The late army General Norman Schwarzkopf said: “True courage is being afraid, and going ahead and doing your job anyhow, that's what courage is.” Schwarzkopf was commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command, and his job may have been a bit more stressful than practicing law in Montgomery County, but our response to the stresses of practice comes from the same primitive place in our brains that drives the soldier in combat. It takes courage to be a lawyer, whether you’re defending someone whose life or liberty is at stake, arguing a case to a judge or jury, negotiating a complicated transaction, or counseling on the potential consequences of any client’s next move. Whether we counsel action or inaction, each represents a choice. And sometimes it’s not what we or our client does, but the way it is done that matters. To the client, the stakes are always high. We accept a heavy responsibility when individuals, companies and institutions look to us for sage advice and zealous, skillful advocacy.
Most of us like to be challenged, and few of us are so self-assured that we experience no anxiety when facing a new or difficult challenge. Being afraid—wondering whether we are up to the particular challenge we are about to undertake—can be healthy. The anxiety can create positive energy, fueling careful preparation and well-considered strategy. We can do our best and most satisfying work when we approach a project uncertain of the outcome, energized by the prospect of testing our intellect and skills to achieve a goal in the face of a real risk of failure. A successful result can be that much sweeter when obtained by overcoming serious hurdles.
But clearing those hurdles can exact a high price, and sometimes too many new and difficult challenges arise at once, or we face serious and competing challenges. Family and personal issues may pull at us just as we need to focus attention on challenges of practice. We juggle faster, but cannot keep up. What was once healthy anxiety can become overwhelming, leaving us unable to do our best work—or even meet basic obligations in the way our profession and clients expect or we expect of ourselves. We are alone unless we have support systems in place. If not, we create them.
Earlier this year, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (Co-LAP) working with the renowned Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published a new study of substance abuse, depression and anxiety within the legal profession—the most comprehensive study ever. It revealed that far too many attorneys turn to alcohol and drugs to create that support system—that we have significantly higher rates of problematic drinking and all behavioral health problems than the general population. That even translates into higher suicide rates. And less experienced lawyers were found to have higher levels of distress symptoms than their older, more experienced peers. The study confirmed something that is no surprise: we don’t seek help, because we fear someone will find out and it will discredit us if not affect our licenses.
Even as our society makes slow progress moving away from valuing self-reliance, personal strength and stoicism in the face of adversity while stigmatizing those who seek help, it still pressures professionals—those accustomed to giving rather than receiving help—to turn away from colleagues, friends and even family in times of emotional need. Yet relying on our connections to others for support is almost always the better strategy. Recently at the National Conference of Bar Presidents’ Annual Meeting (part of the ABA Annual Meeting), I attended a presentation on the Co-LAP/Hazelden study and its value for Lawyer Assistance Programs. I met and compared notes with other local and metropolitan bar leaders from across the country. The session featured a panel of experts on the growing problem of substance abuse and urgent need for committees like our Lawyer Assistance Committee to work with our New Practitioner and other committees to address members’ unmet needs at an earlier time. Like those across the country, our Lawyer Assistance Committee faces an uphill battle to engage members at risk in a way that offers confidential help when it can be most effective—before drugs or alcohol used to address anxiety, depression and a host of other behavioral issues ripen into a substance abuse problem that eclipses those original issues. Lawyer Assistance Committee Chairs Karen Alegi and Bill Hewitt welcome your thoughts and ideas on addressing these serious issues.
It’s still early in the fall, but before we know it the Holidays will be upon us. This wonderful, exhilarating time of year can be the most challenging for those grappling with family and financial pressures, as well as behavioral health issues. Each of us should be sensitive to the signals our colleagues may be sending about the way they may be struggling with these issues. Each of us should ask ourselves whether we have a reason and the courage to ask for help. Contact information for Karen Alegi and Bill Hewitt appears in the front of this Newsletter.