chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Student Lawyer

Personal & Financial

How One Phone Call May Have Saved a Life and a Legal Career

Stephen M Terrell


  • Each state has its own Lawyers Assistance Program, which provides services to lawyers dealing with substance-use disorders, depression, and other mental health issues.
  • Everything you say in your conversations with LAP is confidential.
How One Phone Call May Have Saved a Life and a Legal Career

Jump to:

It was one of those winter evenings when the sun set before 5 p.m. It was pitch dark, feeling like hours past bedtime even though it wasn’t yet 7 p.m. The temperature hovered at the freezing mark as a mixture of rain, snow, and sleet came through in occasional waves, and the wind cut into you like a blade right to your soul.

I sat in my car in a vacant parking lot. I was someplace on the short two-mile trip between my office and my home. Years later, I’m unsure exactly where—maybe outside the library or the high school.

My car was running. My hands tightly gripped the steering wheel—almost as tightly as my jaw was clenched. And I had tears in my eyes.

Scaring Even Myself

I’d just left my office, walking away from a file that was open on my desk, my anxiety and frustration at a near-panic level. Hell, who am I trying to fool? I was in a full-blown panic attack. I simply didn’t know what I was going to do. So, I decided to go home. The solution to my situation was to leave it and run away.

But as soon as I left, I knew my answer wasn’t at home. I pulled into the parking lot, fighting tears and panic. And I sat. In the cold, sleet, and dark, I sat. And for maybe the first time in my life, I was afraid of what I would do.

The problem—well, the catalyst of the problem—was that case sitting scattered across my desk. I hadn’t been working the case as hard as I should have. A trial date was approaching, and the opposing counsel had informed me that he’d oppose any continuance.

I went through the file that afternoon, trying to make sense of the facts, documents, witnesses, and issues. How would I put the case together if the judge denied my motion for a continuance? With each document, each moment, the anxiety and panic built layer upon layer.

And so that night, I sat in my car, unable to go back to the office or forward to my home and family. I was on the edge.

Thinking of a Lost Friend

Less than two years before, a good friend of mine in Montana had found himself in a similar situation. Ron had moved to Montana several years before. He was a gregarious fellow who seemingly only had to walk into a room to make friends.

Despite his move, he’d regularly return to Indiana, where he maintained contact with the legion of persons who called him a friend—persons who ranged from members of the city’s symphonic choir to lawyers, fellow Vietnam vets, his postman, his congressman, and a US senator.

But on a night similar to the one I was experiencing, he got in his running car, turned on some of his favorite music, drank some of his favorite single-barrel bourbon, and went to sleep—forever. He’d shared the issues that drove him to his irreversible act of desperation with only one friend.

And so, as I sat there, I thought of Ron.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

That night, I sat in my car; depression wasn’t a new issue for me. I had episodes as far back as college while working as a newspaper reporter and editor. I remember that, despite my excitement as I went through the process of applying and being accepted to law school, the week before I started law school, I sat on the steps of Monument Circle in Indianapolis, feeling incredibly depressed.

Later, even though the start of my job at a big law firm was very positive, I still had periods of depression. I started searching for other job opportunities, wondering if I could be happy in the corporate world or teaching.

Looking back, I know those changes wouldn’t have resolved my periodic bouts of depression. But I didn’t know that at the time.

I Grabbed the Lifeline

Sitting there on that cold night, I was lost about what to do—except that I didn’t want to reach out for the solution Ron found. So after perhaps an hour of sitting in the dark and cold, I reached out in desperation for the one lifeline that came to mind. I called my friend Terry Harrell.

I’d known Terry for several years, first as a fellow lawyer, then through my activities with the state bar association. You see, Terry was (and is) executive director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, the agency charged with helping those in the legal profession dealing with substance use and mental health issues such as depression.

Terry listened to me. Patiently. Without judging. She offered kind, experienced words that helped me get through that night—and the days that followed.

I Think of the Call Not Made

The problem case got back on track. I got the matter ready for trial, and it eventually settled favorably for my client. And I continued, with the help of JLAP, to keep my legal career on track, despite an occasional personal crisis or spell of depression. Before I retired, I was honored with selection to the Indiana State Bar Association’s GP Hall of Fame and the prestigious Indiana Lawyer’s Barrister Award.

But had I not made that one decision to call JLAP on that wintry night, all of that might have been different.

Each state has its own JLAP or Lawyers Assistance Program, which provides services to lawyers dealing with substance-use disorders, depression, and other mental health issues. Everything you say in your conversations with LAP is confidential. Their services save careers and lives. And as it was for me on that one night, help is just a phone call away.

The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs is devoted to the advancement of well-being in the legal profession and to ensuring that every judge, lawyer, and law student has access to support and assistance when confronting alcoholism, substance use disorders, or mental health issues so that lawyers can recover, families are preserved, and clients and other members of the public are protected. This mission is carried out by supporting the work of state and local Lawyer Assistance Programs as they provide hands-on services and support to those in need.

Lawyer Assistance Programs nationwide provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers, and law students facing mental health or substance use issues. Find the lawyers assistance program in your jurisdiction.