Secure Your Own Mask First and Then Assist Others

by Rex Travis

Originally published in the Oklahoma County Bar Association's August 2014 Briefcase

We’ve all been on an airliner and had a flight attendant instruct us:

In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will deploy from above you. Pull the mask toward you, secure your mask, and breathe normally. If you are traveling with others who need assistance, please secure your own mask first and then assist others.

Why do they say that? Well, obviously, if we lose consciousness we will be unable to help children or others with us. This is good advice in the practice of law as well as when flying in airplanes.

Almost every week, we pick up our Bar Journals (or read it online, if you’re more tech-savvy) and read about one or more of our colleagues who are having severe disciplinary problems with the Bar Association. That’s kind of scary!

I have a theory about why lawyers get into that sort of problem. Practicing law is a high-pressure sort of job. We all seem to be trying to juggle family life, civic commitments, and a busy law practice. We are called upon daily in that practice to help our clients solve problems, which are often overwhelming. Except we don’t just have one set of problems to deal with. We have multiple problems for multiple clients, each day, each week, and each month.

If we are not very careful, we end up exhausting ourselves and our problem-solving skills helping clients and have no time or energy left over to help us deal with our own family, emotional, financial or other problems. I’m persuaded that’s what happens to those colleagues whose names we see in the Bar Journal, preceded by the words “State Ex Rel Oklahoma Bar Association vs. .”

Often, the apparent issue in these discipline cases deals with substance abuse - alcohol or drugs. Sometimes there’s a diagnosis of depression or some other mental or emotional illness. But, these diagnoses don’t just spring up out of nowhere. They develop because the lawyer is expending all of his or her resources to help clients and not taking care of the lawyer.

What can we do to avoid this awful waste of human talent that comes from losing some of the best and the brightest among us to these demons? Well, there are some things we can do for ourselves, if we catch the problem at an early enough stage that we can still make rational judgments.

We have heard a lot in recent years about “work-life balance.” (I have a confession to make at this point: I am a raging workaholic. I wrote an article a few years ago about the importance of work-life balance. I thought my daughter would never quit laughing about that. However, I fight vigorously against the addiction.) We can, and should, all be mindful of the absolute necessity of taking enough time away from our resolution of the problems of others to take care of our own lives.

We all need to find things we like to do and make the time to do them. We need to spend time with spouse and family. And while we’re doing these fun things, we need to learn to stop worrying about what’s happening or not happening at the office.

We can all help one another by agreeing to extensions of time and continuances when a colleague says he or she needs to take a vacation. Shame on the lawyer who resists such a request (and on the judge who denies such an extension or continuance).

But, there are times when help is beyond the capability of the lawyer himself or herself. What happens then? If the lawyer can be caught before the acts which so distress the Bar get too far along, there is a program available, at no cost to the lawyer, to provide help. It’s called Lawyers Helping Lawyers (LHL).

Most of us think of LHL as something like AA for lawyers and associate it with substance abuse problems. And that is an important function of LHL. There are a number of very good lawyers who are recovering alcoholics or addicts who will go to great lengths to help a lawyer having a problem of that sort. This is called “peer support.” I commend it to you.

But LHL is much more than that. The OBA pays for counseling services for lawyers having problems coping with their high-pressure practices and lives. OBA has a contract with a company which provides that service to large employers. Just as that service would help an employee of a subscribing company, you can get an appointment to meet with a counselor and determine whether the services you need in coping are available free or at a reduced rate. All you have to do is call 1-800-364-7886 or visit their website.

LHL will pay for up to six counseling sessions free. If more sessions or in-patient treatment is needed and the lawyer can’t afford it, help is available from the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Foundation, Inc.

I read a report of a bar disciplinary proceeding in the Bar Journal a year or so ago. A lawyer (a very good lawyer; I know him) had a problem with just apparently being overwhelmed. He was charged with neglect of his practice, a not unusual charge. The Supreme Court cut him some slack.

What impressed me so about the case was that the Supreme Court noted in their opinion that his colleagues in the rural county in which he practices had detected he was having problems with not showing up for dockets and not getting work done when he was supposed to. They got with him, talked to him, and got him into the program. Then they took over the cases for which he had been paid and finished the cases with no further fees paid.

The fact that his clients had not suffered unduly (as a result of this support from his colleagues) was apparently an important factor to the Supreme Court in imposing discipline which enabled the lawyer to keep his license and return to practice. I would submit that this case may have been one of the bar’s finest hours (to paraphrase Winston Churchill). Take care of yourself so you can take care of your clients and others. And, take care of other lawyers when you can.