Editor’s note: This is the third of four special posts in the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program’s Stories of Recovery series for National Suicide Prevention Week (September 10-16). TLAP offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance abuse or mental health issues. Call TLAP at 1-800-343-8527 (TLAP) and find more information at tlaphelps.org.
Another trip, another deposition. This run to Phoenix was so ordinary, except that I was traveling in July, and the temperature would be well above 100 degrees for the few days I was there. When my plane landed, I took 10 steps into the airport, and my client called. I first assumed that he was calling me about the plaintiff’s deposition that would occur the next day, but then I noticed the urgency in his voice. My mind immediately went someplace negative, with thoughts of my client, or one of his close family members, being diagnosed with cancer. My client asked me where I was—in the airport, near a Starbucks—and then asked me to step away from the crowds.
He followed with the unthinkable: his friend and mine, let’s call him Todd, a successful litigator at one of Big City’s most prestigious law firms, had committed suicide. Todd was also my co-counsel on numerous lawsuits for this client. Together, we had a virtual team that involved both of our firms, working collaboratively and effectively to serve our client. Todd was married, had three beautiful children, a sterling academic record, and an enviable career. I was shocked, and suddenly alone in my thoughts in the busy airport.
The next day, the deposition occurred as planned. The plaintiffs’ counsel and many of the defense counsel knew Todd, and they were equally perplexed. During a break in the deposition, I called one of Todd’s law partners, a former law school classmate, to ask him to keep me apprised of the funeral services and, discretely, but less so than I’d hoped, to ask if he knew why Todd committed suicide. He told me that he and his law partners were stunned. Todd’s death was unimaginable to them.
Later that week, I attended Todd’s funeral. I saw his wife, children, siblings, law partners, and friends. I ached, knowing that they all loved Todd and were devastated by his unexpected and tragic death.
I left Todd’s funeral with a profound and deep sadness. Although it was not even noon, I knew I had to go home. I had to see my wife and see my children when they came home from school. I told my wife that the overriding emotion I felt was like someone standing right next to me was struck by lighting and killed. Todd’s death was that close to me, owing to our friendship, working relationship as co-counsel, and, because, he, like me, was a litigation partner in a large Big City law firm.
Unlike me, Todd always seemed like someone who really loved the law, practicing it, and just being a great lawyer. Today, I am very grateful to be a member of the bar, and for the life afforded me by the practice of law, but I certainly understand what it means to struggle with one’s career.
Days later, I called the incoming State Bar president and asked if I could serve on the bar’s Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program Committee. I explained why I wanted to serve and that I wanted to focus my efforts on mental health and suicide prevention for Texas lawyers. Without hesitation, the incoming president agreed to appoint me to the TLAP Committee.
During my service with TLAP, there has been much progress, but, sadly and regrettably, there have been more suicides by lawyers like Todd—men and women who, for a variety of reasons, have seen their demise as the only solution to their darkness. Fortunately TLAP also has tremendous success in preventing further tragedies. In addition to established, confidential, and successful programs to assist Texas lawyers, law students, and judges with addiction, TLAP has spread the message of mental health, wellness, and suicide prevention to law schools, judicial meetings, the State Bar Annual Meeting, and presentations at law firms and bar associations.
Not many years ago, it was unthinkable to consider TLAP coming to a law firm, greeted with open arms, and having a frank, yet hopeful, exchange about mental health and suicide prevention with Texas lawyers. In the past, law schools would shudder at the thought of the next generation of Texas lawyers being offered such information. Yet today, mental health and suicide prevention within the legal profession are discussed, shared, and exchanged at bar association meetings, law firms, law schools, judicial conferences, and the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting.
It is too late for my friend Todd to benefit from TLAP’s focus on mental health and suicide prevention. However, it is not too late for other Texas lawyers. I am hopeful that increased access to information and counseling will prevent another needless, painful loss.
For more information on suicide warning signs and prevention, go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org or facebook.com/AFSPnational. For the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call (800) 273-TALK (8255).