March 2021 Bar Bulletin
During my career as a lawyer, I’ve grown accustomed to public speaking. Whether in court, in a classroom or as a legal commentator, I long ago overcame most of the butterflies.
Being asked recently to speak at the funeral of a young lawyer who tragically took his own life was not the kind of public speaking I wanted to do.
Having mentored this young man for several years along with a retired judge and knowing his supportive family and friends, I couldn’t fathom how this could have happened or what I could say.
But it did happen, and I had to say something.
And now, in spite of his enormous talent and passion for justice and serving others, he lay dead in a casket as I tried to summon words that might comfort his mother and father and those who had gathered.
I did my best that day, though I knew nothing I could say would assuage the overwhelming grief of the parents who now had to go on without their only child. We know that the vast percentage of suicides have an underlying mental health condition. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young adults, and more die from suicide than cancer, heart disease, birth defects, pneumonia, and the flu combined.
The legal profession, long before COVID, suffered from depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse — at three times the rate of the non-lawyer population. Bar associations have long noted the connection between mental health conditions and substance abuse to serious problems in the lives of lawyers. These have contributed to lawyer grievances and the breaking of trust with clients and the public we serve. With COVID, the Centers for Disease Control recently noted the increased stress imposed by safety measures, the fear of contracting the virus and the loss of family members or friends.
Stress, piled on stress.
While suicide and mental health data will be gathered and studied for decades to come post-virus, that won’t help us now as we remain masked, mired in social distancing and longing for meaningful contact with families, friends and colleagues. While walking my dog Tippy recently, it struck me how COVID has turned the simple act of greeting one another into an exercise of covering our faces and walking as far away as possible. Maybe that is how we show our love and concern for our fellow humans today — by walking away, leaving only a muffled greeting.
Yet, with all of our challenges, we shouldn’t be surprised that the ravages of COVID are also bringing out the best in all of us.
Lawyers here are leading the way to assure that during the pandemic, we do not leave those less fortunate behind. Pro bono has never been more important, as the poor and newly poor, unemployed or homeless are forced to cope. Somehow, we are finding ways to serve those who are most in need of our advocacy.
Just as importantly, we need to look after our own mental health and well-being in order to continue to serve others.
Kathleen Hopkins, the KCBA delegate to the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, recently helped the ABA address this issue for lawyers across the country. Kathleen, a partner in Seattle’s Real Property Law Group, is a long time ABA leader and firmly believes that we should not be afraid to address mental health issues, particularly during these times.
“Talking about the mental health of lawyers during COVID is more important than ever,” Hopkins said. “We need to support each other and provide resources to our colleagues in need.”
Last month, Kathleen curated the ABA “Practice Forward” project https://www.americanbar.org/
initiatives/practice-forward/ and its emphasis on mental health. Now, thanks to Kathleen, the project materials highlight articles and resources for the COVID stressed lawyer, including a recent article on how “pandemic disruption places new stresses on women lawyers.” The author calls out legal employers for failing to address the enormous burden of sending lawyers home, often to care for children who are also home — all the time — learning remotely and trying to cope with the virus with fewer emotional resources. “Even women lawyers who have understanding employers and supportive partners are bowing under the strain,” one author notes, and “If we had a panic button, right now we’d be hitting it,” added Rachel Thomas, co-founder and chief executive officer of Lean In, a Palo Alto nonprofit focusing on women’s career advancement.
Some legal employers are trying of course, as are bar associations, to provide support for the stressed lawyer and those experiencing mental illness, exacerbated by COVID. In addition to services such as lawyers’ assistance programs available to some lawyers through their law firms or employers, WSBA has a 24 hour help line for those in crisis: 855-857-9722.
Lawyers do a great job of assuming the burdens of others and making them right, whenever that is possible. Sometimes, it requires all of our skill and training to counsel and support our clients, our colleagues and our families. We are very good at downplaying our own needs in the service of others and recognizing that some carry burdens we don’t know about. COVID is stretching the bounds of our compassion, our energy, our patience and all we are as lawyers.
Let’s be sure to look after our own health, mind, body and spirit. Be safe and well, my colleagues.
John McKay is the President of the King County Bar Association and a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. He can be reached at email@example.com.