The Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program had its busiest month on record in April. The organization, which helps attorneys deal with problems like depression and substance abuse, had 42 new referrals — nearly twice the monthly average in 2008.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to Illinois. Across the country, lawyer assistance programs are seeing demand for their services grow as the economy struggles.
“We don’t have empirical evidence that says the economy is to blame,” said Janet Piper Voss, executive director of the Illinois program. “But that’s the sense we have. There is something different going on right now.”
Administrators from a sampling of lawyer assistance programs report that laid-off attorneys, struggling solo practitioners, third-year law students without jobs lined up and others have been reaching out for help more than ever before. Lawyers who already had emotional problems or addictions are being pushed over the edge by the added stress of the slow economy and its ramifications, they said.
The growing pressure on attorneys was underscored by the apparent suicide on Thursday of prominent attorney Mark I. Levy in the Washington, D.C., office of Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Stockton. Levy had been laid off from the firm, according to one of his close friends.
Richard Carlton, the manager of education, research and program development for the Lawyer Assistance Program of the State Bar of California, said that the poor economy isn’t necessarily the primary reason that more lawyers are seeking help. Rather, the economy in many cases is exacerbating pre-existing problems, and it has taken several months for all those issues to compound and spur attorneys to seek help. The California program had its largest number of cases ever in March and April — double the number it saw in January and February, Carlton said.
“We’re just now starting to see a fairly significant uptick,” he said. “This is a fluctuation I’ve never seen before.”
The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program’s caseload has also gone up this year, said director W. Donald Carroll Jr.
“It tends to be more young people who have gone out and started practices on their own because they couldn’t find jobs, or young people who are struggling with layoffs,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get a job right now and they’ve got the prospect of some very large law school loans. There’s a lot of pressure on them.”
The New York State Bar Association’s Lawyer Assistance Program has seen a small jump in the number of attorneys looking for help in recent months, said director Patricia Spatano. The program is seeing more older attorneys reaching out.
“I’m finding that some people are feeling so despondent because they were close to retiring, and now retirement is gone and their practices are struggling,” Spatano said.
Every state has some form of confidential support for attorneys struggling with addiction or emotional problems. Many state bars have affiliated lawyers assistance programs, while others run separate nonprofit groups that help attorneys. Although the programs vary, most offer personal and career counseling and referrals to other resources. Some hold group therapy sessions for attorneys.
The Illinois program is about to add a second depression group, which is a weekly group therapy session for attorneys who have attempted suicide, said Susan Riegler, a psychologist and clinical director of the program. The second group is necessary because the original group has become too large.
“This really picked up in December,” Riegler said. “I was getting more people than ever calling me in tears. By and large, what I see is depression and a feeling that things won’t turn around, or I hear from people who had a lifestyle they can no longer afford.”
An increasing number of frustrated law students have been calling, she said. So have solo practitioners who don’t have enough work to keep the lights on, or are afraid to turn down cases and end up working around the clock. Some attorneys who have lost their jobs face something of an identity crisis as well.
“People have always asked them, ‘What do you do?’ and they’ve said, ‘I’m a lawyer,'” she said. “When they lose that role in life, it’s pretty confusing.”
Riegler said that about 90 percent of recent cases she has seen involved depression. Anxiety also is prevalent.