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MCBA President’s Message: If we don’t help fellow lawyers, who will?

The email arrived like a bolt of lightning:

Dear Dan and Kelly:

I have decided to end my life.  My body can be found in my office and my car in the family court parking lot.  Thank you for all the help you have given me.  I have failed you and everyone else.

—Louis

Louis (not his real name) is a lawyer in Buffalo. About two years ago, he contacted the Bar Association of Erie County and joined their depression support group for lawyers. Louis worked as trial lawyer with a large law firm for a decade before he was fired. He believed that he lost his job because he disclosed to the managing partner that he suffered from depression and needed time off for treatment.

Steven V. Modica

Steven V. Modica

Louis regularly came to the support group and continued to treat with a psychologist and a psychiatrist. His mood declined rapidly, he lost weight and his affect was flat. About three weeks ago, he sent the email above to the lawyer (Dan Lukasik) and the therapist (Kelly Bainbridge, a licensed Master of Social Work) who facilitate the support group.

By the grace of God, they received the email immediately and contacted 911. When emergency personnel got to Louis’ office, he was unresponsive and was not breathing because he had intentionally overdosed on pain killers. They rushed him to the hospital. Fortunately, Louis survived and is still recovering at the hospital.

More than 20 million people in the United States suffer from depression. Lawyers suffer from depression at twice the rate of the general population (or about 20 percent). This means that more than 240K of the 1.2 million lawyers in America are clinically depressed right now. Tragically, lawyers are six times more likely to commit suicide than others in the general population. Fortunately, Louis did not become one of those statistics.

The MCBA is leading a local effort to help our colleagues in crisis and to improve our overall physical and emotional health. A critical first step is to discuss how our physical and emotional health is suffering and what we can do to make it better.

Stress, Anxiety & Depression in the Legal Profession

We recently hosted a CLE on this important topic. Our speakers were Dan Lukasik and Catherine Cerulli (associate professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center). Kate challenged us to identify the root of our mental health challenges, commit to getting help and to stick with the plan. Dan lives with depression and has been a national leader in raising awareness about the mental health problems of judges and lawyers (www.lawyerswithdepression.com).

The Buffalo Experience

Dan and the BAEC leadership do three things to support their members whose physical or mental health is in peril:

• They pay Kelly Bainbridge to serve as a “Resource Coordinator.” She connects the member in need to appropriate services and support in the community. Kelly spends more than 3.5 hours/week assisting BAEC members;

• They host and support a weekly “peer-to-peer” group (running for the last 9 years) — facilitated by Dan and Kelly — that meets for an hour to discuss mental health challenges.  Group attendance can be as many as 16 in a given week;

• They raise (through their foundation) and spend more than $100K/year for the sole and exclusive purpose of assisting BAEC members whose physical or mental health is in peril.

What do we do now?

We have an excellent Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Committee whose sole focus is assisting lawyers who abuse drugs and/or alcohol. LCFL lacks the expertise to assist lawyers with mental health issues.

MCBA members — including young lawyers — have approached the LCFL and bar leadership for help with mental health issues. Regrettably, and despite a sincere desire to help, we have not been able to assist them.

According to the Attorney Grievance Committee of the Fourth Department, mental health problems are the primary reason why most lawyers get in trouble. Until recently, they referred attorneys with mental health problems to LCFL because they believed that we could assist them.

Our foundation raises about $60K/year; it grants about $45K/year. Foundation grants are made to several deserving programs (e.g., Diversity Clerkship, Rochester Teen Court, Mock Trial, DEAFund and more), however, in most years no money is granted for lawyers in crisis because we have not made that an area of focus.

Can we do better?

We must. In my view, it is unacceptable to offer no support to our brothers and sisters living with mental health problems. We have done three things this past bar year:

• We have started the conversation. In addition to the CLE discussed above, we have invited former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sol Wachtler to share his struggle with bipolar disorder at our annual dinner June 25. Judge Wachtler’s spectacular rise and fall is a cautionary tale for those of us who ignore perils to our physical and emotional health.

• We have asked 10 smart people to help us. I appointed a task force, led by Brad Kammholz and Cheryl Heller, to study how we can help lawyers and judges in crisis and how we can improve our overall health and well-being. The Task Force has distinguished local lawyers and judges, including a lawyer who has a MSW (Kim Duguay), our next MCBA president (Neil Rowe) and a representative of our Fourth Department Attorney Grievance Committee (Andrea Tomaino). We soon will receive and consider a series of recommendations from the Task Force, including a recommendation to form a standing Committee on Attorney Health & Well Being.

• We have raised $12K in seed money. If our experience is similar to Buffalo, our members in need will require support and treatment that they cannot afford. A generous grant of $5K from our local federal court–and $7K from two motivated individual donors — means that we have seed money to begin our effort. Our foundation has embraced this effort and you will have an opportunity to support this initiative through a restricted or unrestricted gift to the foundation.

I was VERY encouraged to get a call from one of our colleagues after the recent CLE.  She advised me that she supported what we are trying to do and will be making a donation soon.

Please join her (and us) in supporting our brothers and sisters in crisis. If we don’t help, who will?

Steven V. Modica is president of the Monroe County Bar Association and principal of Modica & Associates, Attorneys, PLLC. He can be reached at Steve@ModicaLawFirm.com.