I am departing from snarky analysis today to address a subject of great importance to our profession: mental health. The trigger for this piece is the death of former Baker Mckenzie chair Paul Rawlinson, who just died during a leave taken for exhaustion. Words of memory can be found right now on Baker’s site, but they may move so I will quote them here: “It is with great sadness that we mark the unexpected passing of Paul Rawlinson, the Firm’s Global Chair, on Friday, April 12, 2019. The Firm’s thoughts are with Paul’s family, who we will continue to support during this most difficult of times. Our thoughts also go out to the very many friends at Baker McKenzie and outside the Firm who worked with and admired Paul. For all of us Paul was a visionary, a true leader and a good friend. He will be greatly missed.”
Dean Prosser wrote, slightly more than seventy years ago, that:
Your lawyer in practice spends a considerable part of his life doing distasteful things for disagreeable people who must be satisfied, against an impossible time limit and with hourly interruptions, from other disagreeable people who want to derail the train; and for his blood, sweat, and tears he receives in the end a few unkind words to the effect that it might have been done better, and a protest at the size of his fee. There is no lawyer who has not at some time in his life rebelled inwardly against all this, and wished that God had assigned him to the peaceful existence of a digger of ditches or a master plumber.
Prosser, 1 J. LEGAL EDUC. 257 (1948), Lighthouse No Good. (accessible at https://www.stetson.edu/law/lawreview/media/lighthouse-no-good-reprint.pdf)
Those words were true well before then; those words are true now; those words will be true later. Our profession wears away at the best of us and present greater dangers for those of us, me included, who come to the table with imperfect mental health. Sports metaphors, though sometimes hackneyed, are useful — football beats down on the human body, and they running back with the genetically bum knee is going to get hurt faster and has to know his limits.
I won’t repeat the easy to find and all too amplified numbers on lawyer suicide. Those numbers are the sizzle but detract attention from the real issue — mental health. For every fatal suicide (please, let us cease using the phrase “successful suicide,” a writing sin of which I have been guilty), there are 25 survived attempts. And for every one of those survived attempts, there are (depending on your source for information) a couple of hundred people with more than fleeting mental health issues.
Attorney mental health is both a professionalism issue and an ethical issue. As colleagues, as fellow bar members, as people going through the same thing, we owe each other a duty to look for signs. Sure, there are general lists that are out there about watching out for signs of “feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, depressed mood, poor self-esteem or guilt” but, do any of us really know how to see those feelings in others? We must also consider that in our profession we have become quite adept at wearing various masks, that make any sort of feelings nearly impossible to detect from the outside.
There are, however, types of behaviors that we can see in others. One list identifies behaviors like unreturned phone calls, unavailability, disappearance, changes in writing style, frequent extension requests and the like as signals for which to watch. Certainly paying attention to negative professional outcomes and sudden economic pressures is worth doing. If you see these behaviors in others, reaching out is not only the professional thing to do, it’s the “right” thing to do. If reaching out directly is not something comfortable, you can talk with mutual friends, or you can make confidential reports to your bar’s lawyer assistance program and have professionals reach out.
Beyond the professional issue is the ethical issue. I’ll spare the case cites, but if you go into your state’s lawyer discipline opinions and search for words/phrases “depression,” “bipolar,” and “mental health,” you will conclude that a statistically significant number of discipline cases involve attorneys with mental health issues. Put simply, lawyers with unaddressed mental health issues present a danger to clients. If you work with such an individual, take a look at the above factors to consider, and then look into whether you have an affirmative ethical duty to intervene. (That’s too complicated an issue to address here.)
If you are that individual, it is up to you. Monitoring your own mental health takes a level of self-awareness that — if you have a mental health issue — is likely not there. Absent that self-awareness, all you can do is observe how others are treating you. If there are changes for the worse — fewer invitations to lunch, a greater number of refused invitations, being passed over for things by others — then it is likely those changes are based on you, not others. If you cannot determine those changes yourself — or even if you can — seek help from friends, from therapists, from clergy, from your bar’s lawyer assistance program, etc.
A few paragraphs ago, I underlined the word “unaddressed” with respect to mental health issues and the danger they present to clients. An addressed mental health issue – and addressed here means therapy and perhaps medication – creates self awareness and stability. Here, a medical analogy is instructive — an undiagnosed untreated asthmatic is playing with fire; a diagnosed and treated asthmatic avoids the dusty and dank spaces, and carries the emergency inhaler just in case.
Sadly, lawyers do not want to admit to mental health issues because of the stigma, or at least the perceived stigma. Take another look at those discipline cases alluded to above, and you will find — as I have — numerous examples of attorneys with what are obvious mental health issues, who would rather get disbarred than admit to the issue. Turning to pop culture, there are an enumerable amount of charming recovering alcoholic characters on screen and film (think: Sam Malone), but those with mental health issues get to see the Castor Sotto character (Episodes) fall off the edge after going of medication.
I don’t know Paul Rawlinson; I don’t know what “exhaustion” means; I don’t know whether he had mental health issues. I do know from context that he worked inside the hottest part of the crucible — running a major international firm — and then took a break, and then died. That’s a signal to all of us to focus inside our heads, and inside the heads of others.
I can of course go on and on about this, and if you’d like me to, you know how to find me.