April 2, 2024 • By Dennis Beaver

“I run a small agricultural services business in the South and our lawyer — Emma — wears several hats. She handles not only business matters, but family law and is occasionally appointed to handle criminal defense cases. Emma has no other attorneys in her firm — she is it. Recently, we’ve noticed that she seems sad, down, angry all the time and has become difficult to reach. We are worried about her and the possible impact on us. Have you got any suggestions on something that we can say to her? Thanks, ‘Theo.’”

I ran Theo’s question by New York psychotherapist Dr. Elizabeth Eckhardt, director of the Nassau County Bar Association’s Lawyer Assistance Program, which provides confidential services to lawyers, judges, law students and their families struggling with mental health and substance use issues. She is also a lecturer for LearnFormula, a provider of continuing education courses for lawyers across America.

Clients don’t realize how much stress is on their lawyer

“Clients are often unaware of the tremendous stress their lawyer is likely under,” Eckhardt says, adding, “The legal profession has one of the highest rates of divorce, substance abuse, depression and suicide of any occupation. This is not a job for the faint-hearted, and the glamorous image of lawyers on television or in the movies is pure fiction. Lawyers who suffer the most — and are hard to reach — are in small and solo practices, as your reader describes Emma — and are not inclined to seek help, in part because they are overwhelmed and are very much alone.”

Why lawyers are at risk

“Lawyers have type A personalities and often reveal a maladaptive perfectionism. I would suggest anyone considering a career in law to read (the commentary) Big Law Killed My Husband: An Open Letter from a Sidley Partner’s Widow.”

Eckhardt points out that it is not a unique story. “Often, attorneys do not seek help even though they are suffering from having taken on or been assigned too much and refuse to say, ‘No! I can’t take on any more.’ There is a reluctance to ask for help, as they are the ones that people go to for help and not necessarily those who need the help themselves.”

And then there’s vicarious trauma

The anecdote of lawyers resorting to a high-octane liquid lunch, seeking relief from feeling like a client’s well-being is in their hands — especially in divorce, immigration and criminal matters — is real.

In law school, students are rarely asked how long they could stand working in a public defender’s office, where they are often told to confuse a jury in any way possible with a clearly guilty defendant. They’re not asked how it might affect them if they must try to defend drunk drivers or work for insurance defense firms that seek to deny the payments of justifiable claims. In short, some lawyers have to lie for a living while being well paid, wearing “golden handcuffs” and not being financially able to leave their jobs.

“The frequent result is vicarious trauma,” Eckhardt notes, “that, over time, becomes cumulative, leading to apathy at work that compromises their ability to practice effectively and can result in isolation from friends and family. All of this often culminates in severe emotional problems.”

What are the signs of trouble, and what can clients do?

Eckhardt outlines steps a client should take when concerned about their lawyer’s behavior, especially when the lawyer is not responding to calls or emails, and when to consider changing attorneys.

Be assertive.

Keep a detailed record, a paper trail, of your attempts to reach your lawyer and the different people you’ve spoken to. This shows your due diligence.

Contact your local or state bar association.

If you are getting nowhere by asking for help from others in the same law firm, then reach out to your local bar association or state bar. Someone from the bar will contact your lawyer, and this might be the only nudge you need to get things moving.

Patience is not a virtue if you are being ignored. If you:

Have attempted several times to reach your lawyer without success
Have expressed your concerns to others in the same firm with no results
Are feeling that your needs are not being met
Have been told that the original timeline is nowhere near being respected without good cause
Then, assuming you are current with your payments, indicate that you are considering seeking other counsel.

Do not be silent

Eckhardt concluded our interview on an upbeat, positive note: “In a very real way, clients who speak up, who are assertive and raise these issues, can do so much good, for themselves and their attorney — or former attorney. All states and territories have lawyer assistance programs that are lifelines for lawyers in trouble, and their clients.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, call or text 988 (in the U.S.) to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Or use the Lifeline Chat. Services are free and confidential.

Dennis Beaver Practices law in Bakersfield and welcomes comments and questions from readers,
which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993,
or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1 – at – Gmail.com.