Years ago, I heard a sermon about the way people carry secrets around with them. Not Rule-1.6-client secrets. Personal secrets borne of living a life: crimes committed, large and small; flings and affairs; errors and omissions, and so on. Most of us, the sermon suggested, have secrets we protect from disclosure at all costs. People can hold, bury, and guard their secrets so well and for so long that at some point they may not even be aware they are doing it. But secrets ultimately eat away at us. It’s difficult to be a whole, healthy person when your brain is busy maintaining your emotional forcefields and anti-disclosure missile systems.
One of the humbling aspects of being an ethics lawyer is that attorneys share their secrets with me. Some come spilling out over trembling lips. Others must be coaxed, after establishing some trust. I’ve been surprised over the years how many lawyers say to me “Everything I tell you is confidential, right?” Of course it is. I’m your lawyer.
Spoiler alert: there are no spoilers here. I’m not sharing the secrets lawyers share with me. But in representing lawyers over the last dozen years, some common themes have emerged which may help others who tote a heavy bag of secrets around with them.
One is the relief that lawyers experience from merely saying out loud what they have been holding inside. This is true of everything from “simple” errors in handling a client’s case —a missed deadline, a misread statute, a file mislaid for too long — to more serious lapses of judgment. The embarrassment associated with ethical lapses can become it’s own kind of creature. A boggart from the Harry Potter series – the creature that peers into your mind, figures out what you fear most, and then appears as that thing. The incantation a lawyer needs to vanquish it is to describe it to someone else.
Even after the facts are on the table, anxiety runs high amongst my clients. It is somewhat ironic that the lawyers who have committed a minor offense or perhaps are being investigated despite no apparent violation at all display more anxiety than lawyers accused of more serious misconduct. Conscientious lawyers, despite their overall competence and success, may experience acute anxiety from the uncertainty involved in the investigation process, second-guessing their own abilities or practice methods, and questioning why they bother practicing law at all. This anxiety can become, even for otherwise healthy lawyers, debilitating. A healthy person should not hesitate to seek informal or formal assistance when he or she finds that anxiety is regularly distracting them from or interfering with work, family, or other commitments.
Lawyers who choose to share their own history of mental illness or substance abuse, as well as the traumas that underly their disorders, also have a lot in common. There is a standard fear that sharing with one person means the whole world will know, which of course is not the case, especially when sharing with a lawyer. More concerning is the fear that the lawyer will be disciplined more severely for having a disorder, when in fact the opposite is actually true, as long as the lawyer is willing to take steps to understand and seek treatment for their disorder. Closely related to this is a fear that the lawyer will be labelled as someone who is disabled or defective, thus bringing a rapid end to the lawyer’s ability to find clients. One of the great benefits of seeking help through Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers or a 12-Step program is that you meet people just like you who are successfully living with their illness.
Lastly, one of the most remarkable patterns I have noticed in private practice is how understanding and forgiving lawyers’ friends are. I regularly see people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, who are able to get past the human errors that lawyers commit and stand by them. There are people out there waiting to help you, if you let them in on the secret.
(Originally posted in the September 2019 edition of Hennepin Lawyer)