Editor’s note: This is the 16th 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.
All five of us walked into the jury room. Our senior lawyer was sitting at a table looking at the walls. He looked tired, but not beaten. He had been asked to come down and speak with a judge. Upon his arrival, he was asked to wait in a jury room. That’s where we found him.
Who are we? We are a team of lawyers offering help. We are the TLAP professional who had driven in from the Austin office, the local TLAP volunteer, two local attorneys who were trusted friends of our friend, and a local psychologist who agreed to volunteer his time.
Our subject thought we were there on other business. We all sat down and I, the local TLAP volunteer, began to explain the reason for our visit. A close family member of the senior lawyer had recently died suddenly. Additionally, his physical health was poor. He had physical disabilities that seemed to be getting worse. He had some family support but appeared to be going downhill. His practice suffered.
He began to make unreasonable demands for disposition of his cases. His desire to help his clients had so overwhelmed him that he was no longer able to assimilate the facts and deal with them rationally. If facts were inconsistent with his desired outcome, he merely ignored them.
He was showing up in court unprepared. He begin to file motions indicating he was physically unable to go to trial, but refused to withdraw from the cases or get assistance from other attorneys. His ability to concentrate and focus had obviously become impaired.
All of the above conspired to produce a circumstance where everyone at the courthouse was concerned about his wellbeing and fearful about the damage he may be causing to his clients. His performance in trial appeared to be deficient by any standard, and he appeared to have no present knowledge of his condition.
I began the meeting by informing him that all five people there had set aside their time to be of assistance to him. When I expressed our concerns he appeared confused. We told him the reason everyone was putting forth such an effort on his behalf was because his friends and fellow professionals deeply love him and care about his wellbeing. The other attorneys expressed the same opinion, and we managed to convince him that our purpose was to look out for his best interest.
The TLAP professional explained in great detail how sometimes senior lawyers decline. He was not being singled out, but was one of many. The TLAP professional outlined from experience many circumstances similar to his and the steps taken to rectify them. Options were discussed: testing, treatment, limiting of practice, co-counsel, and many other avenues.
The fact that so many individuals love him and care about him touched him deeply. He had begun to believe he was alone and everyone was against him. The change that came over him once he realized that his best interest was the object of the meeting was most remarkable.
The psychologist then began to discuss testing that could be done to determine the exact condition of his mental state. Luckily, our psychologist had worked with TLAP before and was amenable to assisting on a pro bono basis. Our friend agreed to meet with the psychologist and do the necessary testing. We do not know details of the results, but our friend reported that the psychologist suggested he limit his practice and follow the TLAP professional’s suggestions. This he agreed to do.
No one saw our lawyer for a few weeks. Then, out of the blue he showed up at court and was on the docket, having accepted more serious cases. I approached him and asked why he was continuing to practice on a level that had exceeded his capabilities. He smiled, shook my hand, looked me in the eyes and said, “They need me. I can’t say no.” I was devastated. It seemed he had “forgotten” all of his agreements and thought he was OK. His continuing to practice may cause a disability suspension to occur.
As I write, there is hope. I now hear he has agreed to shut down his practice by the end of the year. I hope this true, as it is not necessary for the disciplinary counsel to intervene when so many alternatives are available.
TLAP and its volunteers are new to this type of assistance, and the protocols are still developing. I know we will meet with many more opportunities to work with lawyers in similar situations. I can only state how proud I am to be part of an organization like the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program that will do everything in its power to help lawyers keep their dignity, self-respect, and community standing intact.