GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2006
Reach Out . . . and Ask for Help
When I was a boy of about 15 years old, I was exploring my neighborhood on my bike one day when I found myself in an area that I had never been to before. I was enjoying my new discovery when I turned down a hill leading me further into uncharted waters. As I coasted down the hill, it became a lot steeper and longer than I had anticipated, and soon I found myself riding very fast, too fast, in fact, to brake before the oncoming intersection without throwing myself off the bike and probably breaking my neck.
So, I took the best choice that I had. I soared right through the intersection without stopping, hoping that there would be no traffic in my way. I could have collided with an oncoming car or been thrown from my bike and been seriously injured or even killed. But that day I was lucky. There was no oncoming car. There was no collision. I came through with my neck intact.
And that is why you are reading my column.
Bikes and Bumps in the Road
How does this apply to the lawyer who is experiencing some “bumps in the road”? What happens to that lawyer who is speeding down a hill and can’t stop? Is there anything that he or she can do before riding into traffic?
There was no one whom I could turn to for help when I was approaching my intersection, but a lawyer in trouble can reach out to others.
The difficulty with a lawyer reaching out for help is that a lawyer is supposed to be supremely confident. Lose that confidence when dealing with a client, and you lose the client, no matter how capable you are.
Face it, it’s hard for a lawyer to call someone and say, “I have a problem and I need your help.” Our role is to solve problems, not to have them.
Calling a mental health professional means that you can no longer rationalize that you don’t have a problem. If you can make that call, that’s the best thing to do. But if you have nightmarish feelings of loss of professional esteem every time you think of calling a professional, don’t resolve just to “try harder” (for the hundredth time); you should consider reaching out to a friend as an initial step.
Contacting a friend is a much easier step—you can think to yourself, “I just need advice from someone with a better perspective; I don’t have a serious problem.” Yes, this is self-delusional talk, and getting better means acknowledging that you have a problem, but if taking a small step leads you to taking the larger step of solving your problem, then it is just another useful tool to help you get where you want to go.
This will not permit you to avoid facing the hard reality at some point if you want to tackle your problem, but it can act as a stepping stone to eventually getting professional help. Could people get stuck in the “talking to friends” stage? Absolutely, but it could also facilitate many people to start the process much earlier and then move on to appropriate treatment.
This is especially important for a solo attorney, because there are no partners or employer to notice your condition and take steps to direct you to treatment. It’s you alone, and alone means that you can convince yourself that there is no problem until something happens that you cannot talk away.
Taking the Step
So how do you ask someone to meet you to help you deal with your problem? You don’t. You lie. When you call or e-mail your friend to arrange a meeting, don’t ask for help. Instead say, “Let’s get together for lunch so that we can catch up with each other.” Or coffee, or any environment where you will feel comfortable sharing your problem.
Why lie? Because trying to get the words out over the phone will be very difficult, creating another impediment to moving forward. When you meet, you can say to your friend, “I need some support on something I’m struggling with. Would you be willing to help me with this?”
Then you will have someone to discuss your challenges, and if that someone is a good friend, he or she will encourage you to seek the professional help that you need.
The most important thing for lawyers struggling with a “bump in the road” is to realize that they are not in the same situation that I was in some 35 years ago on my bike with no good choices. There are still options and alternatives. How do I know this? Because if you are reading this column, then you are alive, and if you are alive, no matter how hopeless and desperate things look, there is still hope for a better outcome.
Reach Out to Whom?
In picking a confidant, it’s best if you choose someone not connected to your law practice. However, special circumstances may override this advice, such as if you do business with a trusted sibling. Other than that, there is the obvious advice of picking someone who will support you and not bring you down.
Another choice that might be viewed as a step between a friend and a generic mental health service is a lawyer assistance program (LAP), now available in all 50 states. These programs are provided through bar associations and other organizations. You can learn more about them by reading “Why on Earth Would I Call a LAP?” on page 14 of this issue. The ABA provides a list of links to these local programs, organized by state, at www.abanet.org/legalservices/colap/lapdirectory.html.
Challenges to Be Met
We all have challenges of one kind or another. The hope is that between the resources inside and outside of us we will be able to meet those challenges. We must permit ourselves to use those “outside” resources when we need them.
One last piece of advice—if you have any children that ride bikes, tell them to be careful on the hills.
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.