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January/February 2014, Vol. 56, No. 1

Lawyer Assistance Program 

Start 2014 right: Protect the solo practice by protecting the solo practitioner, and vice versa 

By Patricia Spataro, Director

It is the beginning of a new year and a great time to look at taking steps to ensure that you and your law practice are happy and healthy. 

Let’s not talk in terms of resolutions, because most of them go by the wayside by Valentine’s Day … at the latest. 

Let’s frame these concepts as words to the wise. Interestingly, this phrase means that you only have to hint something to wise people to get them to understand. Thank you, Google! Just for clarification, these are not hints.

I’ve learned several things from the legal professionals who have called my office for assistance. I’d like to share these universal insights in hopes that you will implement them promptly, if they are not already in place. 
The attorneys who called framed the following in the “if only” lament. It is said that “if only” are the saddest two words anyone can mutter. If only I didn’t ignore the signs, if only I called sooner, if only I managed my stress better. I am presenting them as words to the wise that might save your law practice, and even your life. 

Insight One

• Pay attention to those early signs that something is not right.
In general, mental health issues, such as problem drinking and depression, interfere with a lawyer’s ability to fully function as person and as a lawyer. Maybe not at first, but certainly at some point an interference or interruption to life and law will emerge.  
The early warning signs can hint (there’s that word again) at the serious issues that lie ahead. 
These early warning signs can manifest in any area of a person’s life. Depression can show itself in a simple and ignorable way, such as not wanting to socialize lately even though you once enjoyed being with colleagues, friends and family. 
Harmless, maybe, but then the unshakable sadness makes it hard to concentrate, and your procrastination is noticed by colleagues and, worse, clients. Your spouse starts telling you that you are not yourself, you get irritated and sink further into depression and the relationship becomes compromised. 
You eat and sleep more than usual. Before you know it, your doctor is telling you that your blood pressure is dangerously high. Over time, every area of your life is touched by your depression, but you are not connecting these dots. 
Then a letter arrives from the grievance committee and it sits in the pile on your desk of the other documents you just can’t seem to get to. 
A drinking problem can run a similar course. You recently started to drink more to deal with stress. One day, you almost miss a court date because you are hung over and cannot get out of bed.  
Isolated incident … maybe … but, then, the start time for your first drink is at lunch instead of dinner and you argue easily with just about everyone in your life. Much to your surprise, you get pulled over on your way home from work and your blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.28 and it is only 6:45 p.m. 
Depression and procrastination go hand-in-hand, as does drinking too much and too often with preoccupation. Lawyers who procrastinate and are preoccupied are moments away from serious problems. 

Insight Two 

• Manage stress before it manages you. 
Everyone deals with stress, but not everyone gets to a place where it swallows them up. 
Stress can cause, or at the very least, exacerbate mental health concerns. This is one area where protecting the practice by protecting the practitioner is a “what comes first” dilemma. 
Managing your personal stress and the stress that’s caused by your practice needs to occur at the same time. 
Personal stress can effectively be managed by healthy life choices. Exercising and eating well are quickly dismissed as “who has time for that,” but it has been shown over and over that those who are not overcome by stress, most often engage in these two healthy habits. 
Practice stress can be managed by engaging with colleagues in a spirit of support. Yes, I know that the competitive profession of law isn’t all too amenable to this practice. But again, those who have the greatest success in this profession do just this. 
Here’s one I bet you haven’t considered: screen clients and, thereby, stop saying “yes” to everyone who walks through your door. 
Just about every solo who calls my office admits to being a “yes” person and cannot deny it causes them serious problems. 
There are many more ways to manage personal and professional stress. Find the strategies that work for you and use them every day.   

Insight Three

• Make the call to the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) sooner rather than later.
“Making the call to LAP is the best thing I’ve done in a long time.” 
“Calling LAP saved my life.” 
“I wish I made this call sooner.” 
“You’ve given me many great ideas on how to deal with my issues.”
 These are common remarks we hear and the best thing I can do to persuade you to contact LAP is to share what your colleagues are saying about their experience. 

Before you pick up your phone, let me remind you that the call is confidential. We understand and, perhaps most importantly, we do not judge. The fear of stigma and shame often stops a lawyer with a serious problem from making the call. Please know we understand that it is hard to make the call, and we will put you at ease quickly. 

Start the year off on the right foot. At the State Bar, the Lawyer Assistance Program is partnering with Law Practice Management at Annual Meeting to cover the separate and overlapping issues that keep the lawyer and the law practice healthy. The Committees on Attorney Professionalism, CLE and Electronic Communications are co-sponsors of the program.

Register today for Annual Meeting and take advantage of “LPM Day,” January 30, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Go to www.nysba.org/AM2014LPM.

Go to www.nysba.org/LAP to get help or to find out how to help a colleague.