This is the time of year when many pause to reflect upon the accomplishments of the past year and the hopes and desires for the coming year. As part of this process I would invite you to ask additional questions. Questions like these. Are you generally happy as an attorney? Do your professional accomplishments provide you with feelings of pride and personal satisfaction? Is there a sense of purpose present in your professional life? While negative answers to such questions may be an indicator of an increased risk to a malpractice claim or disciplinary matter, they are worth exploring for a more important reason.
Note that this short list of questions does not ask about stress. The reason is that for many attorneys stress simply comes with the territory. In fact, some time ago I was visiting with an attorney who had reached a point in his career where he could choose to significantly reduce his caseload and he had recently made the decision to do so. He shared that it was only then that he was able to finally recognize that he had been under tremendous stress for years trying to get everything done. He suspected that he simply failed to realize it at the time because he so thoroughly enjoyed all that he was doing as an attorney. Stories like this suggest that the presence of stress alone is not necessarily a good indicator of possible trouble down the road. It seems to me that a better indicator would perhaps be in how any one individual responds to the stresses in their professional or personal life.
If not about stress, then what are the above questions actually trying to get at? They are more about depression which is how some respond to the stresses that life can bring. I will not bore you with all the statistics and data that are supposed to tell us all just how serious the issue of depression is in our profession. I suspect most of you have had this data presented to you time and again anyway. I will also admit that it can be difficult to directly link depression to any specific misstep that might ultimately result in a claim or complaint; but I would have you consider the following. Depression often leads to things like fatigue, feeling worthless or helpless, excessive irritability, or even overwhelming feelings of grief and sadness. In some, depression can also lead to impaired concentration, indecisiveness, a loss of interest and pleasure in activities formally enjoyed (such as practicing law or participating in a favorite hobby or pastime), insomnia, and even poor judgment.
Although this list does not include all the symptoms a depressed individual may display, it does begin to suggest how missteps might occur, missteps that could easily result in a problem. Why do you think some attorneys end up ignoring client matters, forget to file a document, or on occasion simply walk out of the office one afternoon never to return? Truthfully, I have seen the walking out never to return response happen several times over the years. Those lawyers just got to the point where they were done and literally couldn’t make another decision. The irony here is that this kind of damaging fallout from depression doesn’t have to happen because treatment for depression is highly effective. Unfortunately, many who struggle with depressive disorders make a decision to never pursue treatment or they are never accurately diagnosed and fail to receive proper treatment.
Given this, there is value in being aware of what can cause depression and in learning how to recognize it. Beyond stressful events such as a divorce or the death of a loved one, one’s genetics can play a role as can general medical illness. The use of certain medications and drug or alcohol abuse can also bring about depression. There are a number of warning signs. Depressed individuals often become isolated, sarcastic, or withdrawn. There may be sudden changes in behavior such as absenteeism, loss of interest in family and friends, an increased need for sleep, the onset of insomnia, and/or self-destructive behavior. Changes in appearance are also common. There may be a significant change in weight or a loss of interest in personal appearance. When quite severe, depression can also lead to suicidal thoughts. As a brief aside, should someone ever express a suicidal thought, always take it seriously and seek help immediately. This would be especially true if the person has expressed a specific plan or begun to give away possessions.
Depression should never be left untreated; but beyond seeking professional care there are many things that an individual can do to help relieve their own depression. The list would include regular exercise, eating a varied and healthy diet, avoiding alcohol, learning to take breaks and relax, getting plenty of quality rest, practicing time management skills, reaching out to friends and family, and building a support network of persons with whom thoughts and concerns can be shared.
When trying to help someone who is depressed, be direct and show that you are genuinely concerned. Listen attentively and be careful to never dismiss their feelings by saying something like “you’ll feel better tomorrow.” They’re not going to. Most importantly, do not try to handle the problem yourself. Contact a doctor, a crisis hot-line, a member of the clergy, a social worker, or a psychologist. The goal is to help the individual obtain whatever professional help they might need so that they can start the recovery process.
Depression really is a serious illness that can wreak havoc on an attorney’s personal and professional life, particularly if left untreated. If you are depressed or know of a colleague who is, don’t ignore the problem and hope that it will go away. Usually it doesn’t and if left untreated the illness can quickly deteriorate, especially if something like a malpractice claim or other crisis arises in the interim. Prioritize taking care of yourself and try to watch out for your colleagues. Work to maintain a healthy balance between your personal and professional life in order to stay sharp and support your colleagues as they try to do the same. In the end life is just too short not to find joy and satisfaction from your professional life. Hopefully you not only agree, but will have the courage to do something about it if the joy and satisfaction is less than what it should be.
Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. is Risk Manager for ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Company (ALPS) and a regular contributor to the ALPS 411 law blog. In his tenure with the company, he has conducted over 1,000 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management and technology. Mark received his J.D. from Drake University Law School and his undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College. Mark can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.