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CLE: Preventing Suicide in the Legal Profession

New Lawyers Section CLE Discusses Suicide Warning Signs and Prevention Strategies for Clients and Colleagues 

By: Nick Hansen

While being an attorney at its heart is a helping profession, the reality is that lawyers are not always great at asking for help. And that can be costly when it’s due to a literal life and death situation: suicide.

On March 22, the HCBA New Lawyers Section sponsored a CLE program, “An Ethical Perspective on Suicide Prevention -Helping Your Clients and Others.” Included on the panel were Joan Bibelhausen of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Nick Ryan, and Faith Amdahl. Ryan covered the professional ethics side of getting involved in a client’s emotional issues, while Amdahl relayed her personal experience with a family member who died by suicide.

The 90-minute CLE covered a numerous topics related to suicide, including context around a nationwide epidemic—which has hit the legal professional especially hard, what warning signs attorneys should look out for in clients and colleagues, and professional ethical considerations surrounding them.

The legal profession’s struggles with mental health and substance use are well-documented. Lawyers rank fifth in incidence of suicide by occupation and three percent have reported self-injurious behaviors. Clients facing stressful situations (like divorce or bankruptcy) could be at higher risk as well.

“We are dealing with people who are having their worst experiences and we are looking for the next worst thing that could happen,” said Bibelhausen.

Faith Amdahl shared her story about her brother Charlie, a criminal defense attorney who died by suicide in 2008. Reflecting, Amdahl noticed changes in her brother’s behavior before his death. “It was that constant being in the grind,” said Amdahl. “He became more isolated, wanted to quit his practice, but he was scared to announce that to the family.” Recounting a conversation with her brother, Amdahl said that Charlie told her, “’If I say I don’t want to be a criminal lawyer, dad will kill me.’ That’s a gut punch to even say that.”

What can lawyers do? One simple protocol is Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR). “It is a way to talk to someone whether they might be having thoughts of suicide,” said Bibelhausen. “It’s not counseling, but it’s a brief intervention that’s intended to offer some hope.”

While lawyers may be hesitant to get involved with a client or colleague that is thinking about suicide, Ryan said that the Model Rules of Professional Conduct offer leeway in the situations, “Are you addressing a client with diminished capacity?” Can I help? I think the past hour has shown that you certainly can.”

In his practice, Ryan has seen a number of lawyers wonder what they can do for their clients who may be suicidal. “One of the biggest concerns we get is that myth that ‘only professionals’ can deal with this, but I’m not a mental health expert, so I can’t do anything,” he said. Just starting a conversation about a client or colleagues mental health can be life saving. “You’re not superman, but you can do something.”

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers

Hennepin County Mental Health Emergencies – Cope

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

 

Managing Editor
Nick Hansen

Executive Editor
Joseph Satter