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Bar News - May 15, 2009

Making It in an Economic Downturn: Sticking Together Can Help



I recently had lunch with an attorney in a small firm whose business, so far at least, has not been overtly affected by the recent economic recession. In fact he made the following comment to me: I was really disappointed to hear that the office of a local attorney was closing. I wish I had known; perhaps I could have assisted in some way, to ward off the crisis. I didnt know about it until they were closed.


The statement validated what I have experienced in my 18 months as executive director of the newly created New Hampshire Lawyers Assistance Program (NHLAP).  New Hampshire lawyers are willing to give a hand to a struggling colleague when asked, and are willing to do so spontaneously when the need presents itself.        


The example that comes recently to mind is that of the Keene-area attorneys who banded together when a colleague faced medical issues that could have put his practice in jeopardy. They stepped in and preserved the interests of the clients as well as the practice and saw the attorney through. The story is a tribute to the Keene Bar and to the practice of law in New Hampshire.


Some scenarios, like the one above, are relatively straightforward. But what happens when the cause for concern is not overt, but is more subtle? What happens when a colleague faces emotional or behavioral obstacles and begins to show signs of struggle? It could be a partner, a friend, or someone we see in the hallway or on the opposite side of the table. How can we provide the help that is needed?


These situations can be challenging. It is never easy to bring up a matter that may be confrontational.  Often its easier to convince ourselves that there is no problem, or that its not our business to mention it.  Also, this type of address personal rather than professional might be insulting, we think, and we could end up making matters worse. On the other side of the dynamic is the difficulty of admitting that we might need help. It is basic human desire to appear strong and not weak, and this instinct is cemented in the psyche of a lawyer. At its best and most productive it is professionalism. At its worst, it can prevent our getting needed support and actually lead to costly mistakes. In not recognizing and overcoming these dynamics, an opportunity to render or receive help can be lost.


Based on consistent statistical data from studies in several states, lawyers suffer from depression and substance abuse at greater than the national average (18-24 percent, up from 10-12 percent for the general population). However, there is a counterbalancing statistic, taken from research by Talbot Recovery Campus in Atlanta, a substance abuse treatment center begun by a physician for physicians, which also treats many lawyers. What TRC found is that of the professionals it sees, there is a high recovery rate among this population one year after leaving treatment. From 50-60 percent for the general population, the number jumps to as high as 80 percent for professionals. There is reason to believe that one factor in this success is the prevalence of professional programs for the impaired that provide support upon their return to the community and the profession.


This fact alone, the fact of probable success, should give us some confidence. It is well worth the effort to ask for help or to try to render assistance to a colleague.


What are the signs that a colleague is in trouble, and what do we do if we become aware of them? Among the common signs of substance abuse are unexplained absences, confusion or difficulty in concentration, spasmodic work patterns, generally lowered job efficiency, financial or legal problems, and appearing in court or elsewhere in an obviously abnormal condition.


Specific signs of depression include loss of interest in once-enjoyed activities, changes in weight or appetite, changes in sleep patterns, feelings of guilt, hopelessness or worthlessness, restlessness or decreased involvement in activities, and complaints of physical aches and pains for which no medical explanation can be found. Most importantly, thoughts or mention of death or suicide should never be ignored, no matter how incongruous or unlikely they may seem. If this is happening, medical help should be sought without delay.


NHLAP is a confidential program. Confidentiality was and is the main concern of the Supreme Court in creating the program. No reports are made, no information shared at any time without express written approval of the affected lawyer, judge or law student. This protection is the same found in attorney-client privilege. It applies equally to those who call for themselves and those who contact the program on behalf on another; the identity of the referring source is protected, except to the extent one wishes it disclosed. So there is no downside to contacting the program. And as has already been stated, there is a good chance it could help.


Whether you are tempted to seek help yourself, or whether you want to make the call on behalf of someone else, again, there is no downside to making the call.  One idea that I keep in mind when carrying out my job (and it is borne out by my experience), is that most people would choose not to suffer.  Fear of being stigmatized, a desire for perfectionism, feelings of guilt or even simple pride may prevent someone from asking for help, but if help is freely offered, many people will accept it.


NHLAP is always available to help; call 877-224-6060 or 603-491-0282, or e-mail For more information on issues mentioned in this article, please go to


Cecie Hartigan is the executive director of NHLAP.

NHLAP: A confidential Independent Resource

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