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When lawyers need help, let’s make sure they don’t fear getting it

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When lawyers need help, let’s make sure they don’t fear getting it

Florida Supreme Court

Most lawyers work in stressful jobs. Mine often is. So are the jobs of most of my friends in the profession.

Chief Justice Jorge LabargaIt is no surprise, then, that stress-related disease hits attorneys at a much higher rate than other people. It is a normal hazard of the job. We take on other people’s problems, so their stress becomes our stress. It is wholly predictable.

Yet for decades now we have treated the effect of stress as though it were something unusual and shameful. The results too often have been disastrous.

That is why Florida’s legal profession has decided it no longer can continue treating stress-related medical care as something to be discussed in whispers.

Attitudes need to change. Lawyers must be realistic about themselves and their jobs. They must be encouraged to get medical care without hiding the problem until it gets out of hand.

What lawyers face is not very different from repeated physical injuries. There was a time, for instance, when sports injuries were treated much the same way lawyers have treated their own job stress.

Athletes were expected to suffer in silence “for the good of the sport.” The predictable result was that minor injuries accumulated into major threats that ruined lives, ended careers, and damaged families.

Lawyers have made this same mistake with their job stress. We have looked the other way until the strain kills or maims.

Stress without proper care contributes to the higher-than-usual rates of addiction, suicide, and mental illness we see among lawyers.

This is not a question of shame. It is a question of health.

We have seen too many high-profile tragedies. In recent years, our profession has watched highly respected litigators suddenly commit suicide without once telling their closest friends about their troubles.

We have seen skilled lawyers at the height of their talent suddenly collapse under the strain of their careers. And we have watched some of our best talent succumb to alcoholism and addiction because individuals felt unable to get help at an earlier point.

We also are seeing far too many lawyers who suffer in silence or who falter in their careers because they think they will be punished for getting the care they need. Imagine how we would react if the same were true of lawyers with a treatable condition like diabetes.

Lawyers who are afraid to get help will not get help. They will suffer alone until their health gives way, causing problems that could have been avoided for their clients and themselves.

No more. The entire profession shares this problem and must find solutions. The attitudes of the past that allowed this problem to continue must change.

The Florida Bar recently has begun a push to destigmatize addiction and mental-health treatment among its members. I applaud this move.

For four years as chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, I have seen too many instances of attorneys who have fallen into professional ruin simply because they were afraid to get care.

We certainly will continue to protect the public and the clients of our state’s lawyers. No one is suggesting otherwise.

But we also must create a professional environment that encourages lawyers to recognize the effects of stress before they can grow into something catastrophic and irreversible.

The time has come for change. The Florida Supreme Court is fully behind the Bar’s effort to address the problem.