By Dave Pfalzgraf

November 1, 2019



By Dave Pfalzgraf

In 1935, two alcoholics, Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, and Bob Smith, an Ohio physician, met in Akron. When the meeting was over, it had become apparent to them that one alcoholic was uniquely able to carry the message of recovery to another alcoholic. That formula for success, which is the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous, has remained true over the past eight decades, and it all began with that first alcoholic to whom the two men carried their message of hope – AA #3, Bill D., a member of the Ohio Bar.

As it happened, both Wilson and Smith had ties to the legal profession in interesting ways: Wilson had attended Brooklyn Law School and Smith’s father was a prominent judge in Vermont.

All three men remained sober for the rest of their lives. Yet even as scores of lawyers found recovery in the years after 1935, there was no formal lawyer assistance movement until the late 1960s. And it began because of a con, when a young and successful California lawyer named Ted C. met a doctor and an insurance man over a few drinks in a bar. Together they contrived an auto accident case involving a fictitious sum of $347. A complaint was drawn, doctor’s examination report prepared and the phony claim submitted to and paid by an insurance company. Ted was arrested, convicted of insurance fraud and grand theft, and sentenced to prison. He lost his license to practice law. While on a work furlough program in prison, an AA member and a recovered lawyer met with Ted almost every morning at a hideaway coffee shop where they had a recovery meeting. Their goodwill so impressed Ted that when his sentence was completed and he had regained his law license, he decided to start a new specialty group for lawyers and judges to share their recovery and act as a bridge into mainstream recovery meetings. This meeting in Los Angeles was the first strictly lawyer recovery group in the United States.

The movement took hold, and by 1975 had expanded beyond the boundaries of the United States. In that year, the Alcoholics Anonymous International Convention was held in Denver, Colorado. It was there that a number of lawyers from Canada and the United States met and the idea of forming an organization called “International Lawyers in Alcoholics Anonymous” was germinated. In the fall of 1975, the first meeting of ILAA was held in Niagara Falls, Canada. There were 22 lawyers present, 16 from Canada and six from the United States. Westchester lawyer Jack K. was present at that meeting and would go on to be the only lawyer to have attended all meetings of ILAA from 1975 through 2005.

In the spring of 1977, the Christian Science Monitor  ran an article on Ted’s lawyers’ group in Southern California. The article was picked up by the N.Y. Times. A Syracuse lawyer, Frank A., read the Times  article, called Ted and asked him if he was going to attend ILAA in Toronto, Canada in the fall of 1977. Ted said he would attend, and after the meeting he traveled to Westchester County with Jack K., where he met with Jack, Ray O’K. and other sober lawyers and, according to Ted, the second lawyer’s group in the country was established. Ted and other lawyers with long-term recovery remind us that the lawyers’ AA groups serve as a gateway to mainstream recovery groups. Such specialty groups are very useful, however, in that a lawyer in recovery can discuss practice problems that may not be appropriate to discuss at mainstream meetings, e.g., missed deadlines, angry clients, resentments against a judge or opponent.

In 1978, the then President of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA), Hon. Robert P. Patterson, Jr., asked Ray O’Keefe if he would serve as Chairman of a new NYSBA committee, the Special Committee on Lawyer Alcoholism. Ray agreed and the committee became a standing committee of the Bar in 1980 under a new name, Committee on Lawyer Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Ray wrote a letter to all of the 62 county bar associations in New York state urging each to form a similar local committee consisting mostly, but not exclusively in some venues, of sober lawyers in Alcoholics Anonymous. He asked for volunteers from the local committees to attend the NYSBA Committee meetings.

The first meeting of the state committee was held on June 30, 1979 at the Wings Club at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. At the beginning, there was a three-year sobriety requirement to serve on Ray’s committee.

In addition to Ray O’Keefe and his protégé, Jack Keegan, original members of the committee included John Byrne, Gus Ginnocchio, Frank Gavin, Judge Paul Kelley, Charles Scharf, Joe Schmitt and Bob Wall. Soon to follow were early members John Walsh, Charles Walker, III, Jim Sullivan, John Rinaldi, Phil Potter, Frank Armani, Gerry Canavan, John Hanna, Bruce Pettijohn, Dave Pfalzgraf, Ken Ackerman, Tom Costello, John Harder, Dean Fero, Hesper Jackson, Dave Pelland, Peter Morrow, Jim O’Brien and Gene O’Brien.

The first woman member of the committee was Judge Karen Peters, who was serving as counsel to the state Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) in 1980. She was followed by early members Jemera Rone, Rosemary McGinn, Patricia Grant, Kathy Kettles-Russotti, Carol Hoffman, Sallie Krauss, Carol Lackenbach, Jean Miller and Peggy Popp-Murphy. Dr. Anne E. Geller from the Smithers Center served as medical consultant to the committee in the early years.

It was important to Ray O’Keefe that members of the committee be visible to members of the Bar’s Executive Committee and House of Delegates and for that reason it has been the only NYSBA committee to meet at the same time as the Executive Committee and House of Delegates at the NYSBA summer meeting in Cooperstown. Ray would say that the bar leaders should be able to see that committee members, who were mostly recovered alcoholics, wore ties, ate with knives and forks, and laughed a lot.

Early annual reports to the President of the NYSBA included a description of many initiatives initially thought to be vital to committee work, including formation of subcommittees on public relations, cooperation with other bar committees and Sections, and providing speakers at local bar functions. In early years, a dollar was exchanged between the alcoholic lawyer and the assisting lawyer to assure confidentiality. A special subcommittee was formed to coordinate with the Professional Discipline Committee and Ethics Committee to amend the disciplinary rules with respect to privileged communications. A new Opinion 531 of the State Bar Ethics Committee provided that the reporting of unethical behavior of an addicted lawyer to the committee satisfied the ethical rule that requires lawyers to report to an authority authorized to act on alleged misconduct.

A vice-chair was appointed for each of the four Appellate Departments and contact was made with the Presiding Justices as well as with the grievance staff attorneys and the administrative justices in each judicial district to explain the purposes and resources of the committee. The committee chair coordinated with Bar leaders at the American Bar Association regarding formation of a similar committee on a national level. It was reported in 1980 that more than 40 lawyers had been rehabilitated from the disease of alcoholism and were engaged in active and productive law practices.

In 1983, the year a special issue of the NYSBA Journal was devoted to the issue of lawyer alcoholism, Ray O’Keefe moved to Miami, Florida to become a professor and Dean of Faculty at St. Thomas Law School and Jack Keegan succeeded him as Chair of the state Committee. Jack served as Chair until 1990 when he assumed chairmanship of the ABA Commission on Impaired Attorneys (later called the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs). Jack was succeeded by Dave Pfalzgraf from Buffalo, Ken Ackerman from Syracuse, the late Bill Dugan from Staten Island, the late Gene O’Brien from Suffolk, Tim Foley from Old Forge/Utica, Chuck Beinhauer from Buffalo, Sallie Krauss from Brooklyn, Larry Zimmerman from Albany, Henry Kruman from Long Island, Gary Reing from Manhattan, Lisa Yeager from Buffalo, and current Chair Tom Schimmerling from Delphi.

By 1984 there was a local committee or contact person in 33 counties; Jack Keegan became vice-chair of the ABA initiative to form a national committee on lawyer alcoholism, and committee members began to reach out to the law schools in the state and make annual presentations to students. Each Committee on Character and Fitness was contacted and assistance offered in the admitting process where alcoholism or drug addiction was, or was suspected to be, part of the applicant’s history. The committee prepared a pamphlet regarding its work and how to identify the diseases of alcoholism and drug addiction. The pamphlet contained resource phone numbers of committee members in each part of the state. Letters were sent to all alcohol rehabilitation centers in New York advising them of the existence of the committee and offering committee members as a resource for contact after discharge. Weekly lawyers’ luncheon meetings were encouraged and established in metropolitan areas of the state. Most of these early initiatives have been carried on, augmented and expanded by subsequent committees.

In 1989, at the urging of Jack Keegan who had been in attendance at and inspired by the National Conference for Growth in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1988, NYSBA dedicated sufficient monies to hire a full-time Executive Director of its new and stand-alone Lawyer Assistance Program. It had become evident to Keegan that the problem of alcoholism and other drug addiction among the then 140,000 lawyers in New York State was far too pervasive and complex to be adequately served by a volunteer committee of lawyers. He knew that it was time for the state Bar to hire a full-time lawyer assistance professional who could work closely with the volunteer committee. A committee proposal for allocation of State Bar funds sufficient to hire and staff the office of the new Lawyer Assistance Program was approved by the executive committee of the NYSBA and the process of advertising for, screening and interviewing candidates began. Six applicants were interviewed and Ray Lopez was the last. His resume was extensive and impressive, detailing his educational background, work experiences, awards and commendations. When Jack asked Ray why he thought he was qualified to work with lawyers, Ray started his answer by saying: “I used to live in a box on the bowery.” The State Bar folks were shocked. Jack, Ken and Dave smiled. They knew they had their man.

The Committee and the LAP have always had tremendous support from both the staff and the presidents of the State Bar over the years. John Yanas was president when funds were first allocated for Ray’s position and the next three succeeding presidents, Angelo Cometa, Bob Ostertag and John Bracken, were all outspoken in their support of our efforts and gave great credibility to the efforts of the committee and the LAP. Past president Josh Pruzansky referred to the LAP as the “crown jewel” of the State Bar.

A number of significant things happened during Ray’s first three years of stewardship. In 1992, Ray received the Peter Sweisgood award from the Suffolk County Bar Association. Peter Sweisgood was a priest who directed the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and he was very helpful in bringing many lawyers into recovery over the years. When the Sweisgood dinner was over, a priest approached Ray and suggested that perhaps he could facilitate a useful introduction. He explained that his brother-in-law was Joseph Bellacosa, an associate judge on the Court of Appeals. In large part because of that introduction, Ray and Dave Pfalzgraf got to meet with Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sol Wachtler and explain to him their vision for the LAP and assistance for lawyers and judges alike. The Chief Judge was very attentive and promised his support. Ray was then introduced to Justice Joseph Traficanti, chief administrative judge for the courts outside New York City, who pledged full support. Lopez and Pfalzgraf were invited to lunch with him and the administrative judges from each of the 12 judicial districts and by the time the luncheon was over, Ray had three referrals. The formal LAP was off and running and began to receive exposure and credibility within the Bar and the judiciary alike.

It quickly became clear that confidentiality of communications to the LAP as well as to members of the Committee would be the keystone of all the committee’s efforts.

At that time, DR 1-103 (the so-called “snitch” rule) provided no privilege exception for communications to lawyer assistance personnel. Committee members (especially those who practiced downstate) were concerned that they may be forced to testify as to their communications with those they tried to help and may be subjected to lawsuits for their assistance efforts. With the help of committee members and with the suggestions and guidance of NYSBA’s Kathy Baxter and various relevant Bar committees, an amendment to DR 1-103 and a new
§ 499 of the Judiciary Law were drafted and presented to the Executive Committee and House of Delegates of the State Bar for approval. The new proposed Judiciary Law was then sponsored in both houses of the state legislature. The governor signed it into law.

It became apparent that it was important to educate disciplinary counsel on the services offered by the LAP and the Committee, and through the cooperation of Mark Ochs in the Third Department and chief counsel in the First Department, a model diversion/monitoring agreement was drafted and presented to each of the Appellate Departments. Ultimately the Second, Third and Fourth departments adopted some form of diversion and monitoring.

It also became apparent that there was a need to form a Judges Assistance Program with judicial volunteers who were members of the state committee. This program served as the forerunner to the Judges Assistance Program that was formalized and funded by the Office of Court Administration.

In 1999, Chief Judge Judith Kaye, after having attended the New York State Lawyer Assistance Program spring retreat and an open AA meeting on Saturday night at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, invited Ray Lopez, Eileen Travis, Ken Ackerman, Tim Foley and Dave Pfalzgraf to her chambers to discuss what steps she might take to enhance the services being offered to impaired lawyers in New York. On September 16, 1999 she announced the creation of the Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in the Profession.

The Commission consisted of a group of 21 lawyers, judges and addiction professionals brought together to study the extent of the problem of alcohol and drug addiction among New York lawyers and judges. The Commission was charged to propose an action plan and long-range solution to the problem. Then Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals Joseph Bellacosa chaired the Commission, which was to become known as the “Bellacosa Commission.” In 2001, the final report of the Commission proposed the creation of a statewide program to address substance abuse issues and make resources available to address such issues to be called the Lawyer Assistance Trust (LAT). Attorney Barbara Smith was hired to be executive director of the trust.

The LAT became a prime source of funds to be used by State and local committees to develop and promote their assistance programs through website development, posters, video presentations, CLE programs, volunteer training sessions and assistance for inpatient treatment for impaired attorneys. The LAT sponsored two major conferences: one on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse in Law Schools and a second on the effects of alcoholism and substance abuse on women attorneys. These programs drew national attention to New York and its cutting edge lawyer assistance initiatives. The LAT operated for 10 years at which time OCA budget cuts defunded the program.

Ray Lopez retired in 2005 but his stewardship lives on not only in his many innovations and achievements but also in the annual spring retreats that have remained one of the highlights of lawyer assistance activities and have found a home on Lake George at Silver Bay. In addition to Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Alanon meetings, the weekend offers yoga and meditation gatherings, occasional CLE presentations on substance abuse issues and fellowship where one attendee can assure another “I know how you feel” and the road to recovery begins.

Ray O’Keefe died on January 22, 2006 and Jack Keegan died two weeks later on February 6, 2006. Ray was Jack’s sponsor and they were the best of friends. Their impact on thousands of alcoholics and hundreds of lawyers will be their lasting legacies – not only for those they helped but also on the pyramid of service they helped to create.

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My NYSBA Account

My NYSBA Account