While the legal industry and law schools have placed a greater emphasis on well-being and diversity issues in recent years, these issues are typically treated separately, though in reality they are inextricably intertwined. To explore this intersectionality and amplify the experiences of lawyers from marginalized backgrounds, Fordham Law’s Office of Professionalism hosted a panel on Feb. 10 titled “Voices of Recovery: Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Lawyer Well-Being Movement.” The panel featured three attorneys who shared their personal stories about overcoming mental health challenges and discussed the unique challenges people of diverse backgrounds face in the legal industry.
Supervisory trial attorney and former president of the National LGBT Bar Association Eduardo Juarez explained the challenges he endured when coming to terms with being an alcoholic. After recently celebrating 25 years of sobriety, Juarez recalled how the social scene in law school and within the LGBTQ community revolved around drinking and partying. He said he found alcohol relieved stress and mitigated feelings of social awkwardness, despite the toll it took on his well-being.
“I was a young, successful public defender in Washington, D.C. at a prestigious public interest agency, defending people who had serious issues. Interestingly enough, a lot of the issues of my clients … involved drugs or alcohol, and I didn’t identify [with alcoholism],” Juarez said, noting he later sought help from a psychologist and psychiatrist. “The other challenge I had was a lot of guilt and shame putting the label on alcoholism.”
“I hit rock bottom,” he added. “I was very very guarded at first … I wanted everything to be very confidential. I didn’t participate in lawyer assistance programs, but I did go to a lot of the LGBTQ meetings in Washington, D.C., which thankfully had a thriving recovery community. I got sober through the 12-step program.”
Attorney Paula Kohut, who is a shareholder at Kohut, Adams & Randall, P.A. and volunteer of the North Carolina Lawyers Assistance Program, spoke of her transition as a transgender woman a decade ago and her lifelong journey to sobriety. Kohut also reflected upon what she would have done differently when seeking help for her mental health and sobriety struggles.
“Had I known then what I know now, I would have reached out to someone to talk to my feelings as far as being transgender,” she said. “I think back in the 1970s that would have been pretty tough … but I was afraid to reach out to a mental health professional.”
Raúl Ayala, a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles and the wellness committee co-chair of the Hispanic National Bar Association, acknowledged that alcoholism prevented him from taking advantage of professional opportunities. He noted, however, that he currently feels comfortable in his own skin and will be celebrating 17 years of sobriety at the end of February.
In regards to the renewed focus on mental health and personal well-being, Ayala believes the attitude is changing for the better across all fields of work. However, with that in mind, he said it is up to lawyers to remain persistent—as well as be tactful and strategic—in having their voices heard.
“We can’t afford to lose a single person to a disease that we can address or issues that we can address,” Ayala said. “Sometimes it’s absolutely impossible if a person is very ill and can’t get well, but that’s what keeps me going.”
The event was co-sponsored by the Fordham Latin American Law Student Association, Fordham OUTLaws, Fordham Law Alumni Attorneys of Color, Fordham LGBTQ Alumni Affinity Group, Fordham Mental Health Society, and the Hispanic National Bar Association—Region II.
“We were delighted to have such a tremendous outpour of support for this program from all corners of the Fordham Law community, and it has been a real privilege to collaborate with both our student and alumni affinity groups on this critically important work,” said Jordana Confino, director of professionalism and special projects.