Monday, April 14, 2014

How can attorneys help each other in times like these

A story out of Pennsylvania last week reminded me of a couple of situations we have seen in Florida in recent years. The Pennsylvania story (published on workcompcentral.com, which is available only to subscribers) describes a 58 year old attorney who was recently suspended by the bar for 18 months. His offenses were essentially failing to follow a judge's order to submit medical records, failing to respond to defense motions in another case, and failing to file suit in yet a third. 

Experience suggests to us that a lawyer does not reach 58 years old, still practicing, if such behavior is the regular course. I wonder whether three such instances coinciding in complaints, leading to suspension, suggest that something may have changed recently for that attorney. I have mentioned before, this is a stressful profession. According to the Wall Street Journal, at least attorneys and doctors are not currently in the 10 most stressful professions, but are also not in the 10 least stressful. Still, most would concede that these are stressful occupations. 

Attorneys often hold the future of their clients in their hands. They are expected to remain calm and focused when the unexpected strikes; that witnesses testimony changes unexpectedly, or that witness fails to show up for trial, or the medical record most critical to your case is not among those filed for trial and you cannot explain how. Too many deadlines, too many questions, so much to control and so much to predict. Then after trial, explaining to the client what happened, how it did or did not work to the client's advantage, how the outcome coincides or differs with those predictions provided beforehand. This is a difficult occupation. 

Stress seems to be on the rise. There is an attorney who told me that work hours have increased. Now the attorney is working seven days a week. No time to recharge. There is an attorney who told me that sleep is elusive, with cases, bills, and other challenges nagging at the mind. There is an attorney who can't make the rent, the mortgage, the payroll. There are those who are dealing with illness, family issues, declining work volume, and the uncertainty of new practice areas, explored as their workers' compensation practice fails to support them as it once did. 

The stress pushes attorneys to find solutions. That is a large part of what lawyers do, they find answers to problems. However, when those problems are too close to home, perhaps they cannot see as clearly as they do when they are working on the problems of others. Deadlines can be missed, people can turn to substances, stress can affect the mind, and medical issues can arise. I am certain that this does not address it all. I am as certain that lawyers are unlikely to reach out for help; there is this fear of appearing weak or vulnerable. 

Periodically, I like to use this forum to remind attorneys that there is an anonymous source of help. The Florida Lawyers' Assistance  (FLA) is an organization that has been around for almost 30 years. They hold that "substance abuse, compulsive behavior, and psychological problems are treatable illnesses rather than moral issues." They have resources to assist attorneys, before something happens to result in suspension or disbarment. 

Sometimes  it can be positive just to talk to someone about where you are, what is stressing you, how you are dealing with it, how you plan to get out from under it. The FLA does not report people to The Florida Bar. The FLA helps people deal with their challenges, directly or by referring them to outside resources. I know some fine attorneys whose lives have been changed by FLA. 

The FLA "believes it is the responsibility of the legal community to help our colleagues who may not recognize their need for assistance." In short, there are people around us who need help. They may not yet understand that they do. They may be in denial, they may just be too stressed to look around themselves for long term solutions as they frantically fight the fires that present each day. 

I hope that by spreading the word about this organization, I remind us all that help is out there. By the same token, I hope I remind you that none of us knows what others are going through. Recently, on another blog, I published the results of Mr. Timothy Dunbrack's project to answer the question "If I Knew then What I Know Now.One answer to that question is relevant here: "I would have acknowledged that despite their bravado and public persona, everyone is under tremendous pressures personally and professionally. I would have had a kind word more often, been more accommodating, been quicker to forgive and slower to anger."

Sound advice. Recognize that stress, fear, or anxiety may be driving behavior that irritates you. Know that people around you may be having issues or challenges which you neither see nor appreciate. Understand that some of them may need a hand in either recognizing or dealing with their situation. Know that there is value in being available to your fellow practitioners, to listen or perhaps to remind them that the FLA is there to help them with either symptoms or the challenges themselves. 

In publishing the 2014 OJCC/Section judicial survey, I noticed that there are about 1,000 attorneys in the workers' compensation section. There are more than that registered as users with e-JCC, but even so Florida workers' compensation is a small legal community. You disagree on much, you advocate zealously, you miss deadlines, you miss issues, you all face challenges. Everyone does.

When you lend a fellow practitioner an ear or a hand, you make our community better. I appreciate you all and hope you will appreciate and assist each other before stress and other challenges ruin a career or worse a life. 

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