It’s no secret that lawyers have some of the highest rates of suicide, depression and substance abuse. In a wide-ranging discussion, Charlotte attorney and former NCAJ President Bill Powers discussed with Attorney at Law Magazine Executive Publisher Bob Friedman ways the industry can get ahead of the curve.
AALM: I’ve spoken with a number of lawyers who said the spiral into substance abuse and mental problems sometimes begins with the pressure they feel because their client may have their life, their business or their family on the line.
Bill Powers: We need to change from stem to stern the culture of the practice of law. We must acknowledge we are subject to all the frailties of being human. We are under a tremendous amount of pressure, more so now than ever. Cell phones and the demand for instant gratification make the practice extraordinarily difficult. We need to be cognizant of the fact that it’s okay to admit we are imperfect. People like me need to admit we have weaknesses. My mentor and I, someone I basically worship, Joe Cheshire, are similar in at least one way. We both battle tremendous self-doubt. The first step in effectuating change is to identify and acknowledge the problem.
AALM: There are is a high incidence of substance abuse and mental health issues among law students. Would this be a good entry point to redirect the tide?
Bill Powers: Law schools have the opportunity to be a part of the solution, beginning with education on mental health from day one.
I think law schools could do something even more basic, both more fundamental and truly pragmatic, that would be a game changer. Here it is: Admit less students, limit the amount of debt, and give future practicing attorneys more practical, hands on experience. We learn through experience, understanding there must be a baseline of general information and knowledge.
I think law school should be more like medical school. We could easily limit classroom time to two years and mandate a period of residency, where law students are forced to work with “attending attorneys” in various professional fields and practice groups in that last 3rd Year.
AALM: And that speaks to the challenge faced by new lawyers who aren’t getting mentored by experienced attorneys.
Bill Powers: Young lawyers are putting up shingles because there aren’t jobs out there, so they have to create a practice for themselves. They take cases to pay the service on the debt. They don’t have anyone to talk to. They don’t have guidance and culturally, the very things they most covet and yet often avoid, are connections and relevance and relationships.
Baby boom and Gen X lawyers also have a duty to help grow and develop the next generation of attorneys. We must be willing to share our knowledge. We need to remember what it was like to be a new lawyer and provide this new generation with leadership and support.
Part of the anxiety and stress and depression younger attorneys experience today is predicated on the feeling that they are alone in the world. They live this insular life, where they have no one to talk to and no one to ask questions of or seek guidance. The irony is, technology has made us less, not more connected.
There’s this constant push to allow CLEs on cell phones or desk tops. That is one of the singular worst ideas I’ve ever heard. Just because younger lawyers want to attend CLEs while sitting at their desks, where they already are, hour after hour, day after day, doesn’t mean we should let them.
And just because more seasoned lawyers want to be left alone, avoiding human contact at CLEs, doesn’t mean we should be allowed to do that either.
An extraordinarily important aspect of continuing education must be community and developing interpersonal relationships. That requires face time. Legal education must include personal interaction, getting to know peers, bouncing ideas off of them, and sharing thoughts. I would encourage lawyers young and old to mingle, to talk, and to build professional friendships.
AALM: How should the legal industry step in to help a lawyer at an early stage, when they refuse to accept or deal with a problem?
Bill Powers: We need to be progressive and deal with these issues on the front end, before they have a chance to fester. We need to put in place a mechanism to call “time out” and stop the clock if a lawyer is starting to falter or on the verge of a meltdown. Experienced, practicing lawyers have all seen excellent, hardworking, and compassionate lawyers fall apart. Right now, we too often allow a lawyer to crash-and-burn, and hopefully reimburse the clients for their screw-ups.
It’s my understanding that some lawyers may realize they have substance abuse and/or mental health issues and know they need help. It’s also my understanding it’s common for struggling lawyers to say, “I just don’t have time to deal with it now. I’m on a calendar, I have a statute about to run, I’ll get help later.” We need a law or laws that would allow for a pause where, with proper judicial oversight, matters may be continued and statutes tolled.
I’m not talking about an indefinite period. It wouldn’t have to be extreme. Timely justice would not need to be set aside. I’m merely suggesting we take steps proactively before clients are hurt and we’re looking at restitution.
We need to keep an open mind if we want to address the very real issues of mental health and substance abuse in the profession.
AALM: Have you ever had to deal with a drinking, substance abuse or mental health issue?
Bill Powers: I do not drink. It was a personal choice and a gift I gave myself.
I don’t want to appear to be judgmental or make it seem like I think abstinence is the only answer and people should follow my lead. Everyone has their own path.
For me, and just for me, I just didn’t want to drink anymore. So I quit. It’s very easy to use alcohol as a crutch or a tool to turn off the brain. I found other ways to settle my overly competitive nature and obsessive thoughts, which I believe are common struggles for courtroom lawyers. Anyone who knows me understands I’d rather be close to the water, fishing, and have sand between my toes. I’m most at peace with the sound of waves crashing in my ears.
My mental health is tied with physical health, watching what I eat and working out. My mental health is also improved through my faith, my volunteer work and my friendships through NCAJ.