Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Your Contribution To Lawyer Suicides

I was surprised that an article about why so many lawyers are killing themselves generated an actual real-live thoughtful discussion. While I'm sure in the annals of the internet there are a fair share of comments of "who cares," and curiosity of how we get more lawyers to put a bullet in their heads, the discussion I've seen has been relevant and thought-provoking.

But it doesn't go far enough.

Long-time New York Criminal Defense Lawyer Scott Greenfield, who practices in an area, geographical and legal, that can stress out the best of them, gives his two reasons for the problems of today's lawyer::

From my perch, two things seem to permeate the problems suffered by lawyers: First, good, hard-working lawyers are not earning enough to enjoy a sufficiently comfortable lifestyle for themselves and their family to justify surmounting the barriers to entry and the headache of the job. Second, the arbitrariness of the law. Non-lawyers think the law is somewhat reliable, and if a lawyer does good work, they will prevail. We know better, and it makes us nuts.

Money, and the uncertainty of the law.

OK, I'll put those on the list.

Greenfield also mentions a couple others that have weighed in on the guessing festival of why a lawyer may not want to wake up tomorrow:

At Stephanie West Allan’s Idealawg, Colorado Senior District Court Judge John Kane attributed it to the pressure of gaining and keeping “success”:
As for lawyer suicides — and I’m not trying to be flippant— I think they are billing themselves to death. The constant pressure to generate income by billing on an hourly basis is far more stressful for a trial lawyer than trials. In fact, less than 1% of cases now go to trial. The courts have become settlement bazaars.
Pressure to bill (i.e., make money) is more stressful than practicing law. OK, money again.

The other mention by Greenfield goes to Dave Shearon at Positive Psychology News Daily who says it's due to four things:

1. Lawyers deal with the toughest conflicts

2. Lawyers must deal far more regularly with zero-sum situations than other professionals, and zero-sum conflicts elicit negative emotions. 

3. The adversarial skills in which attorneys are trained are “negative” communications.

4. Lawyers are required to perform “necessary evils” — the exercise of professional skill to inflict physical or emotional pain on another in service to a higher good — more regularly than almost all other professions, and to do so with a skilled advocate on the other side arguing against the necessity, the manner, or both. 

So lawyering is hard, we have to do things to hurt people, and that type of behavior permeates our lives, and we've become way too obsessed with money.

No doubt these are factors in why lawyers may be killing themselves.

Of course we cannot discard the darker issues - depression is not a state of mind - it is a disease, one that is often undiagnosed, and can creep up and literally kill someone. There's alcoholism and drug addiction, both caused by some of the issues mentioned above, and there are lawyers facing the power of the government, whether criminal prosecution or otherwise, who believe they and their families are better off with them gone.

The reasons lawyers kill themselves are the same reasons others kill themselves - the belief, true or not, that waking up tomorrow is a bad idea.

But the issues mentioned above are somewhat unique to the legal profession, especially today.

There's no longer 10 lawyers in the community who do what we do, charge about the same, and all know each other. Now there's thousands. Some existing mainly on the internet, with offers of "free" this and "guaranteed" that, and charging less money for an entire case than some charge for a couple hours.

There's technology, that wonderful and horrible thing that is making our practices easier and more difficult at the same time.

And there's us. The lawyers, judges, judicial assistants, clerks, everyone that works in the system. There's also the clients.

One thing I've heard over the last few days since this important article appeared on CNN was talk about what "bar associations" were going to do."

Bar Associations?

Let me guess.

There's going to be committees, seminars, discussions, mentor programs, all the same stuff that Bar Associations do (and often do well) all the time, in an effort to discover the issues and possibly help some lawyers.

Great. Go forth and work, bar associations.

But in the interim, before the big seminar, before the local Bar Association president writes an article about the issue, before whatever we in the system are waiting for to happen, happens, what are we going to do?

What are you, going to do?

I have some thoughts.

Why don't we stop using technology for the purpose of being an asshole?

Stop emailing lawyers at 6:30 p.m. to demand things by tomorrow. Actually, let's just talk a little more than email (I know, the horrors). Maybe if you called a lawyer about a discovery issue you could resolve it, or at least learn that your proposed email demanding compliance from opposing counsel "immediately" was going to take a back seat to his wife's medical appointment?

I know and you know too, that every lawyer has their phone, with email, with them at all times. This includes vacations, days off, at their kid's recital, and Sunday mornings at 7 a.m. Let's pretend that's not the case. Let's pretend that it doesn't matter if we give someone 24 hours to respond. Let's stop emailing, and at the same time, texting, calling, stalking, lawyers to let them know that we just became the most important thing in their lives. Back the hell off. Work on another case.

How about every time you do anything, think of course of your client first, but add a couple thoughts:

    a. Am I doing something to be an asshole?
    b. Do I need to do a?

Judges, I know your calendar is important, but so is my family. Some of you understand that, some of you even talk about that. I remember a judge once telling me he was tired of lawyers lying about why they wanted continuances. He said "just tell me it's your kid's soccer game, just tell me it's a family thing, I'll grant it."

Lawyers wont do that though. They are embarrassed, thinking that putting family events (other than the buzz words of a "pre-paid non refundable oh-God-Judge-please-let-me-go vacation) before a trial is seen as weakness. So lawyers adjust their litigation lives to comport with appearing "tough" in practice. These are the "I don't go on vacation," lawyers. It's not that they don't want to go, but they just won't prioritize their lives in a way that has them filing motions to do silly things like be with their kids.

And so by now I'm hearing a judge say "so Brian, lawyers are committing suicide because I routinely deny motions for continuances based on vacations?" Or a lawyer is saying "the result of me being a hard ass is suicide?"


Probably not. Hopefully, not.

But what I am saying is that if the legal profession is part of the problem (the article is not titled "why are people killing themselves") and we are part of the legal profession, why is it OK to do nothing?

The "gee, that's terrible" line is enough for you? You can't do anything?

There is nothing any of us can do to stop being a part of the problem except wait for our local bar association to offer a free sandwich and a lecture? Is it that the law is "tough," so "too bad?" Is giving a lawyer a break such a problem?

Judge, next time you add a taped piece of paper to your door with a policy, how about "motions for continuance for vacations and stuff with your kids will be granted." Oh, the fear of abuse. I know. Give lawyers an inch.... C'mon Your Honor, you can regulate this. Lawyers know they have to miss a thing or two at home in the world of law.

On that note, next time there's one of those meetings to change the "local" or procedural rules, maybe take a vote on whether "this proposal makes it easier or more difficult to practice law?"

I don't have the answers. I also don't have any concept of not wanting to wake up tomorrow. I do know that I do, and will continue to do my part to not be a part of the problem.

There's a reason that civility codes are appearing throughout the country. Our behavior is tied to the pressure to make money, and that pressure is sometimes too much.

Maybe we all, all, need to take a step back.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint. Share/Save/Bookmark


David T said...

I used to personalize my clients and what happened in their cases..if the results were good and the client was happy then so was i..if not then i was a failure, bad lawyer person, etc.....i am no longer tied to the outcome..i get to accept the clients for who they are and no longer filter everything that happens in the courtroom or practice through "David"...

Anonymous said...

It is a really cruddy way to make a living. Clients are unappreciative and miserable about paying, vendors gouge us badly, judges are petty tyrants indifferent to the balance of our personal and professional needs, and the associations are far less than helpful.

If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have gone into this at all - there's no actual reward. Every so often enough revenue comes in to get you caught back up some, and maybe a little extra, but by and large, this profession is thankless.

Unfortunately, by the time lawyers are my age, they're past the time to go into some more pleasant, meaningful, socially useful careers (used car sales and purveyor of payday loans come to mind).

Randon Loeb said...


You hit the nail on the head--too many lawyers and judges have abandoned the golden rule: do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

The notion that the courtesy of lawyers and judges to each other ought to be self-policing is appealing. But given the sheer magnitude of our numbers nowadays, it is exceedingly difficult for our reputations for being courteous or cruel to spread far enough within the community to be effective (although perhaps more so in civil practice than criminal).

I have a radical proposal: create a database accessible to judges and members of the bar where we rate each other on "courtesy" (leaving the definition of that term open-ended) from 1 to 5 stars. Make it a requirement that at the resolution of a case (perhaps after a 2 week 'cooling off' period), counsels of record must rate each other.

Then, every pleading signed by that attorney must accurately include their peer 'courtesy rating' for the judge to see.

Perhaps the rating algorithm could be tweaked, but the general idea is to force our reputations to follow us into every hearing. I believe it would steer many attorneys towards more courteous behavior that would set off a chain-reaction of improved quality of life for lawyers.

Put simply, let's rig the game so the nice guys stop finishing last.