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NJLAP's Women's Attorney Peer Counselor Group (WAPC)
by Denise Golonka, Program Clinician
New Jersey Lawyers Assistance Program


In June of 1994, one year after the NJLAP program was founded, the Women's Attorney Peer Counselor Group was created as a specialized program of female attorneys reaching out and helping other women attorneys experiencing difficulties with substance abuse and gambling issues. It evolved into a regular, monthly support group for female attorneys, judges, law students and law graduates in recovery.The members act as peer support for one another and for those in need of a contact with the program.

Meetings are held on the second Saturday of every month, from 9:30am to 12:00pm, at the New Jersey Law Center, which also houses the NJLAP offices. Attendance is "by invitation only". This policy ensures that the meeting's integrity is maintained for its current members. Those newly entering the group having been screened for appropriateness by one of NJLAP's counselors. Meeting with an NJLAP counselor provides each new client with an evaluation and specially designed Helping Plan with the broadest range of appropriate resources. NJLAP's goal and approach is holistic and offers each individual resources that address the whole person, not just one aspect.

The Women's APC meetings include a breakfast for the members and a one hour educational session. The educational sessions are delivered by female mental health/substance abuse professionals and cover a wide range of topics. The Program Counselor also delivers educational presentations and facilitates group discussions on topics of interest. Topics range from Women's issues of health and wellness to grief, co-dependency, anonymity in the workplace, relapse triggers and family of origin issues to name only a few. One Women's APC member stated: "Every month there is a topic and a discussion that has helped me both to remain sober and to deal better with the stress of being a lawyer."

The second hour of the meeting is devoted to closed sharing and is based on a 12 step meeting format. Members are encouraged to express concerns about their own recovery or to discuss their feelings and ideas regarding the educational presentations in a safe and supportive environment. NJLAP and the Women's APC group employ a 12 step format. However, this orientation is not exclusive nor does it constitute a disqualifying factor for admission to the group. Once meeting with a counselor and being referred to the group, any female attorney is welcome, regardless of their recovery orientation.

The value of any group, and especially the Women's APC group, is the realization that one is not alone in their recovery and struggles. Many members indicate that being a female attorney is a challenge in itself, and that being a female attorney in recovery is even more challenging.

"It's a safe place to share the special concerns and issues that female attorneys experience in this predominately male profession. At the same time it is a place to share the issues and concerns that recovering addicts face. I have learned a lot about being a lawyer from the more experienced lawyers in the group, but always with an emphasis on healthy and balanced life."--Maryjean E., a member of the Women's APC group.

For many this is the only place that they are able to connect with others who really understand what they are experiencing daily. Another member states, "I'm amongst very intelligent women, yet everyone is so down to earth and humble, they really care about each other. We can discuss anything including work issues and the women can understand and and relate because we are all lawyers."

Along with monthly meetings, many of the women involved in NJLAP and the Women's APC also participate in statewide Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) meetings on a weekly basis. One of the Women's APC members founded a new and sorely needed LCL group in Sussex County, the rural and mountainous northern-most area of the state. She sat weekly, waiting for another attorney in need to join her. After one year of many lonely evenings, a few more attorneys joined the group. This January the Sussex County LCL celebrated their one year anniversary. This type of leadership and fellowship is indicative of the stature of so many of our Women's APC members. Every March, the group holds an Annual Dinner to celebrate their commitment to one another, and to the female attorney who is still sick and suffering, but who will hopefully join them soon. The Marty Mann Award for service and leadership is given to a member of the group who has displayed such dedication to her group and community. Marty Mann was the first women in AA. She founded the National Council on Alcoholism and toured the country promoting the idea that alcoholism is not a disgrace but a disease and a public health responsibility. This year's Award was bestowed upon that same woman who sat quietly for a year, waiting to help a fellow attorney in need.

These are the women who come every second Saturday morning, when it is easier to sleep late, or spend time doing other things that so often are tough to get done during a hectic work week. Instead, they come and learn and share and support one another in a way that only women can. As an observer, I have had the privilege of watching these incredible women and share in their journeys of pain, joy, struggle and triumph.

The author, Denise Golonka, is the Program Clinician at the New Jersey Lawyers Assistance Program. She can be reached at 1-800-24-NJLAP or by e-mail at info@njlap.org

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