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It’s Safe to Seek Help to Get Well

BY TOM NELSON

There’s no doubt about it, ours is a complicated profession—a collage, and sometimes a cacophony, of characteristics. Difficult to enter; challenging to succeed at; often noble; occasionally disparaged; demanding as well as fulfilling; dedicated to doing good and sometimes doing well. We bear the burden, and enjoy the privilege, of guarding and making real our nation’s promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is a calling as well as a career. 

Along the way, our work can take a toll. With duties and privileges come demands; clients and colleagues expect us to be in control (or at least look like we are) and ready to take control in order to solve problems or seize opportunities. But there are perils, and those perils can put our own happiness and health at risk. Our journey can turn into a complex and toxic mobius strip—rooted in ambition, competition and zealous representation (at the core of our nature, and drivers of our success)—but too often morphing into workaholism and sometimes alcoholism or other substance use, or causing persistent (not episodic) stress and exhaustion—leading to numbing anxiety and, too often, suicidal despair. Sometimes it’s just too much to bear; and sometimes we can’t simply rally and “snap out of it.” Alarmingly, this is part of the life of younger lawyers just as much as, or even more than, those of us who are more senior. 

All of which is rough enough, and then, to make matters even worse, we add “stigma” to it all. Self-stigmatization as well as the stigmatizing, the “otherizing,” of others—arising out of the perceived or presumed “weakness” implicit in needing or asking for help; made worse by the belief that seeking help won’t be confidential, let alone effective, and that it will lead to negative professional consequences. It’s one of our “taboos;” a hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) bias and moment of discrimination. Why do we do it? Perhaps it’s our penchant toward perfectionism; or perhaps it reflects our need to say to ourselves: “Well, at least I’m not as flawed as he or she is.” Wherever it comes from, it doesn’t reflect us at our best. 

It’s also a bit of a relic. Please don’t tell me that you don’t remember the recent “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” dodge—not only a form of stigmatization, but a formalization of the stigma, a buying-into the stigma. Or the shameful shaming of Senator Eagleton arising out of his history of mental health care, when he was a vice-presidential candidate (for whom our 8th Circuit courthouse in St. Louis is now named). Long ago; but maybe not. Even in our legal analysis, we have fostered certain stigmas, with an allegation of a “loathsome disease” deemed defamatory per se (like leprosy or, yes, mental illness; but not diabetes and, at least after a 1997 New York ruling, not cancer; really). Such stigmatizing hurts us all. It causes valuable colleagues to hide inward, and to not seek help; it corrodes the core of our own existence. Silence in the face of such stigmatizing enables and perpetuates the stigma. Silence, in this way, truly is consent. 

The good news, though (and yes; I know: “What took you so long?”), is that it is in our hands and hearts to meet these challenges. Borrowing from Cassius, the fault lies “not in our stars but in ourselves.” The troubling threads woven into the fabric of our profession are neither necessary nor inevitable. We can solve this. Solving problems, after all, is one of the things that we lawyers do best. 

So, what are we going to do? Well, first of all, we can tell ourselves and others to stop stigmatizing, although that only goes so far. We also have to make it clear that it really is “safe to seek help to get well;” and then we have to make it real. Maybe we don’t need another “summit” or conference (especially in the midst of our current coronavirus-related circumstances); and maybe that would be “preaching to the choir” anyway. Instead, we’re creating a 24-hour resource—an any-time and no-matter-where on-demand video with pledges and promises that, yes, it is safe to seek help to get well. These promises will come from leaders at every stage of lawyers’ lives. From the Deans, Admissions Officers, career advisors and faculty of our law schools; to the Board of Law Examiners and the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. From law firms and other legal employers and recruiters (who will view these issues as more than risk management moments) to clients (who depend upon advice from lawyers who are healthy and strong, not impaired). That may well lead to a new “business case” for wellness—with clients demanding that the firms they work with be expressly and demonstrably dedicated to the wellness of their lawyers (much like the “business case” for diversity and inclusion). Our promises will also come from justices and judges, and professional liability and healthcare insurers; and from bar associations and CLE leaders. These and other members of our profession—both institutional and individual—are ready to say it out loud and to mean it when they say: “It’s Safe to Seek Help to Get Well.” 

I know; I know; this may all be a bit Don Quixote-ish—especially in the face of one of our profession’s dominant personality traits: skepticism. If we say “it’s safe to seek help to get well,” it might well prompt some of our colleagues to say: “Ya, right; best of luck with that.” I get that; such is life. But this is important; the health of our colleagues and our profession depends upon it. We can and should will our way through our and others’ skepticism. Our core is good enough to succeed at that, and our duty is clear. So say it out loud, to yourself and to others: “It’s safe to seek help to get well.” Mean it; count on it; make it so. 


TOM NELSON is a partner at Stinson LLP (formerly Leonard, Street and Deinard). He is a past president of the Hennepin County Bar Association.