Editor’s note: This is the 17th story in the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program “Stories of Recovery” series. The State Bar’s TLAP program offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance abuse or mental health issues. Call TLAP at (800) 343-8527 and find more information at texasbar.com/TLAP.
A few years ago, I started noticing my colleague’s brilliant legal mind start to slip.
How could it be that this lawyer—in her 60s, who held a graduate degree as well as a JD (both with honors), had been my longtime mentor—was losing her mind? It started with little things, like her misplacing items, but as time passed it became more serious, like her forgetting how to offer an exhibit into evidence.
About a year ago, she could not understand basic legal concepts.
Even though this was happening, she still maintained her law license and operated under the mistaken belief that she could still take cases. She knew she was a lawyer; she knew she had been successful; she was not going to stop on her own.
Surprisingly, no formal grievance had been filed, and either her peers were uninformed of her status or they feared retribution from this once formidable legal “powerhouse” if they reported her.
What could I do to help my friend and mentor? She had no office partner. She had no children or husband. In fact, none of her family would become involved, and she had granted no one a power of attorney.
Moving toward a formal guardianship was going to be a logistical and public nightmare, as my combative friend would surely object and make a spectacle of herself. I called a psychiatrist who was familiar with the issues, but no practical solutions seemed available.
One desperate day, I called the State Bar of Texas and asked to be transferred to the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program. A TLAP staff member quietly listened to my story and then said that TLAP could be a confidential source of help. In a nonthreatening way, TLAP was able to make contact with my friend.
Eventually, we arranged a conference in which I attended as “attorney” and “friend.” TLAP managed to convince my friend to have an evaluation conducted by a therapist who would go through a checklist of items covering cognitive issues. In truth, this meeting was as helpful to me as she was to my friend. I was deeply troubled by the situation.
As a lawyer, and one who had been supported by the one who needed help, I felt an amount of failure at not being able to resolve the issue. TLAP’s advice reminded me that I could not fix the problem alone and that I should not allow myself to become so drawn into my friend’s vortex that I allowed my own family and law practice to suffer. We discussed the need for a way for lawyers to “retire with dignity” before they are forced to go through the disciplinary process or, even worse, once their mental states decline.
No quick fix was available. It took several months of agonizing efforts to deal with the situation. TLAP was a significant source of help through the ordeal.
Obviously, yet unfortunately, my friend’s situation could have no happy ending. But now she is safe and her law practice closed with her professional dignity intact. It was such a tragic and untimely ending to an amazing career.
I have often thought how lucky we are to enjoy a profession in which there is no mandatory retirement age. Plenty of lawyers in their 80s and 90s are still going to the courthouse and possess all, if not more, of the mental abilities of their younger counterparts.
However, there are others, of all ages, who are experiencing cognitive loss to the point that they should no longer practice law. Convincing them to retire, without embarrassing or admonishing them, is no easy task. I would encourage anyone who is attempting such a task to contact TLAP.
TLAP is there to help.