Lawyers Helping Lawyers

Article excerpt

Lawyers need courage and compassion as personal virtues. But lawyers may need these virtues in ways that they had not imagined when they first entered the Bar.

Becoming a lawyer 30 years ago, I wanted to be courageous on behalf of my clients -- a zealous advocate. I wanted to be compassionate with my clients to assist them in their difficulties and sorrows -- a sage counselor. What I did not know 30 years ago was that I would first need courage and compassion for myself and my fellow attorneys. I was slow to realize that lawyers are likely not good lawyers for clients unless they are also good to themselves as human beings. When lawyers mistreat themselves, clients too are at great risk of incompetence, misappropriation, neglect, and surliness.

Statistics about lawyers are alarming. I have read that 40-50 percent of disciplinary cases involve lawyers who are suffering from an impairment, usually an addiction to alcohol or drugs. I have read that lawyers are twice as likely as other Americans to have an addiction, depression, suicidal tendencies, or stress anxiety. To be more concrete, I have read that 10 percent of Americans suffer from an addictive, emotional, or mental impairment. By contrast, these same sources estimate that 20-25 percent of lawyers suffer from an impairment. If this is true, it means that in Oklahoma at least 2,000 lawyers are practicing who are impaired. Two thousand lawyers who likely do not realize that they need to be courageous and compassionate toward themselves. Lawyers need courage to say, "I am an alcoholic," or "I am addicted to drugs." Lawyers need courage to say, "I am emotionally exhausted by my divorce," or "I am overwhelmed with grief at the death of my child," or "I am debilitated by too much work." Once lawyers are courageous with themselves, they can be compassionate to themselves by seeking assistance to address these burdens. But not all lawyers individually will either have the insight or the courage to face the fact that they are suffering from an impairment. In those instances, their fellow lawyers must have the courage to speak the truth to the impaired lawyer. Fellow lawyers must not turn away from the impaired lawyer in the ill-advised hope that all will be OK somehow. Fellow lawyers show compassion for an impaired lawyer not by ignoring the lawyer's impairment but by helping that lawyer to get needed assistance. Moreover, by acting with courage to assist an impaired lawyer, fellow lawyers can often prevent serious harms from occurring either to the impaired lawyer or to the impaired lawyer's clients. Once harm occurs to clients, fellow lawyers have the obligation to report the impaired lawyer to disciplinary authorities for misconduct. …