Helping profession should do just that for troubled members

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Published on 6/22/09

The story was tragic and provoked wide comment among lawyers and bloggers on the Internet. A 59-year-old lawyer who, in his career, had been a senior Justice Department official, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and, more recently, headed the appellate law practice at his law firm, was found dead in his office of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The lawyer was scheduled to be let go from the firm, and his death came on his last day at work.

Psychological testing has shown that lawyers as a group have little or no resiliency, defined as "the ability to bounce back from criticism or rejection." Despite their outward confidence, they are too often sidetracked into doubt and defensiveness. Lawyers, Type AAA personalities, are their own harshest critics during adversity. They are trained to win, to be at the "top of the heap," to succeed. That thinking leads far too many to tragic paths - substance abuse and even suicide.

Lawyers must find balance when taking personal responsibility. Often, the source of stress for lawyers is a sense that their practices are spinning out of control. Fear freezes them and keeps them from taking the necessary actions and decisions until there seems to be no way out.

Lawyers facing such an impasse should pause and literally take a deep breath. For anyone feeling stressed out, the ultimate problem is fear of the unknown. If lawyers find themselves stressed by their practices, they should do some brainstorming about just where they actually stand.

They can start by listing all the types of matters they help clients with. Then they can sort them by what they enjoy doing most or which has the best clients to work with or which offers the steadiest work.

They should look at how much money coming in currently compared to six months ago or a year ago. They should make a list of which clients they can reasonably expect to pay their bills in the next eight weeks.

They need not worry about where they will end up with this process. By thinking through what they do piece by piece, they will be less overwhelmed by, and fearful about, the totality of it.

To this point, the analysis depends on the individual. However, isolation and lack of camaraderie with other attorneys can inhibit taking the right steps. By nature, humans are gregarious and need to be connected with others. An outside perspective can be a critical ingredient in handling stress and making decisions that are not based on fear.

I've now extended my own coaching practice to, an online destination for lawyers, sole practitioners, partners, managing partners, of counsel lawyers and in-house counsel. It will promote discussion about issues that enable lawyers to improve their personal and professional lives.

As lawyers, our real job is to help others and make their lives better. This helping, caring nature of the legal community sometimes is forgotten amid the psychological, social and economic pressures facing lawyers, and I created this forum so that we can care for each other, both professionally and personally.

I deeply believe that no person is an island. Now, more than ever, it is essential for lawyers to validate that belief for each other.

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