The legal profession ranks among the highest professionals with significantly depressed members. In an October 2011 article written for De Novo, I explored the reasons attorneys are more likely depressed, and potentially suicidal, than their white-collar peers. In that same article, I also argued that attorneys who suffer from mental health disorders, such as chronic depression, should be ethically required to seek psychiatric treatment.
Many of our Rules of Professional Conduct make the assumption that an attorney is mentally fit for practice. (RPC 1.1, 1.3, and 1.16, for example.) Yet attorneys who are chronically and severely depressed often violate these ethical duties because they can lack the emotional vigor and mental acuity needed to render the prompt, thorough, and effective representation that is expected.
The legal profession at-large does not, but should, take responsibility for its disheartened membership. Indeed, during disciplinary proceedings, an attorney’s dysfunctional mental health is regularly treated as an excuse for an ethical violation that mitigates punishment. Our profession would be better off however, adopting a proactive, forward-looking solution that requires attorneys with questionable mental stability to seek medical help before an ethical violation becomes imminent. Or much worse, before the attorney seriously considers suicide.
Now, as the Pacific Northwest draws its blackout curtains, and with Vitamin D levels plummeting, it is important to remember that being a great attorney means staying mentally and emotionally fit. If you are, or someone you know is suffering from depression, help is available: the WSBA’s Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) employs staff therapists who can meet with you personally or by phone. (But the LAP program is not an emergency resource. Members experiencing thoughts of imminent self-harm should utilize emergency resources, such as the Crisis Clinic, 911, or emergency care systems.) More information is available on the LAP mental health and addiction resources page.
The Washington Young Lawyers Committee (WYLC) is the vehicle for new attorneys and law students to get involved with the Washington State Bar Association.
2 thoughts on “An Ethical Case of the Blaws”
I do not think it is the WSBA’s responsibility to ensure those licensed attorneys who need mental health treatment seek or receive it. Rather, I think there is currently a stigma within the legal profession that seeking mental health treatment is not okay or that doing so demotes the receiving member within the profession’s hierarchy. In fact, it is the opposite: those practicing attorneys who do not receive health treatment when needed are more likely to make ethical mistakes.
Given that, it is incumbent upon the profession – through the actions of its individual members – to take steps toward relieving the stigma that currently discourages attorneys from seeking mental health treatment when needed. I can imagine, for example, requiring that law firms conduct annual lunch meetings to discuss the risks of mental health issues and how attorneys can obtain help. Or, by way of further example, firms could provide access to a free mental health counselor to its attorneys.
Tom Buchmeier, WSBA 5557
Following your reasoning any lawyer who is not having a perfect life would have the same obligation. We are all subject to the twists and turns of the adventure called life. We experience illness, divorce, death, financial misfortune, being overburdened (or underburdened), the list is endless but not necessarily worthy of the involvement of the WSBA. As professionals we are charged with being responsible adults who can manage our personal issues and professional obligations in an appropriate manner. The WSBA is a licensing/regulatory agency it is not and should not be your Mother.
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