Is An “Unhealthy” Lawyer An Unethical Lawyer?

In itself, of course not. Every situation is different. Every person is different. This is why I was shocked to see a quote come out of the American Bar Association Mid-Year Meeting in Las Vegas. It circulated in social media. ABA President, Robert Carlson addressed the audience on mental health wellness in our profession. I am told it was an emotional, impassioned plea for our profession to take care of ourselves and take care of each other. A wonderful message; but also this from Mr. Carlson:

“If you are not a healthy lawyer, you are not an ethical lawyer.”

 My initial reaction was that it had to be a misquote. He could not be taking the position that the mere fact of being “unhealthy” (I am assuming he is only referring to it in the context of mental health issues) makes a lawyer “unethical.” There had to be a greater context that was not captured in the quote. I asked those who were there. Was it a misspeak? Did he clarify?  Those in attendance while, supportive of the overall message, offered no further context to the quote itself. To my knowledge, there is no transcript of the speech.

The quote standing on its own, leaves me puzzled and troubled.  What’s the conduct? What disciplinary rule has broken by merely struggling? To claim that a lawyer dealing with a mental health issue in itself is unethical conduct makes no sense.

Can an untreated mental health issue lead to a violation of a disciplinary rule and malpractice? Of course. Look in the back of any state bar journal.  It is very possible that some of those  who have been suspended or disbarred will also be struggling with a substance use or other mental health issue. That’s what can happen when a lawyer allows consequences to catch up with the problem instead of seeking help at the earliest possible point. We can all agree that this happens. Many of us have seen it happen. We can also all agree that correlation is not the same as cause.

Let’s be clear. The mere fact of struggling with a mental health issue whether it be depression, substance use, alcohol, etc., does NOT, in itself make a lawyer “unethical.”  The fact that a lawyer may not yet be addressing those issues, does NOT, in itself, make a lawyer unethical. Is a lawyer who is not taking care of himself/herself from a mental health standpoint in greater danger of doing something that jeopardizes a client, not to mention the lawyer?  Yes, it can range from actual malpractice to not working at a level that gives a client the equivalent work effort to the fee paid or even conduct that violates not only the disciplinary rules but breaks the law.

We should all take care of ourselves, so the consequences don’t catch up to the problem. We should take care of each other. Healthy lawyers are good for the profession in general.

What we should not do is shame each other with generalizations about what it means to struggle. This stigmatizes and could keep someone from seeking help. A mentally healthy lawyer is a better lawyer. A healthy lawyer will be a happier lawyer on both a professional and personal level.  A healthy lawyer will be at less risk for conduct that is unethical. A healthy lawyer is better able to help colleagues who struggle. That is the narrative that inspires and heals.