By Thomas J. Watson
It’s summer, and almost everyone is looking ahead to what we hope will be something that resembles what we remember as “normal,” such as getting back into the office and eventually gathering in person to see each other again. The pandemic isn’t over, of course. Meanwhile, what is the aftermath of the past year and what have the effects been on your practice, your clients, and your own personal health and well-being?
It’s okay to feel stress and anxiety, especially after what we have all been coping with over the past year. But heed the advice of mental health experts: Don’t ignore stress and anxiety with the hope they will go away by themselves.
The past year has certainly been a time of disruption and even some chaos. Practicing law can be accompanied by stress and anxiety at almost any time, but during the pandemic, even more so. Clients’ needs and demands, changing rules for court proceedings, and personal pressures have combined to keep us constantly searching for ways to stay balanced in a topsy-turvy world.
The staff at Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. (WILMIC) have seen a few instances during the pandemic in which the handling of a case and the lawyer’s ability to do so might be explained by the lawyer feeling “overwhelmed,” says Matt Beier, claims attorney at WILMIC. “I have seen instances where lawyers are facing an inordinate number of personal situations that may have had an impact on their practice, and that includes COVID infection. Under those circumstances, anyone could struggle to effectively develop attorney-client relationships and fulfill the normal obligations that a lawyer has to a client.”
Beier says that when personal circumstances overwhelm, things can go sideways quickly for even the best-intentioned lawyers. “Even though these claims I have been working on appear to be without merit, the stress that comes with them can definitely weigh heavily on a lawyer.”
Mary Spranger, manager of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP), has heard from attorneys who essentially worked themselves into having panic attacks because they made a mistake on a case. “We feel like the normal amount of support they received from coworkers would have sufficed pre-COVID-19. However, during the pandemic, we’re seeing a scary trend among lawyers not reaching out for support. Pre-pandemic, colleagues and friends helped provide support and keep things in perspective, and we are missing that now.”
Working remotely from home and courthouses not being open for in-person proceedings contributed to a significant rise in stress and depression among lawyers. Spranger says isolation and loneliness have been among the most common issues she has helped lawyers with during the past year. “This is personal as well as professional. Lawyers who are used to going to court and being part of that community are now unable to access their informational and peer-support sources. One lawyer commented to me, ‘I’ve been practicing 30 years but I feel like a newbie because everything is different now.’ That stress can be unsettling and make people anxious for a return to normal.”
Beier says he worked with a lawyer who got in over his head in a case he was handling. “I suspect that he felt he needed to ‘plow forward’ to keep working and the circumstances affected his judgment. He took a case that was fairly complicated. The lawyer probably should have done more in his representation than he did. However, his communication was lacking and the correspondence showed that he had little patience for an inquisitive and emotional client. Again, as can happen, things snowballed, and with a lack of communication, things got gradually worse.”
Self-help and Outside Resources
Beier says lawyers are used to helping others but often forget to help themselves. Spranger agrees that lawyers need to remember to help themselves and that they sometimes need to be the ones getting the help. “Continue to nurture your important relationships in whatever way you can. Schedule time with friends, colleagues, and mentors by phone or Zoom to maintain your critical supports. Physical health needs are important. At least, focus on the basics of enough exercise, sleep, and eat as healthily as you can. Don’t put off needed medical care. Refill your prescriptions. Seek out extra support.”
She says that people who have mental health diagnoses that typically are well controlled and who regularly take medicine or are engaged in treatment are having their stability challenged. “It is not unexpected that this should be the case. If you find you are struggling, it is not a personal failure, it is a predictable response to stress that none of us has ever faced before. There’s no reason not to ask for help.”
Spranger also suggests lawyers seek out continuing legal education or self-study materials on self-care and lawyer well-being. The staff and volunteers at WisLAP can help provide materials – it is available in abundance. She adds that lawyers should “practice creative activities and hobbies when possible. This is a form of self-care that can be restorative and mindful, as well as redirecting your thoughts away from work. Don’t view this as a waste of time. Self-care helps with productivity in the long run.”
In addition, lawyers should not be shy about taking a step back. Promoting work-life balance for yourself and in your law firm and among your associates makes sense and can help you and your colleagues be better lawyers.
Brian Anderson, senior claims counsel at WILMIC, says there are many different causes for malpractice claims against lawyers, including missing a deadline, failing to properly apply the law, inadequate discovery, and neglecting a client. But he adds they sometimes stem from the same thing: an overworked lawyer overlooking something that could have prevented the problem in the first place.
“A common theme behind many of the claims we have observed at WILMIC is the client’s belief that his or her case was not important to their lawyer. When talking about the claim, the lawyer will often admit to us that the client’s case ‘fell through the cracks’ and that the overall communication should have been better. Many lawyers are starting to see the value of taking a day to just organize their files and to touch base with their clients to ensure that the lines of communication are clear. Finally, when a lawyer is feeling overwhelmed and stressed, sometimes taking a day off to clear their mind is the best way to come back to the office reenergized.”
Lawyers who are concerned that self-help is not sufficient for themselves or colleagues should consider reaching out for expert assistance. One resource is WisLAP, a member service of the State Bar of Wisconsin, which provides free confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, and law students and their families in coping with any substance misuse, mental health challenges, or other stressors that negatively affect the quality of life and the practice of law. The program is designed to help State Bar members and their families build on their strengths and to provide support through offering services that promote physical, mental, and emotional health.
Beier says there are a couple lessons to learn from the claims matters he has worked on during the pandemic. “First, lawyers need to recognize when they need help, personally and professionally. It is never too late to get help, but it is more challenging after you are in the thick of defending a malpractice claim.”
Identifying organizations and people such as WisLAP and Mary Spranger while things are going well may prove to be very helpful. There is nothing wrong with reaching out for help to calm your mind so that you can be a better lawyer and healthier person. Along those same lines, a lawyer might not always need to consult a mental health professional for help. As Spranger points out, it is important to network so that colleagues may be able to offer an ear on a personal or professional level.
Beier says that his work with overworked or overwhelmed lawyers, especially during the pandemic, has underscored the importance of effective communication. “When communication fails, clients become upset, and it results in Office of Lawyer Regulation grievances and sometimes malpractice claims. It is imperative that when things are going badly personally for a lawyer, communication still needs to be maintained. Otherwise, lawyers run the risk of further complicating their own situation.”
WisLAP Can Help
The Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) offers confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students, and their families who are suffering from alcoholism, substance abuse, anxiety, and other issues that affect their well-being and law practice.
WisLAP 24-hour helpline: (800) 543-2625
WisLAP Manager Mary Spranger
(800) 444-9404 ext. 6159
WisLAP Coordinator Jason Magill
(800) 444-9404 ext. 6151
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
(800) 273-TALK (8255); suicidepreventionlifeline.org