The degree to which individual lawyers fail to find professional life personally fulfilling can be a clear indicator of their level of risk of a malpractice claim or disciplinary complaint. So let’s go with that. Ask yourself these quick questions — and while you do, think about the people you work with and how they might respond, too:
- Are you generally happy as an attorney?
- Do your professional accomplishments provide you with feelings of pride and personal satisfaction?
- Is there a sense of purpose present in your professional life?
Negative responses may indicate you have a higher risk of facing a malpractice or disciplinary complaint. And there’s more at risk.
You might have noticed that none of these questions ask about stress. That’s because the presence of stress alone is not necessarily a good indicator of malpractice trouble down the road. For many attorneys, stress simply comes with the territory. The better indicator is how given individuals respond to the stresses in their life.
So, if not stress, what are those questions trying to get at? They are about depression, which is how some people respond to the stresses life can bring.
Dealing with the Fallout of Depression
I will resist the temptation to roll out all the statistics that tell us how serious the issue of depression is in our profession. I will also admit it can be difficult to directly link depression to any specific misstep that ultimately results in a claim or complaint.
But consider the following: Depression often leads to things like fatigue, feeling worthless or helpless, excessive irritability, or even overwhelming feelings of grief and sadness. In some, depression can also lead to impaired concentration, indecisiveness, a loss of interest and pleasure in activities formerly enjoyed (such as practicing law or participating in a favorite hobby or pastime), insomnia and even poor judgment.
Although this is not a comprehensive list of symptoms, it suggests how depression can lead to the kind of missteps that can result in a malpractice claim. Why do you think some attorneys end up ignoring client matters, forget to file a document, or on occasion simply walk out of the office one afternoon never to return? I have seen the “walking out never to return” response several times over the years. Those lawyers got to the point where they were done, and literally couldn’t make another decision.
This kind of damaging fallout from depression doesn’t have to happen. Treatment for depression is highly effective. Yet, sadly, many who are struggling with depressive disorders either do not pursue treatment, or they are not accurately diagnosed and never receive proper treatment.
Be Aware of Depression’s Causes, and How to Respond
Beyond stressful events, your genetics can play a role in the development of depression, as can general medical illness, the use of certain medications, and drug or alcohol abuse.
Depression should not be left untreated. Beyond seeking professional care, however, you can do many things to help relieve depression, for example: getting regular exercise, eating a varied and healthy diet, avoiding alcohol, learning to take breaks and relax, getting plenty of quality rest, practicing time management skills, reaching out to friends and family, and building a support network of persons with whom you can share thoughts and concerns.
In terms of recognizing depression in others, be aware of these additional warning signs:
- Depressed individuals often become isolated, sarcastic or withdrawn.
- There may be sudden changes in behavior such as absenteeism, loss of interest in family and friends, an increased need for sleep, the onset of insomnia and self-destructive behavior.
- Changes in appearance are also common — there may be a significant change in weight or a loss of interest in grooming.
- When severe, depression can also lead to suicidal thoughts.
To help someone with depression, be direct and show that you are genuinely concerned. Listen attentively and carefully. Be careful not to dismiss their feelings by saying something like “you’ll feel better tomorrow.” They won’t. Most importantly, do not try to handle the problem yourself. Contact a doctor, a crisis hotline, a member of the clergy, a social worker or a psychologist. The goal is to help the individual get professional help so he or she can recover.
Always take suicidal threats very seriously, especially if the person has expressed a specific plan or has begun to give away possessions.
Depression is a serious illness that can wreak havoc on an attorney’s personal and professional life. If you are depressed or know of a colleague who is, don’t ignore the problem and hope that it will go away. Usually it doesn’t. The illness can quickly deteriorate, especially if compounded with a malpractice claim or another crisis arises.
Take care of yourself and watch out for your colleagues. Work to maintain a healthy balance between your personal and professional life to stay sharp and fresh — and support your colleagues as they try to do the same.
Let’s take the malpractice concern off the table: In the end, life is just too short not to find joy and satisfaction in your professional life. Wouldn’t you agree?
Mark Bassingthwaighte is a Risk Manager with Attorney’s Liability Protection Society, Inc. (ALPS). In his tenure with the company, he has conducted over 1,000 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous CLE seminars, and written extensively on risk management and technology. Mark received his J.D. from Drake University Law School. He blogs at ALPS411. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s more help at Attorney at Work
- Delicate Conversation: Is It Depression? by Mary Ellen Sullivan
- Delicate Conversation: If You Suspect Substance Abuse by Mary Ellen Sullivan
- Is It the Winter Blues or Something More? by Marcia Pennington Shannon
- Knock Out Burnout by Sheila Blackford
- Signs It Might Be Time to Quit by Joan Feldman