When Lawyers Need Help
By John Greenya
It has been estimated that at any given time 15 percent of American lawyers have problems that threaten their ability to continue to practice their profession. Two-thirds of those lawyers have problems caused by drug and alcohol abuse, and the remaining third have mental health problems that are frequently exacerbated by stress that is work-related. Fortunately, in recent decades, bar associations across the country have come forward in a proactive manner to offer help to troubled attorneys. The D.C. Bar has long been in the forefront of that effort, as the success of its Lawyer Counseling Program strongly attests.
"Lawyers typically work in high-stress environments," says Lynn Phillips, director of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program. "They worry about billable hours, they work long days, face hard deadlines, take cases on contingency, are under enormous pressure to bring in business, and they are forced into adversarial roles. It’s an incredibly demanding profession-and sometimes people suffer under the weight of those demands. Sometimes they need help to carry the load."
To provide that help the D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program is designed to provide counseling to lawyers, judges, and law students who are struggling with drug and alcohol problems, or with other mental health problems, such as stress, depression, workplace dissatisfaction, and marriage and family difficulties. Clients who seek counseling are seen free of charge, and all inquiries are kept strictly confidential. "A lawyer in need of counseling who calls our program can receive help immediately if it is needed that quickly," says Phillips. "As for anyone else, we’re almost always able to see them within a couple of days."
"She likes attorneys!"
Phillips, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, began her career during the 1970s, a time when, she says, "alcohol and drug treatment were very separate, and clearly separate from mental health." She points out that it has taken several decades for lawyer assistance programs nationwide to begin to deal with the full range of mental health problems out of the same office. Both Phillips and the program’s new counselor, Frank E. Hampton, have the qualifications and experience to help in all areas.
For most of her career Phillips had dealt with problems of particular concern to lawyers. After working for several years as the director of a county outpatient and substance abuse clinic in Vermont, Phillips opened a private practice. Before long she noticed that her caseload was changing, and that she was doing more and more work with lawyers: "Attorneys, couples who were attorneys, attorneys who had children who needed some work. I couldn’t quite figure this out until later on when someone in the treatment community fessed up and admitted that they were making a lot of referrals. The quote was, ’Send them to Lynn, she likes attorneys!’"
Not long after this, Phillips served for three years on a court-appointed divorce mediation project, which gave her further contact and familiarity with the legal community. "And then," she relates, "the director of the Vermont Trial Lawyers Association moved into the office next to mine, and that gave me even more understanding of some of the issues surrounding attorneys." In 1997, after seven years in private practice, she moved to Washington and joined the D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program.
What Phillips has found so notable in her work with lawyers is their high level of stress, what she terms "the nexus of conditions that add to the pressures on attorneys, the difficulty of always having a deadline, having people come to you wanting good results immediately." She notes that lawyers do not learn practice management or stress management in law school, and as a result are frequently baffled by problems that have become all too common within the profession.
Phillips says that all across the country the phrase "attorney distress" is being used more and more often to describe "the general dissatisfaction and discomfort that lawyers have just from being lawyers. You go and study law and then you become an attorney, and you discover that they are two very different activities. That is true in other professions as well, but there is a huge expectation put upon lawyers. They are expected to know what the law is and provide their clients with clear-cut answers-even though they are frequently dealing in a lot of gray areas where there are no clear-cut answers. Beyond that, they are expected to provide justice. But as an attorney friend of mine says, ’There is no justice; there’s jail time and damages.’ On one level, he’s right. The law doesn’t always function in a way that provides pure, clean, unequivocal justice." As a consequence, when people come to lawyers seeking both a practical and an emotional resolution to their problems, "Lawyers just can’t give that; you can’t dispense emotional healing and justice to your clients."
Moving Beyond Denial
Phillips says she encounters a great deal of denial, especially with alcoholism and drug abuse. "Some lawyers have issues with drinking and they don’t even know it. They’re in pain and they can’t figure out what’s going on. ’Why is my spouse so angry at me all the time?’ ’Why are my clients deserting me?’ ’Why is it so difficult to drum up new business?’ They don’t realize that their work is suffering from the impact of the anxiety and depression brought on by drinking or abusing or a poorly identified mental illness."
One of the most important advantages of a well-established program like the D.C. Bar’s, says Phillips, is that the counselors have a great deal of experience in working with problems that are faced by many attorneys. They understand the language of the law, and they understand the pressures lawyers have to work under. "I had a person in here the other day," she relates, "who suddenly said, ’Hey, this is great! I can talk about what’s going on with me and why I’m so anxious, but I don’t have to sort out and explain all the legal stuff!’ We also have a good understanding of the professional responsibilities that attorneys can run afoul of. We understand how an attorney can be caught in a moral or ethical dilemma. We understand the Rules of Professional Conduct and the disciplinary procedures that might be brought to bear on someone who is encountering serious professional problems."
Noting that bar associations nationwide are dealing with these problems, Phillips says, "I think the profession should be very proud of itself, because it has lawyer assistance programs in every state of the country. Even though some of the programs don’t even have paid staff, the key to every successful program is the quality of the volunteers. These are people who know what to say and do because they’ve been there themselves. What makes our program so helpful is that if someone is starting out in early recovery, we have volunteers available to them to serve as temporary sponsors, like sponsors in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. They will take the client to their first meetings, to lawyers’ AA meetings, and they make themselves available as an experienced support system. The new client always knows there is someone there to help them-no matter what the hour, day or night. Universally, across the country, it’s the volunteers, the people who are committed to the recovery and rehabilitation of attorneys, to the easing of attorney distress, who make these programs work."
How the Program Works
The D.C. Bar Lawyer Counseling Program has both a private phone number (202-347-3131) and a private office, which is not on the same floor as the regular Bar offices. There is a separate entrance, so that there is no danger of encountering a familiar face.
A lawyer, judge, or law student in need can be helped in one or more of the four following ways: confidential telephone access to a trained professional counselor; assessment and referral to appropriate treatment programs; direct personal counseling; and volunteer aid from fellow lawyers who have experienced the same type of problem.
All contacts with the Lawyer Counseling Program, whether actual requests for an appointment or simple, get-acquainted inquiries, are kept in strict confidence. In fact, for a Lawyer Counseling Program employee to provide any information to any outside source without written permission or a court order is a violation of federal law.
Finally, it should be noted, and underlined, that the program is free. There is no cost whatsoever.
As positive as Phillips is about the efficacy of the various solutions offered by the Lawyer Counseling Program, she in no way minimizes the difficulty of admitting the need for help and reaching out for the first time.
"It’s hard for any person to make that first call, and in some ways even harder for an attorney to do so. It’s one thing if you have a spouse or a friend or a colleague or a dean urging you to make that call. That takes the responsibility from you and puts it ’over there.’ But in my opinion, it takes a lot of courage to admit that you have a weakness and then decide that you’re sick and tired of feeling the way you’re feeling and you’re not going to put up with feeling hung over, or feeling depressed, or feeling anxious any longer. It’s scary to pick up the phone and make the call, but the initial call is where help begins.
"One thing I learned from my work in behavioral medicine is that people need to know how to handle illnesses. I don’t care what the illness is. If you mismanage diabetes, for example, you’re going to suffer from the mismanagement. You’re going to have more fluctuations in the highs and lows of your blood sugar, which is not good. The same principle is true with a mental illness. Alcoholism, drug addiction, bipolar disorder-these are all illnesses that need to be managed. And the only way they can be effectively managed is through education. People need to know how to handle certain situations, and what to expect. For example, if you’ve had a depression, there’s a real strong possibility you’re going to have another one. It’s important to know that, so you can be prepared for it."
A Wide Range of Problems
As to the range and severity of the problems the Lawyer Counseling Program handles, Phillips says, "We pretty much see anyone who wants to talk about a problem. Of course, if it’s a problem that requires medical intervention or long-term care, we refer it out. Since I’ve been here I’ve seen a lot of clients dealing with drug and alcohol problems, and a lot of others with depression, anxiety, and work stress-in addition to some job-fit problems."
Job-fit problems are much more common than people might think, she says. "If you get into a firm that operates very differently than you do, it can really do a number on you. It can reduce your confidence level to the point where you have a lot of anxiety. We have also seen eating disorders, bipolar illness, and things that, while they may not yet be full-blown addictions, are definitely addictions in the sense that they are compulsions that produce behavior that can land an attorney in the disciplinary system. If you’re suffering from bipolar illness-be it depression or mania or hypomania-you may not have the judgment necessary to perform your tasks without getting someone annoyed to the point where they call up the Bar Counsel and you end up being investigated."
A danger specific to lawyers, notes Phillips, is that because they are members of a profession that is supposed to have the answers for others, they can run into greater difficulty when they don’t find the answers to their own problems. As an example, she cites the difficulty of adjusting to the death of a loved one. "Major losses over time can cause a serious emotional problem. If you’ve had a series of losses, it definitely wears on you, especially if you haven’t given yourself the time to mourn them. I’ve counseled people who’ve had a series of deaths while they were in law school and just had to keep getting on, had to keep moving. I’ve had people that that’s backed up on for 20 years. They always feel odd at certain periods of time and can’t figure out why, and then we take a history and do the arithmetic, and we find there were three deaths of important people in their lives who they couldn’t mourn at the time. And what makes the problem worse is that you’re not really encouraged in law school-or in the profession-to know your feelings.
"Another thing I see that has to do with feelings is seasonal affective disorder, which has been well researched here in Washington at the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s helpful for people to understand that if they’ve been depressed for the last three autumns and are not getting over it, then they need to make some plans. They’re not just ’blue,’ they’re really depressed. It’s interesting that we don’t make value judgments about so-called real illnesses, but we do make them about mental and emotional illnesses. Again, it’s because of this misperception in this country that it’s not okay to be tied in to your feelings."
No Need to Quit
Phillips says that one of the strongest pluses of the D.C. Bar’s Lawyer Counseling Program is that the counselors and the volunteers all "like lawyers," and are all keenly aware of the profession’s special demands. "One thing we don’t have," she says with a smile, "is antilawyer prejudice. We like lawyers. We understand that long hours, deadlines, contingencies, adversarial roles, are standard practice. While these things go with being an attorney, they add to the pressure. So part of what I do is to try and help people figure out how to work out their problems the best way they can, short of leaving the profession."
Phillips says that when she encounters a client who wants to quit being a lawyer, she suggests that the individual look around the profession first. "I ask them if they’ve looked at the Bar’s sections yet, to see if there might be another area of the law they would be more interested in and happier in. I urge them to join that section, even if it’s not their normal area of the law, because they can network and see if it feels like a fit. My goal is to get people back on track and increase their feelings of self-efficacy."
Often the lawyers who go through the Lawyer Counseling Program find that they have received help in a relatively short period of time, perhaps after only a half-dozen visits, while for others the counseling may continue for months. But Phillips says that it never bothers her to have people come back. "If I have somebody with whom we worked on his or her depression, or their drinking or drug use problem, and they feel like they’re depressed again, I want them to come back and talk about it and develop a plan. It makes sense for people to come back, because we provide a useful service."
John Greenya is a frequent contributor to The Washington Lawyer.