Attorneys suffering from mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction could get treatment financed by other lawyers under legislation approved Thursday by the Assembly.
The bill, SB 479 by Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), an attorney and rehabilitated drug addict, passed on a 41-22 vote. It must return to the Senate for a final vote.
Opponents argued that all practicing attorneys in California should not be required to subsidize the treatment of their troubled colleagues.
The bill would direct the state bar to establish a rehabilitation program for lawyers afflicted with drug and alcohol addictions or mental illness. It would be financed by a $10 increase in bar dues.
"We want to clean up our own problem," said Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), an attorney.
Currently, attorneys can have their licenses suspended if the bar rules that they have a substance abuse or mental health problem that interferes with their practice of law. The bill would require these attorneys to attend the rehabilitation program as a condition of getting their licenses back.
In addition, attorneys who are not under investigation by the bar could enter the program voluntarily and keep their identities confidential.
"The program is not merely an adjunct of discipline," said Larry Doyle, chief lobbyist for the state bar. "The idea is to fix the problem before it reaches the disciplinary stage."
Doyle said substance abuse is more prevalent among attorneys than in the general population. He noted that 30% to 40% of the bar's discipline cases involve substance abuse in some way.
Mike Brady, a policy analyst for Burton, said the bill was modeled after an existing program for doctors. Brady said that program is considered a success and returns 74% of its participants to practice.
Legislators opposed to the measure asserted that it was bad policy to use member dues to support a social program, calling it "welfare for lawyers."
"Lawyers can take care of themselves," said Assemblyman Phil Wyman (R-Tehachapi), an attorney.
But supporters countered that the public would also benefit.
Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), himself an attorney, noted that lawyers can "hurt the public." He said the bill would "ensure the public is protected."
Bar lobbyist Doyle said the program would not become a haven for bad attorneys seeking "absolution." He said that if a lawyer was heading for disbarment, "you're most likely still going to get disbarred."