Making Yourself A Priority Is Not Selfish; It’s a Necessity: Strategies To Deal With COVID-19

By Brandon Vogel

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If three attorneys are on a Zoom call, one of them will have a substance abuse and/or mental health issue.

The legal profession stands out among all the professions in the areas of substance abuse and mental illness. About 20% of lawyers have substance abuse problems, which is twice the rate of  the general population. In addition, another 15% to 20% of lawyers suffer from a mental health issue.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that three times as many people with professional/graduate degrees are admitting to having adverse mental health conditions in 2020 compared to 2019.

These were among several eye-opening facts revealed on the recent CLE webinar, “Ethics, Impairment And COVID-19: The Toll On The Legal Profession & Strategies For Getting Help,” as well as tips and strategies for wellness.

No reason to suffer
Buffalo attorney Carla E. Cottrell (Children’s Legal Center), has seen her share of attorneys with impairment issues through the Erie County Lawyers Helping Lawyers Committee.

When a  colleague overdosed the day of his youngest child’s birthday, leaving behind a wife, two children and a mortgage, Cottrell found a new purpose. “On that day, I decided that I would do everything that I could to help attorneys suffering from mental health or other substance abuse issues,” she said.

Cottrell said she sought help for a fear of bridges after her children moved to Pittsburgh, “the city of bridges.” She knew she had to take action due to recurring nightmares. Her therapist asked if she had any trauma. She didn’t think she had any, but when asked about her job, she replied that she was a lawyer in family court. The therapist laughed and said, “Vicarious trauma. Look it up!”

Also known as secondary trauma or compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma occurs over time when an individual is exposed indirectly to the suffering of others for whom they feel responsible. It particularly affects family lawyers and criminal lawyers among practice areas.

“if your job involves listening to people’s pain and trying to help them, you’ve got vicarious trauma and it can pop up in strange ways such as phobias,” said Cottrell. “You are not immune to it.”

What happens if you ignore your mental health or find yourself drinking earlier and earlier each day? Cottrell said you end up in the world of attorney grievance.

She recalled that speaking before a CLE as part of Lawyers Helping Lawyers she said that 90 percent of attorney grievances have a substance abuse or untreated mental illness at their root.

Seated next to her was the head of the Attorney Grievance Committee who corrected her,” Make that 99 percent!”

One place you don’t want to be is under oath giving testimony to lawyers on an attorney grievance, said Cottrell. “It is up to you to take care of your mental hygiene. It is up to you help your colleagues who may be suffering from a mental health issue.”

Substance abuse and mental health disorders are treatable. “There is no reason why you or any of your colleagues or your law clerks or your law students or your judges needs to suffer.”

“It’s no secret that COVID has increased isolation among lawyers and lawyers love to talk. It’s our best quality,” said Cottrell.

One other downside of COVID-19 is that “in many cases, there are no eyes on attorneys,” particularly solo and small-firm lawyers are working remotely. “It is a lot easier to not miss court when you are home. It is a lot easier to hide day drinking when you are home. It is a lot easier to hide that smell of alcohol that your colleagues could smell on the elevator. It is a lot easier to hide that mental health issue working from home,” said Cottrell.

“Most of us think about what could go wrong and that takes a toll on us as well,” said Cottrell. “We try to please the court. We deal with difficult clients. We deal with difficult counsel. We deal with bosses and we are doing it alone from home. You can see that the temptation to use and the easy availability of  those substances is a real problem.”

Under Rule 8.3 of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, attorneys must report professional misconduct.

Physical health = mental health

Theresa B. Marangas of Latham (Meier Law Firm) said that making yourself is a priority is not selfish, but a necessity.

“It is our own responsibility to take care of our health. You hear that analogy of putting on our own oxygen masks first before you put it on others,” said Marangas.

Seeking a counselor for mental health should be treated like visiting the doctor to treat an infection, said Marangas. “There is nothing wrong with getting help from a professional for a period of time.”

She added that with increased telehealth options available due to the pandemic it is easier to seek help now from a counselor to stay “mentally healthy.”

Lawyers do not have to be on the verge of crisis before seeking help from a bar association’s Lawyer Assistance Program. She noted that more bar associations have taken up the issue of wellness in recent years.

“We know this is a difficult profession. We know the statistics are against us. We know it is a self-regulating profession and have very high standards of perfectionism in the profession. We know that clients are demanding,” said Marangas. “How do we make it easer for us to continue to practice at our best level of capability?”

Admittedly, Marangas said she is prone to sitting at her desk all day long, but she has made a concentrated effort to take longer nature walks each weekend.

“Get your body moving in whatever way makes sense for you,” said Marangas.

Be the attorney you want to be

Raysheea Turner (Wallace Turner Law) discovered that starting her own firm was key for her mental health after experiencing vicarious trauma as a public defender with 150 cases in her caseload.

She was advised to work for the county if she wanted a 9-5 life as a lawyer. “That doesn’t really work when you care and when you’re passionate,” said Turner.

Her anxiety increased to the point where she was sick. “I knew I could do the job. but it was crippling me,” said Turner. “Something had to give. I had to prioritize what was important to me.”

She found herself thinking about her clients during off-hours. “I was not showing up for my husband. I was not showing up for my 3-year-old son. Most importantly, I was not showing up for myself.”

She quit and teamed up with another lawyer to start their own practice. Acknowledging that although she still experiences some anxiety periodically, she is happier and “in control of her destiny.” She can focus on bigger picture issues and ask herself “is this email really that important?”

She is particularly proud of her letter of engagement that clearly states what she will and will not do, as well as what she expects of her clients and what they can expect of her in return.

“I made the decision that I do not want to be empty. I want to be fulfilled. I want to be happy. I want to be content,” said Turner.

If you’re struggling with substance abuse or have an untreated mental health issue, please call the NYSBA Lawyer Assistance Program at 1-800-255-0569 or email [email protected]

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