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Tough Profession, Tough People--Speak Up!

By District of Columbia Bar

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Written by Tom Gilbertsen, Member of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Committee

As folks were pushing back from the conference table after a recent litigation section meeting at my firm, a senior partner asked us to hold on for a second. He then shared with us the story of his good friend – a partner at another leading firm in town – who recently committed suicide.

“This is a tough profession, and I know we’re all tough people,” my partner said.  “But we need to be mindful of each other. When you see a colleague who seems to be suffering, go ahead and knock on that closed door. Walk into that office. Ask how they’re doing. Speak up.” 

That guidance is pitch-perfect, especially in a profession that presents heightened risks of suicidal behavior. Although suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults aged 25-54,[1] it is the third leading cause of death among lawyers of all ages. In one state study, 11% of attorneys surveyed said that they had thought about suicide at least monthly within the past year.[2] 

The law can be a labor of love for many, but the personality traits driving our success as lawyers also drive increased suicide risks. Lawyers tend to be perfectionistic, aggressive, see the problems in a given situation (pessimistic) and often exhibit a low interest in feelings and unwilling to seek help (or admit to the need for help). Makes sense right?

That’s why people hire us:  to get things done perfectly, aggressively, without help. It should come as no surprise that lawyers as a group display a high need for autonomy, but we score much lower than the general population for traits such as resilience and sociability.[3]  

So the flip side of the coin, according to a number of studies, is that successful lawyers tend to isolate in the face of difficulty, which exposes our community to heightened risks of suicidal behavior. And while attorneys suffer heightened risks for suicidal behavior in the best of times, recent times have been anything but the best in our profession.

Last year the American Bar Association presented an important program called “Recognizing the Warning Signs of Suicide in Your Clients and Colleagues,” which remains available for free at the ABA website.[4]  In addition to sharing research about the heightened suicide risks in our profession, the program identifies several warning signs and risk factors about which all of us should be aware.

There are a number of “perpetuating” risk factors -- unchangeable aspects of a person’s family history or own medical, developmental and emotional illness or traumas (history of abuse, neglect, family violence, previous suicidal behavior) that increase the likelihood for suicidal behavior. And there are “predisposing” risk factors that increase a person’s vulnerability to suicidal behavior, but which can be changed or alleviated through intervention – such as psychiatric illness and substance abuse.

Approximately half of all those who die by suicide are legally intoxicated at the time of death. Among the behavioral observations that a person’s suicide risk may be increasing are (a) indirect references to one’s own death or arrangements being made; (b) expressing shame or guilt or threat of exposure; (c) recent significant medical care with anxiety-provoking diagnosis; (d) expressions of hopelessness, being “trapped,” or anger; (e) dramatic mood swings; (f) complaints of sleeplessness; (g) increasing use of drugs, including alcohol; (h) withdrawing from friends or family; and (i) anxious, agitated or reckless behaviors.

While any one of these risk factors or behaviors might not raise alarms alone, we should be concerned when they present together (“co-morbidity”) in a colleague or loved one.[5]  Most important is the guidance my colleague offered:  “Speak up.”

A list of suicide hotlines in the Washington, D.C. area may be found at www.suicidehotlines.com; another resource is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; additional information is at www.afsp.org

The District of Columbia Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) is a vital resource for attorneys in crisis, offering free and confidential counseling and referral resources. The LAP staff can be reached at (202) 347-3131. 

[1]  Centers for Disease Control (2010), available at http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/wisqars/default.htm

[2] Schlitz, Vanderbilt Law Rev. (1999)

[3] See generally, Dr. Larry Richard, “What Makes Lawyers Tick?” available at http://www.lawyerbrainblog.com

[4] See generally  Recognizing the Warning Signs of Suicide in Your Clients and Colleagues,”  American Bar Association

READ MORE: Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves? (via CNN)