How Did I Get Here?

By Laura Gatrell

I am a nonlawyer in a sea of lawyers. Recently I attended the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, and every time I walked through the hotel lobby or down Wacker Drive, I was astounded by the astronomical number of lawyers swarming that city. And there I was, smack dab in the middle of the hullabaloo, attending meetings, laughing, connecting with friends, and feeling completely at home.

I am the executive director of the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program. Twenty years ago I was an ostentatiously impoverished girl with noble aspirations to help the homeless, children, and drug addicts. I threw myself into a job as an alcohol and drug counselor at a public high school. My office was a janitor’s closet—which the janitor still shared. It was furnished with things I had borrowed, found, or made. In that cramped, steamy room, I passionately counseled teens about drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy, child abuse, and generalized adolescent angst. The teenagers were effusively grateful to me for listening, and I went home at night feeling needed.

This was followed with similar lines of employment. I was everything from the public relations director of an alcohol and drug treatment center to the executive director of a fledgling foundation designed to grant scholarship money to indigent individuals needing those treatment services. The common denominator was always the same: I believed that I was doing something significant to make a difference in the world.

So how did I end up on the streets of Chicago with a swirl of legal professionals in nice suits? I can only say that I fell into it against my will, but I thank God every day that it happened.

I got my job while in treatment. No, I was not there for rehab. I was eating lunch while heatedly negotiating a rate reduction with the financial officer of a treatment center where one of my clients was being admitted. Also at the table was the newly hired executive director of the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program. Apparently my vehemence impressed him because he asked me if I wanted to work with him to create a brand-new lawyer assistance program for our state. I disdainfully replied “absolutely not.”

Two short months later I sat across the desk from him and declared, “ alright . . . I’ll take the job. But I’ll just be passing through because I have a higher calling.” I naively believed that lawyers led a charmed life and couldn’t possibly need any help.

Ten years later I’m still here, only now I’m the executive director. It turns out that I had been a foolish believer of the negative images that pervade our society about the once-revered profession of law. Lawyers aren’t cherished as the local Perry Mason anymore; they are called sharks, bottom feeders, and worse. Every idiot has myriad lawyer jokes in his repertoire. In my very attempt to be open-minded, I blindly bought into the myth that lawyers are bad people who will take advantage of you.

It embarrasses me to even admit this now because I’ve learned that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Lawyers suffer from addiction and depression at twice the rate of the general public. They constantly walk a fine line between being overworked and out of work. They tirelessly give of themselves while being pulled in a million directions. They have to choose daily between work and home.

Unfortunately, too, solos often suffer most because they are, well, solo. They can be beleaguered with fears and doubts but have only a limited support system and practically no time for self-care.

At the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program we worked with a sole practitioner who continued to pay his staff even though he could no longer afford to. When it became too financially distressing, he began to manage the office by himself. He tried to return phone calls while at the same time answering the phone. He couldn’t pay his bills because he was so behind in billing. His wife threw him out of the house and he had to live at work—the very place he was trying to escape. Eventually, he locked his door, pulled the blinds, poured a glass of bourbon, and curled up on his couch. Day after day he sat there while his door became plastered with sticky notes from angry clients. He thought he was defeated.

But here’s the hook : He got better. Our staff and volunteers didn’t give up on him. He didn’t have enough money to afford treatment and counseling, but you know what? We have a revolving loan fund established to help clients like this. He was effusively grateful, and I felt needed.

I am lucky; I have found my calling. Every day I see lawyers who generously give of themselves to help others. Every day I witness a miracle. Every day I am humbled at my small part in it.

I am proud to be an honorary member of the legal profession.

And I never tell lawyer jokes.

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