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MCBA President’s Message: Protecting our own health and well-being

Neil J. Rowe

Neil J. Rowe

I like the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Early on in the series the king appoints a “Hand of the King” – a position responsible for everything from daily administrative duties to dispensing justice. I liken the position to the role of the lord chancellor in English common law.

I expect the readers of the column remember from their legal education that at common law, the judiciary was comprised of the courts of law, while the courts of equity were under the purview of the lord chancellor. In New York, the duties of the chancellor where transferred to Supreme Court upon the merger of the courts of law and equity in the middle part of the 19th century.

What you may not remember is that the lord chancellor not only had equitable jurisdiction, but also served as the king’s delegate to exercise the prerogative of the sovereign to protect individuals disabled by mental illness. This duty was also transferred to Supreme Court along with the equitable jurisdiction of the lord chancellor, see, Sporza v. German Sav. Bank, 192 N.Y. 8, 84 N.E. 406 (N.Y., 1908).

What this means is that the courts are more than the tribunals for the resolution of conflicts and the administration of justice that the modern day public, and many attorneys, perceive them to be. The courts retain an affirmative responsibility with regard to individuals disabled by mental illness, and as officers of the court, attorneys share in this special duty.

The administrative oversight of the Supreme Court’s obligation to protect individuals disabled by mental illness has fallen largely on the Appellate Division, for example, through its court examiners program and the Mental Hygiene Legal Service. As many of you are aware, I spent 32 years of my legal career with the Appellate Division’s Mental Hygiene Legal Service, and I learned a lot about individuals suffering mental illness.

I learned that mental illness strikes all walks of life, without regard to race, creed, color, national origin, sex, education or financial status.

I learned that the term “mental illness” includes a complex matrix of both acute and chronic illnesses, with both simple and complex treatment solutions.

I learned that one in 17 adults live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

I learned that annually in the Rochester area, 7,000 to 8,000 of those individuals with serious mental illness need to be hospitalized for treatment.

I learned that one in four adults experiences mental illness in a given year.

I learned that over the past 30 years the medical community has made great strides in understanding mental illness, and has become very proficient in treating it.

I learned that with their understanding of mental illness, the medical community can provide exceptional guidance in controlling or eliminating factors in each of our environments that exacerbate mental illness.

The MCBA has resolved that attorneys have an obligation to attorneys who may be struggling with mental illness. Our Immediate Past President Steve Modica took up this challenge during his term, and appointed Brad Kammholz and Cheryl Heller to lead a task force to develop a program for the MCBA.

I am excited to announce that this week I signed an agreement with Tree of Hope Counseling Services to provide confidential mental health related service. Tree of Hope will maintain a dedicated telephone number, where members who are faced with mental health concerns will be able to find preliminary assistance and follow up service. Details will be announced very soon.

This new service will supplement our existing Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers and SOLACE programs, chaired respectively by Terry Emmens and Paul Leclair.

Our Health and Well Being Programming Committee, under the leadership of Kim Duguay, is also ready to roll out a number of events to raise attention and offer solutions to the issues faced by attorneys. Programs under consideration include Professional Self-Care, Wellness/Stress Management Work/Life Balance, Domestic Violence, and Co-occurring Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues.

But, that’s not all we have been up to.  The Hon. Evelyn Frazee and her committee are building the foundations for a diversion program that will provide better alternatives for attorneys facing disciplinary issues.

If you are lucky enough not to be that one in four who will be experiencing mental illness this year, we need you to share your wisdom with your fellow attorneys – it may be how you organize your caseload, how you balance your work and home lives, or how you deal with a difficult client.  Please support our Health and Well Being initiatives.

These are important programs for the legal community. Although society looks to the medical community to treat individuals with mental health issues, since common law times, society has turned to the legal system to protect these individuals. The time has come for us to protect the attorneys in need within our own community.

Neil J. Rowe is president of the Monroe County Bar Association, adjunct instructor of management at Keuka College, and principal of NJ Rowe Consulting Services. He can be reached at njr@rochester.rr.com.