In the nearly 25 years I’ve been a lawyer, the relatively small South Dakota bar has lost a number of members to suicide as a result of depression. These members include one of my law partners and a trial court judge, neither of whom was dealing with alcohol or chemical dependency problems. They were among those who fall into a potential gap in the legal profession’s approach to depression. Bar associations are ready to provide assistance to those who deal with drug and alcohol problems, and there are long-standing outside support groups for such individuals. But resources seem more limited, especially in smaller states, for lawyers who may “only” suffer from depression, anxiety, or similar mental health issues.
Even ten years ago, when I was on the South Dakota State Bar Commission, the bar wanted to do more to help attorneys with depression and anxiety. Since then, the bar has entered into an agreement with the state’s regional mental health centers under which the bar will encourage attorneys to contact these centers and will pay for services if the lawyer (whose identity isn’t disclosed) can’t afford them. Still, we lack an ongoing organized effort to deal with depression in the profession.
If bar organizations aren’t providing assistance or support, do lawyers who have faced “the black dog” have any obligation to do so? After all, is there anyone better able to offer help than those who know it isn’t that easy to “just get over it”?
These were the challenges issued to a dozen lawyers invited to a meeting during the 2009 South Dakota State Bar Convention. The meeting was the inspiration of a longtime South Dakota trial attorney who left the practice owing to depression. None of the invitees disagreed with him about the urgency of the problem, but turning his idea into reality wasn’t that simple, especially when the handful willing to take the next steps had no clue how to approach it. Nevertheless, the resulting project, the “Caribou Coffee Club,” has been meeting regularly for more than a year now in the state’s largest city, located in the state judicial circuit with the most lawyers. The group also reaches out to those who may never attend a meeting.
The idea for the club originated at a lunch meeting with a local mental health professional who spoke at that bar convention. Not only did she provide insight and recommendations, she volunteered to be an unofficial advisor to any resulting group. Using a list of e-mail addresses provided during the first meeting, organizers asked volunteers to get together at a local Caribou Coffee shop to discuss forming a group aimed at helping lawyers dealing with depression.
The initial ground rules for the group were simple. The most important was strict confidentiality for those attending these meetings and for what they said there. With the exception of our advisor or other specifically invited professionals, only practicing lawyers could attend. This rule was later modified to include lawyers who had lost their licenses—it was hoped that attending the group might be a step back to active practice for them. In addition, law students and those awaiting the bar exam or results could also attend based on the belief that being proactive is better than being reactive. Organizers decided to try to meet every two weeks on a weekday evening in the same private meeting room at Caribou Coffee.
From that point, the club learned by trial and error. Future meeting notices were sent by e-mail to those who attended the bar convention meeting and, in time, attorneys who made contact with the group through someone already on the list. Concern about member privacy, though, led to a “Caribou Coffee Club” e-mail address, since used to circulate meeting notices and information. Anyone on the mailing list receives a blind copy of e-mails sent from the club e-mail account addressed only to that same e-mail account.
Although not a listserve, the e-mail account serves several purposes. First, it created a mechanism by which, through the local and state bar associations, the group could provide a neutral contact point. The use of blind copies means interested attorneys can remain anonymous to others while still getting meeting notices and any additional information that might circulate. Representatives of organizations that provide services to or referrals for attorneys with mental health issues also can receive blind copies of the e-mails, although they are not allowed to attend the meetings unless formally invited.
Next came a Google Docs account to which magazine and website articles, continuing legal education materials, and other information that may be of interest are uploaded. The blind e-mails let people know when new items have been uploaded, and anyone who receives the e-mail can access any of the documents.
The twice-monthly meetings follow no specific format. Even if the advisor can’t attend, it is now second nature for regular attendees to ask how others there are doing or if anyone has seen or heard from someone who may not have attended recently. There is no established agenda. Rather, group discussions revolve around general or specific issues important to one or more members at the time. Fortunately, no one has been in need of attention or help. The group believes that among its members it has the resources and contacts to direct members to the care they need should such a situation arise.
It hasn’t been easy. There are far more people on the e-mail list than attend meetings. In fact, even though we’ve had people drive in from other cities, attendance rarely approaches double figures. We attribute that to the fear of stigma or disclosure. It’s hard to walk into a room of fellow attorneys when doing so constitutes an admission you’re suffering from depression or have in the past.
That’s a difficult hurdle. Yet it’s part of the reason the e-mail list is important. Even though a majority of recipients may not attend a meeting, they are regularly reminded of the opportunity and have access to materials that may be of benefit to them or someone they know.
Likewise, we hope Caribou Coffee won’t come after us for trademark infringement—we’ve learned the name has benefits, too. Regardless of whether a person receives a group e-mail at work or home, the name doesn’t suggest the group’s nature or purpose. The e-mails frequently are intentionally generic (i.e., when the next “gathering” is or that some new documents are available in Google Docs). The name also means that, if asked, a person can honestly say it is a group of people who get together occasionally at Caribou Coffee. Whether they say anything beyond that is up to them.
Local and state bar leadership is aware of the core nucleus of the group. Some have been contacted when bar leaders learn of attorneys the group might help. Group members are willing to call or meet with these attorneys, if for no other reason than to let them know they aren’t alone. The group is not, however, associated or formally affiliated with any bar association or lawyer assistance program. In fact, group announcements by the local and state bar associations point that out. Perhaps some such alignment will exist in the future. At this point, the focus remains building and shaping the group to make its efforts meaningful.
The Caribou Coffee Club is still feeling its way. Unquestionably, it is neither a perfect nor the only solution. More can always be done, and there are attorneys the group is not reaching. But at least we’re trying, which is more than could be said a year and a half ago.
Whether the group flourishes or folds, a common belief remains: If the Caribou Coffee Club helps one person to better deal with today or tomorrow, it has succeeded.