The Law Society of Upper Canada’s recent choice of a third-party provider to replace the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program may avoid leaving up to 800 recovering lawyers stranded without help for their personal problems, but the organization left on the sidelines by the move isn’t going out quietly.
“We are in the process of formulating a proposal to the provider because we believe that no third-party, for-profit organization can do what we do,” says former Ontario assistant deputy attorney general and OLAP chairman Rod McLeod, who himself is a recovering lawyer of some 20 years. “The reason we’re addressing the provider is because we’ve tried to talk to the law society but they won’t deal with us in any productive way.”
In late September, benchers voted to terminate funding for OLAP as of Dec. 31. At the staff level, however, the decision appears to have been made in June.
LSUC chief executive officer Robert Lapper tells Law Times that organizational health and employee wellness provider Homewood Human Solutions will operate and expand the law society’s member assistance program that’s currently administered by OLAP.
But whether the transition goes smoothly remains to be seen as it comes on the heels of two years of acrimony between the LSUC and OLAP.
“They treat us like we’re aliens,” says a source close to OLAP.
“As they say in the movies, we get no respect.”
However that may be, the problem isn’t with the quality of service that OLAP provides.
“We understand that OLAP has done some great work,” Lapper says.
But he adds that the time has come for the LSUC to provide a broader range of services staffed by a more diverse population that reflects the new demographics of the profession.
“We also need more face-to-face locations and online facilities,” he says.
According to Lapper, Homewood, which has 33 years of experience in providing assistance to professionals and numbers other professional associations among its clients, can service those needs.
“Homewood is also a more cost-efficient way to go because ultimately we’re probably going to pay less for what we believe is a significantly broader service.”
McLeod notes OLAP was created for the specific purpose of providing an independent buffer between lawyers needing help and the regulator. He maintains that any third-party provider under contract to the law society would be beholden to its paymaster and therefore wouldn’t enjoy the same kind of trust from lawyers in need of assistance.
OLAP, an independent, non-profit corporation, is the product of a merger in 2006 between what was then the Ontario Bar Assistance Program (OBAP) and the LSUC’s employee assistance program that was previously administered by a third-party provider. OBAP had been operating independently since 1977, relying largely on lawyer volunteers, many of them recovering lawyers themselves.
OLAP’s board is composed of two LSUC representatives, two LawPRO representatives, four recovering lawyers, and a number of other lawyers’ organizations, including the Ontario Bar Association, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, the Women’s Law Association of Ontario, and the judges’ counselling program.
McLeod maintains that a third-party provider simply can’t offer the type of peer-to-peer service offered by OLAP’s 80 volunteers, many of whom are themselves recovering lawyers.
“Among other things, OLAP supports lawyers when they feel the need to transition out of law because staying in the profession makes them physically sick,” he says.
Employee assistance “providers don’t understand the legal culture and the importance of a lawyer’s identity within the profession,” he adds. “We help lawyers accept they’re not a failure and help them navigate to another niche in law or transition out of law. We also help them connect with other lawyers.”
McLeod is also skeptical that a third-party provider will be able to recruit lawyers as volunteers.
“Peer volunteers will not volunteer because they are themselves recovering anonymously and will not risk their own exposure to their regulator; they know the lawyer in trouble will resist help from a program controlled by their regulator and will not waste their time trying; and they will refuse to volunteer for a for-profit company,” he says.
Lapper, however, notes the law society intends to keep its current consultant, AON Hewitt, as a buffer between itself and Homewood.
“So if we, as funders, have any concerns, it will be AON taking up the issue with Homewood to avoid any perception that we’re getting information we shouldn’t be getting,” he says.
The tension between the regulator and OLAP reportedly originated in 2008 when demand for OLAP’s services rose and created a need for more funding. It culminated in November 2011 when a majority of OLAP’s board sought to terminate the employment of the organization’s first executive director.
The law society and LawPRO objected to the termination and then resigned from the board when it occurred.
“From that day on, the law society started controlling everything OLAP was doing, including setting up a temporary management oversight committee under threat of cutting funding,” McLeod says.
The growing involvement of the law society, however, was anathema to OLAP. It regarded a proper distance between the regulator and distressed professionals as core to the success of the peer-to-peer component of its program.
Lapper says OLAP has been obstructive since 2010 when the LSUC began asking questions about rapidly escalating costs.
“We wanted to know about what kinds and levels of service were being provided, but OLAP refused to provide any management information and characterized our requests as inappropriate,” he says.
McLeod says the question of terminating OLAP arose in June 2012 but notes the LSUC wouldn’t respond to inquiries until after the benchers made their formal decision.
“They’ve been stonewalling us from the beginning,” McLeod says. “We had no idea who the provider would be and we weren’t going to simply hand over our files to the law society because that would be a breach of our fiduciary duty of confidentiality to our clients.”