By Don McNay
“Shooting at the walls of heartache, bang, bang, I am the warrior”
— Patty Smyth
I got the news that a friend killed himself. One of several lately. All of them middle age men. All of them trial lawyers.
Shannon Ragland, who publishes the must-read Trial Court Review, noted the rash of suicides and one of his readers posted an article from the American Bar Association Journal saying that “lawyers personalities contribute to suicide risks.”
The suicide risk is especially high for trial lawyers. All personality tests tell me why I work in a profession where I assist trial lawyers. I am a fighter for causes, and nothing gets in my way. I am intensely competitive, have a quick temper, rack up insane office hours and go through periods of extreme burnout.
In other words, I have the identical personality of a middle-aged trial lawyer.
I understand how they suffer from depression, mental illness and suicide. Many more try to cope with stress and depression through drinking, drugs or other addictions.
Trial lawyers have a unique caveat to their job. They are always making someone mad. Often times, like the Atticus Finch character in Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” they can find that their entire community has turned against them. The stress of being a trial warrior can take a constant toll on a lawyer. A toll that sometime ends in suicide.
I’m in the process of writing a long piece about Peter Perlman, one of the nation’s greatest trial attorneys. You will see the feature next month, but Perlman, a former president of the American Trial Lawyers Association, manages to stay on top of his game after 50 years of trial practice.
Pete has a solid foundation that many of my friends lack. He has been married to his college sweetheart for many years. A star athlete in college and high school, Perlman works out daily and looks 20 years younger than his age. Although no one prepares for a trial with more intensity than Pete does, he manages to find ways to keep his stress level down.
Perlman has his choice of clients. He recently told me that the most important thing to him is becoming friends with his clients and staying friends long after the case is over.
It’s easy to wind up with a client who is demanding and difficult and a constant stressor. It’s also easy to have cash flow and financial issues. Trial lawyers, like many professionals, have a hard time telling people they don’t have money. Since I help a lot of attorneys with their finances, I see the true picture. Many have high overhead with the stress of keeping a high profile on a low bankroll.
Trial lawyers have issues with depression, stress and mental illness far higher than the average population. It’s the nature of the career and the type of person who is attracted to it.
The other thing that trial lawyers don’t do well: ask for help.
Many states, such as Kentucky, have excellent programs set up to help people with substance abuse. Other attorneys have a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous in turning their lives around.
The issues that cause a person to commit suicide are not always triggered by substance abuse. Sometimes people get in the grips of depression so badly that they are unable to get help.
If you know one of them, love on them or kick them in the behind until they get professional help. I went through a rough situation several years ago where my mom and sister died and my marriage ended, all during a six-month period. I was way too “macho” to see a psychologist, but also at a point where I had stopped going to work or communicating.
My dear friend Al Smith, a 50-year veteran of AA and all other kinds of support programs, stayed on me until I saw a shrink. Slowly, I got my life back together. My psychologist and I eventually agreed that I had a handle on my issues.
I now push counseling and therapy on friends constantly. It will get easier financially in 2014 when Obamacare kicks into full gear, with an increased focus on mental health.
That is too late to help my deceased friends, but may help a batch of other friends dealing with the same issues. Also, we should all keep our eyes open for people who are struggling. Even if they are big-time trial lawyers.
The mightiest of warriors can get wounded too. On the inside where no one can see.
Those wounds need to be addressed before it gets too late.
Don McNay is a mediation and settlement consultant based in Richmond and New Orleans. www.donmcnay.com.