May 01, 2015

GP Mentor: Helping a Colleague over the Bumps

Rodney S. Dowell

The life of the sole practitioner and small firm attorney is full of challenges. The daily grind of running a law office; getting clients to pay; implementing practice management tools to prevent malpractice and disciplinary problems; dealing with family issues; paying law school debt, mortgages, and college tuition; and the many other daily life issues that weigh on us can overwhelm the positives of a legal practice and contribute to issues that negatively affect us. Besides these daily stresses, it is often reported that almost twice as many attorneys have drinking problems compared to the general population, one-quarter of attorneys who have practiced 20-plus years abuse alcohol, and lawyers have the highest rate of depression among 105 occupations examined (above 10 percent).

From early in my career, I saw friends and colleagues struggle with many issues that negatively affected their ability to practice, derailed promising careers, interfered with strong family relationships, and, occasionally, caused a deep slide into legal oblivion—the loss of the right to practice. Naively, I often dismissed these struggles as a lack of maturity, self-respect, or self-control. I did not understand the many underlying and often unrecognized personal traumas, mental health issues, and stresses of daily life that can cause these individual struggles. I certainly did not understand the disease of addiction.

Looking back with hindsight, I often wonder what I should have done to change the negative outcomes growing from the problems I observed. I was told by a summer associate that he had his best summer ever because he had smoked more “weed” than ever before. I knew a friend was suffering from insomnia and could not focus on getting work completed behind the closed office door. I saw a friend and fellow associate drink too much at firm social events. Only in retrospect do I see that each problem was symptomatic of significant issues and that saying and doing nothing was not the best idea. As I look back with a more understanding eye, I often ask: Should I have acted? What was my responsibility to act? Would it have helped?

I still do not know the answers to these questions. But I know that if we remain mindful of our response to stress, of what substances we are taking, of our own well-being, then we can do more to help ourselves and be more cognizant of the needs of others. Over time, in practice and in life, we will run into people who need help dealing with the stress of our profession, an addiction that significantly impairs both work and personal life, or a mental health condition such as severe depression, perhaps even leading to threats of committing suicide. In a perfect world, we may successfully offer to help, but we also have to realize that our helping hand will not always be grasped, and that a path toward a healthy lifestyle will not always be taken.

Recognizing that our ability to reach out successfully with a helping hand may be difficult and that success is dependent on our relationship with our colleague and how receptive this colleague is to accepting help, what should we do? We should make ourselves available as a friend and with an open ear. We should not minimize the individual’s statements; we should state our concerns without judgment and without pretending to be an expert when we are not. We should also turn to the help that is available. Throughout the United States, its territories, and Canada there are 59 lawyer assistance programs that can help you navigate the challenges of helping others (and helping yourself). You can find a directory of helpful resources at americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources. These programs are filled with lawyers in recovery, mental health therapists, and volunteers trained to help. My final advice to the younger me? Be mindful of your needs, be understanding of other’s needs, and ask for help, particularly from your state’s lawyer assistance program, when you don’t know what to do to help yourself or another.

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Rodney S. Dowell

Rodney S. Dowell is director of the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program.