Logo of Virginia Lawyers Helping Lawyers

VCU Executive MBA Team Revolutionizes Health for VA Lawyers

April 29, 2019 - Wendy Martin

In late February, as Virginia lawmakers concluded their 2019 session, they passed a state budget with provisions that drastically improve the way the Commonwealth supports members of the legal profession who experience professional impairment due to addiction and mental health issues. These sweeping changes were made possible, in large part, by a business plan created in 2017 by a VCU Executive MBA team.

Then:

Non-Profit Name: Virginia Lawyers Helping Lawyers
Annual Budget: $275,000 funded largely by the Virginia State Bar ($150,000) plus fundraising efforts
Employees: 1.5 (one full time, one part time)
Offices: 1 office in Richmond serving ~125 people each year

Now:

Non-Profit Name: Virginia Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program
Annual Budget: $775,000 funded entirely by the Supreme Court of Virginia (through collected fees)
Employees: 6
Offices: 3 offices (Richmond, Roanoke, and Alexandria) plus 10 "lighthouses" throughout the Commonwealth staffed with trained volunteers. Expected to serve ~725 people each year

In January 2017, the EMBA student team of Tim Carroll, Lydia Lloyd, Rob Preston, Girish Radhakrishnan and Maggie McFadden embarked on the final semester of their MBA program and were assigned a “Strategic Dilemma” to support Richmond-based nonprofit, Virginia Lawyers Helping Lawyers.

For years, members of the Richmond business community – including Capital One, Markel Corp., Philip Morris USA and Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens – have employed the services of VCU business students to help them achieve their goals or overcome challenges. What made this particular case unique was that the business client was also an EMBA student.

When Tim Carroll enrolled at VCU to pursue his MBA, the retired Air Force Command Chief Master Sergeant recently had become executive director of Virginia Lawyers Helping Lawyers. Impressed by the experience and caliber of his MBA cohort, he proposed his nonprofit’s own “Strategic Dilemma” to VCU faculty. They quickly determined that challenges faced by the underfunded nonprofit had the makings of a meaningful project.

 

A Profession at Risk

Like a host of similar statewide programs throughout the nation, Virginia Lawyers Helping Lawyers was created in the mid-1980s in response to studies indicating that people in the legal profession experience a higher rate of substance abuse and mental health issues than the general public. This problem persists. In fact, a 2014 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in conjunction with the American Bar Association predicted that 30 percent of all lawyers deal with depression and 21 percent overuse alcohol.

Given these statistics, Carroll concludes that, in Virginia, with more than 34,000 licensed attorneys and approximately 42,000 total legal professionals, it’s likely that more than 12,000 legal professionals could be dealing with depression and as many as 8,000 could be overusing alcohol. Unfortunately, due to limited funding and staff, his organization was only able to reach and serve about 125 professionals each year.

 

EMBA students activate

To explore VALHL’s potential areas of growth, the five-person EMBA team first surveyed eight lawyer assistance programs around the country that served similarly sized legal populations. Next the team considered trends and organizational models of nonprofits with missions to improve physical or mental health, particularly those with a geographic footprint that required multiple locations and various funding streams. The team ultimately determined that if VALHL increased its staff from 1.5 full-time employees to six, it could more than double the number of legal professionals it reached and assisted. The plan also proposed more secure and robust funding options to make such growth possible.

“We built an entirely new business plan for VALHL based on best practices from around the country,” says Carroll. “We basically said, ‘This is what the best program would look like and this is what it would cost.’”

That plan became the backbone of a 2018 report by the Committee on Lawyer Well-Being of the Supreme Court of Virginia that recommended the Court assess a $30 annual fee of to all lawyers registered in the Commonwealth to fully fund Lawyers Helping Lawyers (soon to be renamed the Virginia Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program). “Instead of relying on the State Bar and then passing the hat for funds, we now will have money earmarked for us,” said Carroll. “There are more than 34,000 lawyers registered in Virginia and each one is basically contributing the cost of a business lunch to help protect the competency of the profession and the public we serve.”

 

Expanding to build relationships across Virginia

According to Carroll, his nonprofit will begin implementing its expanded program in August, when funds collected in July by the Virginia Supreme Court become available. He anticipates that three offices and, ultimately, 10 volunteer-run “lighthouses” throughout the state will make a dramatic difference in the nonprofit’s ability to help lawyers with addiction and mental health issues.

“A lawyer has to know and trust us to come out of the shadows, but, with a staff of 1.5 people, building those relationships had been impossible. This plan puts staff and volunteers in the communities where hard-to-reach lawyers live and work. We will be getting into law firms and law schools, building trust.”

 

A rewarding project for EMBA students

Girish Radhakrishnan, an IT manager for the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, is proud to have been a member of the EMBA team that worked on the VALHL Strategic Dilemma plan.

“It was eye opening to all of us to learn how many lawyers suffer with mental health and addiction problems. These are professionals who help the general public and, if they are having issues, then who will help them? How does it impact the public they are serving?

“Since a person on our team was directly involved with the organization, we were especially motivated to work to develop a plan that was actionable. It’s rewarding to see the fruits of our labors.”