Recognizing + Helping a Distressed Colleague

Members of the legal profession, particularly in British Columbia, have a long and noble tradition of helping one another. In my work with LAPBC I am continually gratified by their willingness to help one another.

As the bar has increased in size, it has been easier for distressed members to go unhelped or even unnoticed. Now, more than ever, we need to look out for one another and be prepared to offer help where appropriate. There is an increase in the number of lawyers who are collapsing. I increasingly hear of lawyers paralyzed and non-functional. After the fact, after they have already been disciplined, I hear about many individuals who have run afoul of the Law Society or have gotten into some other serious trouble. How can we offer help to these individuals before they get into such serious trouble?

Do you know someone who is struggling? Have you and others been talking about and been concerned about a colleague? If so, call LAPBC. We will offer help. Perhaps we can assist you to help that person. Perhaps we can do some form of outreach and offer assistance. We at LAPBC are non-judgmental-and we suggest you be also.It is not your duty, nor in anyone's best interest, to attempt to diagnose a fellow member's medical or personal problems. However, in a compassionate workplace we must care about one another, and distress will usually cause warning signs in attendance, performance and behaviour.

Attendance

Whether due to chronic pain syndromes, depression, smouldering substance dependence or chronic unrelieved stress (such as that experienced by a person living in an abusive alcoholic home or with a chemically dependent child), workers with these complex conditions will eventually begin to lose time from work. They will take more sick days. When off with an injury or illness, they often take longer to return than other workers do. There are often patterns of absence: seasonal, around weekends and holidays. They are more likely to be late. They may miss appointments.

Performance

Erratic is the adjective to describe workers with chronic biopsychosocial conditions. Look out for deterioration of performance. On some days their work will be excellent, on other days it might be unacceptable. They forget things and make mistakes. They begin to make errors in judgment. They postpone or procrastinate to a serious degree. They may fail to return telephone calls or correspondence. They may ramble on and even lose their train of thought while talking or even making submissions.

Behaviour

Others begin to avoid them because they are moody, volatile, irritable. They often look sick and tired. They are often needlessly hostile, or perhaps erratic in their behaviour. They often choose to work in an isolated job, where they can avoid interaction-and supervision. They may have interpersonal problems, with fellow workers and with supervisors, and often they are more likely to file complaints about others. They gradually develop fat files: human resources files, files at the Law Society or with the Insurance Fund and medical files at the doctor's office. Again, pay particular attention when a colleague's behaviour changes, from once-courteous to now-rude or erratic.Other risk factors and red flags of possible distress include:

  • claims/litigation, excessive complaints by clients and/or staff, law society complaints, workplace discipline;
  • shift in status (promotion, demotion, change in hours);
  • divorce/separation, deaths/grieving, financial difficulties, loss of job; and
  • signs of "stress", such as complaining of overwork and stress.

In talking with many lawyers, I have found a lot of concern for our profession and a lot of goodwill among our members. There does, however, seem to be a reluctance to interfere in others' lives. Perhaps there is a reluctance to risk confrontation. LAP is not asking you to interfere in anyone's life, to subject yourself to an unwanted confrontation or to jeopardize anyone in any way. We want only to offer help to those who may need it, and who perhaps may even want it but are unwilling to ask for that help.

If you find yourself talking about someone you think is having a problem or problems, be constructive and share your concerns with LAPBC. Call us at 604.685.2171 or 1.888.685.2171. Each call we receive is treated as confidential. We treat each communication as having solicitor/client confidentiality.

Once we receive two independent calls/referrals about a person who is exhibiting attendance, performance and/or other behaviours that are causing concern to others, we approach the person. We are non-judgmental; we do not prejudge or pre-assess the person. We are concerned with observations of behaviours and conduct, not with conclusions about the cause of those behaviours. Our approach involves presenting information (without identifying the source) to the individual, asking them what is going on, and offering assistance and/or information. This is all done in the strictest of confidence. We base our approach on empathy and compassion. We are non-disciplinary. And we are respectful of each person.

Once we have made contact with a distressed person, we offer a wide variety of help, including short-term counselling, practice assistance, pro bono counsel, referrals, assessments, information and ongoing support. Sometimes, just having a friendly and empathetic person to talk to is just what another person needs and wants.

Remember, the compassionate thing to do is to offer help. Often I have called to ask how a person is doing and to offer help-and I have been greeted by a welcoming and sometimes even relieved person.