What is your disability? How does it affect you as a lawyer?
I had not considered my depression a disability until I was contacted to participate in this Spotlight feature. It does not currently affect me as a lawyer, and is largely controlled with medication. However, when I had my first episode of depression early in my career, my productivity declined, and I was indecisive, had difficulty concentrating, and always looked for reasons to arrive to work late or leave early. Eventually, after seeking help from a mental health professional and taking medication, I began to climb out of the hole and back into the light.
What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?
As an accommodation, the firm delayed by partnership decision by six months to allow me to recover and demonstrate that I could be productive.
Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues? Why or why not?
As I mentioned above, my productivity declined when I was first diagnosed with depression. I wanted the firm to understand why, so I disclosed my depression and treatment to my law firm’s managing partner. I was elected to partner and continue to practice at the firm today. I am grateful for the firm’s support over the years, including my work as a volunteer with the South Carolina Bar lawyer assistance program, which provides education, support and assistance to judges, lawyers and law students facing mental health and substance use disorders.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?
When I first went to college at Furman University in 1980, I planned to be a physician. A year later, as I stood in line to register for organic chemistry, I decided that I no longer wanted to go into medicine. I spent another year exploring different possibilities before deciding on law. My uncle, then President of Furman University, as well as a lawyer friend of my family, encouraged me to seriously consider a legal career.
What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?
My practice is primarily civil defense litigation, representing businesses that allegedly have caused some injury or damage. About half my practice involves representing nursing homes and assisted living facilities. I also do a good bit of trucking defense litigation.
What advice would you give to fellow lawyers on law students with disabilities?
Your disability is not a weakness. If you need treatment, get it. Do not let your struggles keep you from doing what you are supposed to do. Find the strength to push through it, and then make it a positive influence in your life. Use your disability to help others.
How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities? What could be improved?
There has been a recent focus on disability diversity in the legal profession. The ABA has asked law firms to sign its Pledge for Disability Diversity in the Legal Profession, committing to disability diversity, which is in the best interest of the profession. Individual lawyers should encourage others in the legal industry to make such a commitment.
Do you have any advice for lawyers at firms who may have depression, but are unsure how to “come out” about it, and might be apprehensive about the responses they would receive?
While there remains a stigma for persons who have depression and other mental illnesses, I have seen much progress made since my diagnosis in 1992. The decision to disclose your disability is highly individualized. Consider your audience, and make sure you are comfortable with telling your story and with the potential consequences of doing so. There may be some who will not understand, but I have found that sharing my story publicly has both empowered me and given me so many opportunities to educate others.