 percent of those applying to practice law in the last two years had a history of substance abuse. But Flaherty said, "That's not as horrible as it sounds."

He said a closer look showed the application of 87 prospective lawyers required closer scrutiny and, of that number, 23 percent had a history of substance abuse.

The bar has a security fund to reimburse clients who are victims of attorney theft.

"The Fund estimates that $447,378 or 36 percent of its reimbursed claims in the past decade were made on behalf of attorneys removed from practice due to an underlying substance use, gambling, addiction or mental health issues," said the bar.

The proponents of a rule change to require the education say the persons who need help often don't go to the voluntary programs.

Digesti said this proposed rule change "is not meant to be punitive. It's seeking to educate."

Flaherty said that if the Supreme Court rejects the mandatory one hour of education, the bar will return with alternatives.

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