Who needs help? Bars and Lawyer Assistance Programs Fight Stigmas And Lend a Hand

Volume 32 Number 2

By

Richard Eynon, a Columbus, Ind., lawyer, and his longtime companion, Debbie Skene, had excitedly prepared for two years for Eynon to take the helm as president of the Indiana State Bar Association last year. Skene, a paralegal with three decades of legal experience, was eager to help Eynon during his presidency.

Just a few months before he took office, Skene, 50, died unexpectedly of natural causes. Suddenly, Eynon’s plans came into a sadder, yet sharper focus, as he found himself wondering if the stress of the profession over a lifelong career had played a role in his companion’s death.

“The constant pressure on those in the legal profession is just overwhelming. It’s costing us,” Eynon says. “After Debbie died, this seemed like a natural thing to talk about. It was a catalyst for me.”

A lawyer for more than 30 years, Eynon has spoken often about the need for those in the profession to balance their often-grueling work lives with their oft-neglected personal lives. It is a message that has taken on a deeper meaning for him since his companion’s death, and one that he has delivered repeatedly to fellow bar members during his term as president.

Eynon is not alone. Lawyers, counselors, and bar leaders nationwide are taking a closer look at the pressures of the law, and what can be done to help. Concerns about alcoholism, depression, suicide, divorce, and poor physical health hover over the profession. Even for those without one of those “red flag” problems, many say chronic stress from a life out of balance is harmful on its own and can feed into one of those conditions.

Many say that strides are being made in alerting lawyers to the problems and offering them help, often through lawyer assistance programs and bar programming. They also acknowledge that it continues to be a struggle to attract the attention of time-starved members who are sometimes reluctant to discuss problems and dubious that anyone can help them.

But people like Eynon say the need to help is critical, and they will work to make sure that more bar members learn about the importance of work-life balance—and the hazards of imbalance.

A problem with many roots

 

The connection between the legal profession, stress, and danger dates back decades, with a defining moment coming in the early 1990s when a Johns Hopkins University study found that among 28 types of professionals, lawyers had the highest rate of depression. Subsequent studies have found that lawyers also rank high among professionals in divorce, alcoholism, substance abuse—and, not surprisingly, many say—in hours worked.

In one of the more recent surveys, conducted in February by the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program, 54 percent of those surveyed said that the most dissatisfying aspect of their jobs was time pressure and workloads, followed closely by the fear of making a mistake (48 percent).

“It’s a regular, recurring theme,” says Mike Long, an attorney counselor at the OAAP for the last 14 years. Many point to billable hour requirements as the problem, but Long says the sometimes unhealthily long hours can also be traced to the importance of the work lawyers do—and the need for accuracy. “I think lawyers really walk around with an incredible burden, and that contributes to the work-life balance issues,” he notes. “They feel that they have to put in the extra hours to avoid making mistakes."

In many ways, Long says, the burden has increased over the past decade, in large part due to the information explosion of e-mail, wireless telephones, and the Internet, coupled with an increasingly global economy. Rare is the lawyer who leaves the office without his or her laptop, cell phone, BlackBerry or Palm, he and others say, which virtually eliminates any potentially free time.

“Expectations are greater. Lawyers feel like they have to be available 24/7,” Long says. “Advances in technology have upped the ante for all of us."

While the Oregon survey found an overwhelming percentage of lawyers (70 percent) satisfied in their jobs, there were some areas of concern. Nearly 20 percent of respondents said they used alcohol or prescription drugs to deal with job stress.

Technology is also playing a role in how lawyers are relieving that stress, Long adds, noting an increase in lawyers with Internet-related gambling and sex or pornography addictions.

An increasing number of lawyers, persistently negative public perceptions of lawyers, and ballooning law school debt are also adding to stress levels, Long and others say. A third of those surveyed in Oregon said they had law school debts of $50,000 or greater, with about one in 10 young lawyers (under 30) having debts greater than $150,000.

“We have five law schools in Alabama, so we’ve got a lot of new lawyers and there’s a lot of competition,” says Jeanne Marie Leslie, director of the Alabama Lawyers Assistance Program. “The message in the profession, quite often, is that we have to attain something we just can’t attain."

Overcoming reluctance

 

While there is widespread acknowledgment of the work-life challenges and addiction and mental health problems lawyers face, and there are more opportunities for lawyers to receive help, actually getting them to seek assistance remains a daunting challenge for many bars and LAPs.

Encouraging lawyers to enter recovery for substance or mental health problems is known to be a difficult task, but many bars are finding that programming on work-life balance, for those who may not need treatment but could simply use more time and less stress, is also a tough sell. The New Hampshire Bar Association had a link to work-life balance materials on its Web site, but took it down a few months ago because few people were using it. The reason for that, and for similar experiences at other bars, is open to conjecture. Are lawyers simply too busy to seek information on work-life balance? Do they feel they don’t need such information? Does “work-life balance” signal “not relevant”? Some say there could be another problem: The term carries a stigma.

“We have had speakers address work-life balance at stand-alone programs and at annual meeting programs, and attendance is usually slim,” says Kathryn Bellman, CLE director at the Nebraska State Bar Association. “I think there is a reluctance to admit we are stressed or out of balance, lest we seem ‘weak.’ "

That doesn’t mean bars are giving up: The New Hampshire bar continues to encourage lawyers toward six aspirational “Work Life Canons” adopted last fall. They are: Assume Responsibility for Individual Priorities; Set Priorities and Communicate Them; Respect Personal Needs; Prevent Undue Burden; Promote Collegial Professional Relationships; and Protect Health and Well-Being.

“An appropriate balance of work-life issues is in everyone’s interest,” the bar’s board of governors stated. “Success in one area fuels success in the other."

Still, the reluctance attached to asking for help lives on, and is especially strong for lawyers suffering from depression, according to Leslie. “We have been fighting a stigma that’s been out there for a long time that people with a mental health problem are weak people,” she says.

Dan Lukasik agrees. He is a Buffalo, N.Y., lawyer battling depression who created what is believed to be the first Web site specifically for lawyers with the illness, www.lawyerswithdepression.com. He created the site, he says, because he found few such resources available on the Internet. And in the “offline” world, misconceptions are rampant, he says, recalling a conversation he had recently with a judge.

“I talked about depression, and he said to me afterwards, ‘Well, life’s tough on everybody,’ ” Lukasik remembers. “I told him, ‘That’s not the case here. This is a disease. People are suffering.’ "

Lukasik, Leslie, and others say that many lawyers have been reluctant to seek help because they have been so firmly schooled in the thought that their singular mission is to help their clients—often, with little regard for themselves. Betty Daugherty, director of The Mississippi Bar’s Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program and a member of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), notes that lawyers can suffer from “vicarious stress and trauma” from dealing with clients who often have difficult problems, or are difficult themselves. Social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and those in similarly high-impact “people” professions experience this, too, but Daugherty says they are trained to expect it and deal with it—and lawyers are not.

Leslie says she has ready responses to several common reasons troubled lawyers resist seeking help—and she’s not afraid to give a little tough love, such as by advising lawyers not to be “too arrogant” to pick up the phone and reach out for help. “The ones who tell me they don’t have the time? They’re the ones who end up in my office,” she notes.

Making inroads

 

Despite the traditional stumbling blocks, many leaders of LAPs and bar associations believe that progress is being made on several fronts.

“There’s been a dramatic change in general awareness of the topic and the willingness to talk about it,” says Barbara Smith, director of the New York State Lawyer Assistance Trust, a state agency that provides program funding and support to state and local LAP efforts. Smith also has a national perspective as a member of CoLAP.

While precise measurement is unlikely, Smith says there appear to be greater numbers of lawyers who are seeking assistance through LAPs. In Alabama, for example, about half of the lawyers seeking LAP assistance are self-referrals—a significant increase from just a few years ago, Leslie notes.

At bar associations, leaders such as Eynon are actively tackling the work-life issue through task forces, committees, and programs. The ISBA’s annual meeting this past October even had work-life balance as its theme, with nationally known personal productivity expert Laura Stack as its plenary speaker.

Additionally, Eynon wants Indiana to follow the recent lead of states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota that now have CLE offerings on lawyer wellness and quality of life. About 20 states now have such programming, he says.

“If we can do anything to improve our quality of life as attorneys, then we’re going to improve our clients’ lives,” Eynon adds.

Scott Furkin is bringing a different view to the issue as the new executive director of the Louisville (Ky.) Bar Association. A former trial attorney and a former LBA president, he is well aware of the pressures lawyers face and the need to balance career and family life.

“I think we’re starting to build some things into our programs that you can do with your family on a Saturday, while still doing some networking with colleagues,” he says. “We’re trying to weave that atmosphere into all the programming we do."

While there is no LAP at the bar, Furkin hopes to offer more programs geared toward issues such as addiction and mental health.

After a number of lawyer suicides in Mississippi, the state’s Supreme Court appointed a commission to look at LJAP and what the program needed to get the word out that help was available. As a result, the program has been able to expand significantly, Daugherty says. She wishes, though, that there were a closer connection between law practice management and LJAP. Her office can give referrals to LPM professionals and has some resources, she says, “but it’s all just on paper.” Problems with practice management and problems with substance abuse or mental illness can feed off each other, she notes, so a team approach makes sense. “I’m not sure that’s a widespread understanding,” she adds.

A key push for more work-life discussion is coming from young lawyers. In his travels around Indiana, Eynon says many young lawyers have told him, “ ‘We’ve watched our parents work for 30 and 40 years and get nothing out of life. We don’t want to do that.’ "

A recent study from the North Carolina Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division Lawyer Effectiveness and Quality of Life Committee calls on the organized bar to foster improvements in the work-life balance in order to stem a tide of overworked young lawyers who are leaving the profession.

“Young lawyers,” says Travis Crump of Greensboro, N.C., the committee’s co-chair, “are of a generation that have a work-to-live philosophy, not live-to-work like previous generations. Bars can provide a mouthpiece and raise awareness that there are programs out there for us—and there’s more than just a little bit of interest."

A given, say many bar and LAP leaders, is that the work-life issue isn’t going away and that tenacity and time may yield the best results.

Leslie says she makes about 45 visits a year to bar associations and lawyers throughout Alabama, promoting lawyer wellness and the virtues of the LAP. “The message is that there needs to be education,” she says.

As for the question of, What if we held a work-life seminar and nobody came?, Daugherty says she prefers to think less about head counts and more about what each person gains. The Mississippi LJAP’s annual eight-hour seminar, “Law & Life—Enjoy Both,” is often more useful than attendees expect it to be, she says, recalling a senior partner who brought a laptop and newspaper, thinking he’d get some work done while he half-listened to the seminar. He never opened up either the laptop or the newspaper.

And one year, she heard from the staff at a law firm from which a managing partner attended the seminar; the staff told her “it was the best thing that had ever happened to them,” because the managing partner made such positive changes at the firm based on what he had heard.

Attendance at the seminar usually ranges from a handful to about 20, Daugherty says; even if there’s a lean year when only a couple attend, that doesn’t bother her. Everyone who attends leaves with a better understanding of the challenges lawyers are facing—and there’s always at least one person who approaches her for help right after the meeting, or by phone a day or two later.

“Just keep doing it,” she advises. “Even experts need to be reminded to take care of themselves. Coke reminds us a zillion times a day that their product is out there. Never do it just once. Do it over and over and over again."

NEW BAR EXEC OFFERS FIRSTHAND VIEW

 

—R.J.D.

For 15 years, Scott Furkin logged in the long office hours and the time spent away from home to become a successful personal injury trial lawyer in Louisville, Ky., and to achieve managing partner status at his firm.

“I enjoyed what I was doing because I felt like I was helping people,” he says.

But Furkin soon found that the enjoyment was slipping away—and so was the time with his family. He looked around and saw more fellow lawyers getting divorced, abusing alcohol and drugs, and falling ill.

“There were guys who were 50 years old having heart attacks, and I didn’t want that,” says Furkin—who just turned 50 this year. “You can make a good living, but at the end of the day, what have you accomplished?"

In 2002, he left his practice. He later took the reins of a nonprofit organization and then became counsel at a state agency. He even found the time in 2004 to become president of the Louisville Bar Association.

Today, Furkin is happy helping people in his newest role: executive director of the 3,400-member LBA.

“It is the perfect marriage of my interest in the law and my nonprofit work,” he says. “I missed the legal community. I had this identity as a lawyer, and I wanted to give back."

As a longtime practicing attorney and former bar president, Furkin says he has a unique perspective in helping lawyers achieve a better work-life balance and in getting help with addictions and mental illness. With that perspective in mind, Furkin offers these bits of advice to lawyers, no matter how much they might feel the stress of their profession:

 

Do a thorough self-examination. “Take an inventory of the things you need to be happy. Do you really need all those material things?” he says. “As my wife said, ‘If you’re not happy, don’t do it anymore.’ "

Talk to spouses and other family members and get their thoughts and opinions, since they often notice changes in your behavior and personality before you do. Think about events in their lives that you might have missed, or don’t want to miss anymore, because of a too-hectic work schedule.

Look not only at the financial aspects of ratcheting back or changing, but take a spiritual view as well. What is your “purpose,” and what can you do to help others?

 

Don’t be afraid to take risks to do the kinds of things you want to do. Follow your interests and your instincts.

Furkin also counsels patience, noting that it took a few years for him to realize that he wanted to make a change, and eventually to find a situation that would make him happy in the long term.

“The situations for everybody are so personal and so variable,” he says. “It’s a stressful occupation—and you need time."

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS: ONE LAP DIRECTOR’S EXPERIENCE

 

—By Marilyn Cavicchia

 

It’s a common problem: How do you help someone who clearly needs it, but who is too proud, too busy, or simply too sick to ask for assistance?

 

One way, says Betty Daugherty, is to be persistent—and present. Thanks to an increase in staffing, Daugherty, director of the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program at The Mississippi Bar, is able to get away from her desk much more than she used to, speaking to lawyers at bar events. These range from an hour-long talk at the Summer School for Lawyers CLE event, to the eight-hour “Law & Life—Enjoy Both” seminar. (To learn more about the seminar and about LJAP, visit www.msbar.org/lawyers_assist.php.)

 

Seeing Daugherty in person often breaks a pattern common among those who “intend to” seek help but haven’t yet. “What often happens when a lawyer is depressed is that they intend to call, but days slip by and they procrastinate,” she notes.

After a speaking engagement, lawyers who approach Daugherty for help often mention another communication vehicle she uses regularly: the bar publication. “They often say, ‘I’ve read your articles in the Mississippi Lawyer, and I’ve been meaning to call you,’ ” she says.

Many LAPs split off from their founding bar associations once they expand to a certain size and scope, but Daugherty is content in bar headquarters. The well-known stigma attached to seeking treatment might be fading, she says: A few years ago, no one wanted to meet with her at the bar building, so she would go to them. Now, though, more lawyers are telling her they’re comfortable meeting at bar headquarters.

Lawyers seeking help are guided toward professionals who actually give treatment, but Daugherty finds that having them also meet one-on-one with other lawyers who are in recovery for their own substance or mental health problems is another important way to break down barriers—and stereotypes. When told they’ll be meeting with a lawyer in recovery, new LJAP clients are often surprised when the door opens and they see someone they knew in law school or through the bar as a successful and high-achieving person.

Whatever perceptions they may have had—and that may have prevented them from seeking treatment earlier—those new LJAP clients soon learn that depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, and other problems affect not “lower life forms,” but “the you’s and me’s of the world,” Daugherty says.

In fact, those “you’s and me’s” include Daugherty as well; she copes with depression herself. That’s something she discloses to LJAP clients but chooses not to make much of, she says—she prefers to link one lawyer with another and help them create their own powerful and healing connection.

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