The Legal Advocate

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From the Director’s Desk: September 2018

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Ten months ago, on Nov 21, 2017 after midnight, my dad, Jack Pope—66, husband, father of three, grandfather to three, a decorated soldier, a mentor and a friend around the world—took his own life.

It is two days before Thanksgiving. I am on business travel in Minneapolis and am waiting for my husband to arrive that morning to spend time with his family for the holiday. I awake to an email from my dad with the subject line “Final Farewell” timestamped 1 a.m. It is now 5:04 am for me, two times zones ahead of him. The email is about his love for us, about being a proud father, about a good life and that life ends well. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand—yet I do. I call him, but I know he know he won’t answer. I call four times. A series of calls to my husband, siblings and stepmom, all unanswered. Everyone is sleeping, ringers off. After a call to the local, unhelpful, Sheriff’s office, I finally call my dad’s neighbor. “Tim, this is Jack’s daughter. I think something might have happened to my dad. Could you go take a look?”

I will never forget his voice, his words, “I’m here. He’s gone. I’m so sorry. He’s gone. He was my friend.”

Tears. Three hours and twenty-six minutes have passed. And enough pacing back and forth to wear out the carpet. And the whole time I knew he was gone. The email, indeed, his final farewell.

September is suicide prevention month, and though my dad wasn’t a trial lawyer, my duty now is to raise awareness in our community. My research to write this post brought me face to face with the sad and alarming realities around attorney suicide.

  • Approximately 45,000 people a year commit suicide.
  • Suicides disproportionately affect the 60–69 age cohort.
  • Lawyers ranked fourth in suicides—right behind dentists, pharmacists, and physicians.
  • Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers, which has been identified as the most likely trigger for suicide.
  • Lawyers are twice as likely as others to have substance dependency issues.
  • Individuals with alcohol dependence have a 60–120 times greater suicide risk than the non-dependent population.

Tom Foster, CEO at Foster Marketing, explains the job of an attorney—particularly a trial attorney—has been described as “multidimensional stress.” The stressors attorneys often face include:

  • Long hours at work
  • Isolation
  • Self-generated pressure—a tendency toward perfectionism and a low tolerance for failure
  • High-stakes cases
  • Exposure to dire life situations
  • Dealing with difficult clients
  • Pressure to make large sums of money and “keep up with the Joneses”
  • A “dog eat dog” work environment

Dan Lukasik, Founder of www.lawyerwithdepression.com reported in the early part of 2016, the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published their study of nearly 13,000 currently-practicing attorneys from 19 states.

It found that approximately 28 percent were struggling with some form of depression, 19 percent with anxiety, and 23 percent with stress. It further discovered that between 21 and 36 percent qualified as problem drinkers.

In the fall of 2016, another study of 3,300 law students from 15 law schools was published. It found that approximately 17 percent, 14 percent, and 25 percent were dealing with some form of depression, anxiety, and problem drinking, respectively.

In 2017, a national task force on lawyer well-being was assembled; its report, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” was issued on August 14, 2017. It stated:

To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being. The two studies referenced above reveal that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance abuse. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for lawyers’ basic competency.

The task force specifically called on law firms leaders to (a) “provide training and education on well-being,” (b) “reduce stigma surrounding mental health problems,” and (c) “establish policies and practice to support lawyer well-being.”

What the State Bars are doing about it

The ABA’s Model MCLE Rule recommends a stand-alone credit for Mental Health and/or Substance Use Disorder

The Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Credit recognizes that requiring all lawyers to receive education about these disorders can benefit both individual lawyers and the profession. This requirement is in part a response to the 2016 landmark study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, entitled, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys.

All states allow credit for courses on substance use disorders or mental health issues, either for general CLE credit or sometimes (depending on the description and content of the course) for ethics credits.

Four states (FL, OH, PA, WV) specifically allow/call out that substance abuse and mental health topics can be used for professionalism credits.

Even better, five states (CA, IL, NV, NC, SC) now have a stand-alone credit required in substance abuse prevention and mental health issues. And more states are considering this—including Oregon, which will likely pass a stand-alone requirement this year.

Texas Bar put out an impressive video of lawyers talking about their real struggles. “Due to the stigmatizing nature of mental illness, many never admit to anyone that they’re suffering and many others never seek help. If recognized and successful lawyers step up and frankly share their struggles without fear of stigma, others might not feel so alone and may reach out and seek help.” Mark Dubois, Geraghty & Bonnano. Talking about it could save someone’s life.

There is grief in death. There is a second layer of grief in death by suicide: questions that will never be answered, the unknown pain and suffering of a loved one. It’s a sadness that is indescribable. There was shame for me in the beginning and now there is this fierce and undeniable loyalty to my dad. I am my father’s daughter.

Wendy's Signature

 

 

 

Wendy McCormack
Executive Director
National Institute For Trial Advocacy

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ (1-800-273-8255)
https://www.fosterwebmarketing.com/blog/top-three-factors-for-lawyer-suicide-and-what-we-can-do-to-help.cfm
https://www.cnn.com/2014/01/19/us/lawyer-suicides/index.html
http://www.lawyerswithdepression.com/law-firms/
https://www.law.com/ctlawtribune/2018/06/13/alarming-increase-in-suicide-rates-needs-to-be-addressed-everywhere/

View the video edition of this post here.

About Wendy McCormack

Wendy joined NITA in 2006, serving as Director of Programs through 2010, then led Operations, where she provided leadership oversight and mentorship the NITA leadership team in Marketing & Sales, Program Operations, Publications, and Information Technology. Wendy has directed all aspects of core business and operational development function for 300 continuing education programs across the United States and internationally. As Executive Director, she works collaboratively with professional staff, the Board of Trustees, and the organization as a whole in developing and implementing strategy, modeling and setting the company’s culture and values, and optimizing financial performance. Wendy received her master’s degree in education, with an emphasis on organizational development and human resources, from Colorado State University (CSU). In 2016, she completed the intensive Organizational Leadership Program at the Employers Council’s Nonprofit Leadership Institute in Denver.

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