July 17, 2013 – Stephen Compton’s law license was recently reinstated, more than three years after drug and alcohol addiction helped take it away.
Disbarred for drug possession convictions, Compton wouldn’t be practicing law again unless he showed with convincing proof that he turned his life around. And he did, with the help of a monitoring program that documented his rehabilitation efforts.
In May, Compton became the first lawyer to be reinstated after participating in a monitoring component of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lawyer Assistance Program (WisLAP), which helps lawyers facing mental health and/or addiction problems.
“Monitoring keeps me accountable,” said Compton, who has been in monitoring almost four years. “Every morning, I check in to see if I have to drug test that day. The first thing that happens in my day is accountability with my recovery program.”
The WisLAP monitoring program supports the rehabilitation efforts of lawyers with underlying issues of impairment or medical incapacity. It also allows lawyers who have conditions on their license to continue practice by remaining in compliance, and provides monitoring for new lawyers who are admitted through conditional admission.
Importantly, the monitoring program is a source of objective data that disciplinary tribunals can use to determine a lawyer’s fitness for practice. In Compton’s case, the data was positive, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court noted in its decision to reinstate.
“This court has carefully evaluated whether Attorney Compton has indeed met the requirements for the reinstatement of his license to practice law in Wisconsin, and we conclude that he has,” wrote the court, which required monitoring for two more years.
Compton, who graduated from Marquette in 1992 and held prestigious clerkships before moving into private practice in Janesville, let addictions take over his life.
It started with stress, moved to alcohol, led to cocaine, and ended with heroin, as he explained in a 2010 Wisconsin Lawyer article, “Three Lawyers Tell Their Stories: Back from the Brink.” He was suspended from the practice of law for two years in March 2010. By that time, Compton had already begun the hard work of rehabilitation.
Disbarred for drug possession convictions, Stephen Compton recently became the first lawyer to be reinstated after participating in a monitoring component of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lawyer Assistance Program (WisLAP), which helps lawyers facing mental health and/or addiction problems.
As part of his recovery effort, Compton signed a monitoring contract, which required him to stay clean and sober, take random drug tests, get counseling, and meet other requirements. Compton entered monitoring in 2009 after completing inpatient rehab.
“The support I get is tremendous,” Compton said. “I have a mentor that I talk with on a weekly basis. I have meetings that I’m required to go to, and a sponsor that I talk to almost every day. These support systems are part of my everyday life.”
Compton’s story is an extreme one, but of the law license suspensions that are handed down each year, substance abuse or mental health often play a role, says WisLAP Coordinator Linda Albert, who testified on behalf of Compton in license reinstatement proceedings.
“An informal survey done by the OLR has noted that the more complaints and violations, the more likely that alcohol or depression was a factor. We do see a strong interface between impairment and discipline,” Albert said.
Of the 46 lawyers that were publicly disciplined last year, the highest percentage (23 percent) of grievances filed with OLR involved an attorney’s “lack of diligence.”
Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule 20:1.3 requires lawyers to “act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”
It’s not difficult to see how a lawyer could become less diligent when facing mental health or addiction problems, says Albert, or how those problems could impact the lawyer’s ability to meet other obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct.
And when it happens, WisLAP plays a crucial role in helping lawyers get their lives back, including their professional careers.
The High Bar for Reinstatement
Lawyers, like all professionals, are not infallible. But they are subject to extremely high standards of professional conduct. So when they do falter, putting the public at risk, they must clear a particularly high bar to earn back the privilege of practicing law.
Under Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule (SCR) 22.31(1), reinstatement requires a petitioner to show a number of things by clear, satisfactory, and convincing evidence.
First, the petitioner must show that he or she has the “moral character to practice law.” In addition, lawyers must show they complied with the terms of a suspension or revocation and substantiate representations made in a petition for reinstatement, among other requirements.
Joe Forward is the legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached by org jforward wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
Petitioners can offer character witnesses and other evidence to make this showing, and participation in WisLAP’s monitoring program is a powerful tool to make the case.
“The monitoring program provides evidence and verification that the lawyer is doing well and has taken the steps to meet professional standards, thereby protecting the public,” said Keith Sellen, director of Wisconsin’s Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR).
Since the program’s inception, 36 lawyers have entered monitoring. Approximately 30 percent of referrals have come from the OLR, 30 percent from the Board of Bar Examiners, and 30 percent volunteer to be monitored. The remaining lawyers were referred from their law firms.
Agreeing to be monitored through WisLAP can help in reinstatement proceedings, and may help mitigate disciplinary action if investigations are pending, according to Sellen.
It requires lawyers to sign a contract that sets out obligations, providing a structure for attorneys to demonstrate the rehabilitation necessary to practice law again. Trained volunteer lawyers, 45 across the state, serve as WisLAP monitors.
Monitoring program data is useful because demonstrating rehabilitation is difficult, requiring complete dedication to change the negative patterns and behaviors that led the lawyer astray, says Albert. Monitoring documents the rehabilitation process.
“The supreme court knows that if someone isn’t doing what they are supposed to be doing, we hold them accountable,” Albert said. “At the same time, we are going to back someone who is doing everything that we’ve required them to do.”
Albert testified in Compton’s reinstatement proceedings, and the referee (and the Wisconsin Supreme Court) cited Albert’s testimony and monitoring program data.
“When I got involved in monitoring, it wasn’t so much to get my law license back as it was to get my life back,” Compton said. “But the monitoring program helped me establish a great track record, literally 800 check ins, countless drug screens, and all these quarterly reports. For me, this data was a wonderful byproduct of my rehabilitation for use when the opportunity for reinstatement came up.”
Compton, who developed a passion for physical fitness and became a personal trainer, is moving forward with plans to practice law again soon.
WisLAP Can Help
Lawyers who face substance abuse, mental health, or other problems associated with the practice of law, should remember that WisLAP is a confidential service to help State Bar members cope and rehabilitate themselves. Call the 24-hour helpline, (800) 543-2625.
And in cases where lawyers face disciplinary actions or lose their law licenses, successful monitoring can help them prove they are fit to practice law again. To learn more about WisLAP, visit the State Bar’s WisLAP webpage.