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Central Massachusetts Health

Efforts underway to help lawyers with job's side effects

December 3, 2018
Photo/Zachary Comeau
Photo/Zachary Comeau
No matter how large or small the case, clients carry stress until it's over, and that stress is sometimes absorbed by their attorneys, Worcester lawyer Nicole Colby Longton said.

When somebody is charged with a crime, oftentimes their lives are changed forever.

The job of highly-educated legal professionals, like Worcester lawyer Nicole Colby Longton, is to zealously defend that client to the best of their ability while keeping work out of their personal lives, and vice versa.

That demand can eat attorneys alive, lawyers and advocates say.

"I feel for them just as I would myself," said Longton, a Harvard-educated criminal defense lawyer.

No matter how large or small the case, clients carry stress until it's over, and that stress is sometimes absorbed by their attorneys, Longton said.

It's that stress and documented mental health and substance abuse issues of attorneys that is now leading to new efforts to focus on the well-being of the state's attorneys.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants announced in October that the Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being will take up the task of addressing what was found in a 2016 study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine: As many as 36 percent of 13,000 practicing lawyers qualified as problem drinkers.

Another 28 percent of those surveyed struggled with depression, 19 percent struggled with anxiety and 23 coped with stress.

Many in the courtroom or jury shudder when told of the details of an alleged crime, but lawyers like Longton are in those case files every day.

"It's always bothered me that I have to pretend I'm devoid of all emotions," Longton said. "However, in almost every situation, you have to remove emotion in order to zealousy advocate for your client."

Longton, referring to herself as a stressed-out person to begin with, said it's the more empathetic lawyers that may have a hard time disconnecting themselves from their clients' or even their clients victims.

The issue of long hours and a huge workload leading to stress, anxiety and depression isn't just attributed to litigators, said Margot Botsford, a retired Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice who is coordinating the steering committee.

"There's a lot of pressure about succeeding. There's pressure about getting business," Botsford said. "There's pressure about being able to rise in the particular firm. There's also the pressure of hours."

During her time as a private lawyer, prosecutor and then a judge, Botsford said it can be easy to tell when a lawyer is frazzled.

"They work very hard not to show whatever they're feeling that may not be positive," she said. "They work hard at starting in control."

The goal of the steering committee, Botsford said, is to help the state's court system help alleviate these issues.

That includes fewer meaningless delays over the life of a case and more flexibility when scheduling court dates so lawyers can vacation with their families.

The steering committee includes Botsford and 14 others in the legal profession, including those in the public and private sectors of law.

Like any profession or in life, there's still an enormous stigma on acknowledging that someone could use some help, Botsford said.

There are already organizations that address the mental health of lawyers, including Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a Boston-based organization that promotes the well-being and resilience in the legal community.

Executive Director Anna Levine is on the SJC's committee.

"It seems to be that one of the important goals of any effort is to try to reduce that stigma," Botsford said.

Organizations like Worcester-based Spectrum Health Systems is one of several that is trying to do just that.

Attorneys have frequented the mental health services of Spectrum at an increasing rate, said CEO Kurt Isaacson.

"If you're a litigator, you sometimes have to defend people who have allegedly committed crimes you find morally abhorrent," Isaacson said, citing mass shooting cases. "I'm sure these lawyers defending those shooters feel an obligation to provide a defense for them, but they can't feel morally good about it."

That dynamic sets up a conflict that breeds depression and anxiety, Isaacson said. To cope, many attorneys turn to drugs and alcohol.

Also contributing to that stress is the weight of student loans from years of law school bearing down on practicing attorneys. According to the American Bar Association, law students can expect to carry debt of more than $150,000.

"They need to work hard in order to get that bonus to help pay off those loans," Isaacson said.

Law school, Isaccson said, is where studies show the decline in mental health begins.

"There's an old saying about the thrill of being admitted to law school ending of the first day of classes," he said.

Anthony Salerno, a partner at Longton's firm, said legal education doesn't educate attorneys on how to deal with stress. Law school also lacks in educating young attorneys on how to run a business, he said.

In addition to practicing law, have to manage a business too.

According to Salerno, attorneys in small firms have three things to maintain: skill level, the business and family.

"Unfortunately, there's only time for two of those things during a 24-hour day," he said.

Salerno spent 10 years as a Massachusetts state trooper in a variety of roles and was quickly exposed to the realities of life he said prepared him for life as a lawyer.

"I've probably done 100 autopsies," he said. "When you take that and kind of have that experience and exposure, you can deal with stressful things a little easier."

Despite confidence and an exercise routine to help keep stress levels down, there is still one thing about being a trial attorney that haunts Salerno and every trial lawyer: when the jury comes out with a verdict.

"My chest still pounds every time I hear that foreperson stand up and say 'guilty' or 'not guilty,'" he said.

That anxiety can turn to depression when the months or maybe years spent working on a case is seemingly useless after a guilty verdict, Salerno said

"It's crushing," Salerno said of losing a case. A defeat, he said, can force a lawyer to question his or her abilities or fixate on any mistakes.

It's the failure to acknowledge the stress and the failure to do something about it that can derail an attorney's career and life, Salerno said.

Robert Cox, a managing partner and environmental lawyer at Worcester firm Bowditch & Dewey, said the demand of the profession have been increasing every year as technology advances.

"There is a demand, as there should be, from clients that matches the technologies we see day to day," he said.

Responses are now expected promptly, but legal briefs still must be accurate and deliberate.

To ease that stress, the firm has partnered with UMass Memorial Health Care to provide an employee assistance program that offers ways to reduce stress and address behaviors like alcoholism and drug abuse.

The 104-year-old firm is on the smaller side, but a lawyer who's been there for a decade is still considered a newbie.

That close, family-like atmosphere helps to keep everyone happy while performing at a high level in a tough industry.

"Our practice demands that we devote a lot of time to it," he said. "It can be exhilarating and fun, but it's still time-consuming to do."