Aug 18

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers means many things to many people. Ideally those that seek its services do so before their personal challenges result in professional problems.

I’m a regular member of LCL’s Professional Conduct Group, a group made up of attorneys who have been subject to some form of Board of Bar Overseers discipline. Members represent every stage of the disciplinary process: Most have already been subject to a sanction, be it suspension, or disbarment. Some are in the very earliest stages of the disciplinary process and may even still be practicing pending a temporary suspension or some other, lesser disposition of their matter. Others have already done their time as it were and have already been successfully reinstated to the practice of law. It’s a testament to the importance and power of this group that those lawyers, the reinstated ones, who are under no obligation or mandate to come to this group, continue to do so, in many cases years after they’ve returned to the practice of law.Its customary that at the start of each meeting, when a new person is attending the group for the very first time, that we go around the room and introduce ourselves and give a Cliff’s Notes version of our story, to give the new member a bit of context about who we are and why we’re there. Here’s my Cliff’s Notes version.

I was admitted to the bar in 1994 and shortly thereafter I hung my shingle in suburban Boston. I had a traditional general practice that would look familiar to most solo practitioners. Life unfolded near ideally: I was soon married, we built a modest home, and ultimately had a beautiful daughter. My practice began to grow. Things were near Normal Rockwell perfect. Of course, you wouldn’t be reading this if things stayed that way, would you? In late 2003, at the age of 36, my wife was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer. The cancer had already spread to her liver and bone, her spinal column and hips. The doctor told us she had about twenty four months to live. From the start, I took a take no prisoners, never take no for an answer approach when it came to responding to the situation. I immersed myself into the world of cancer research, and in some ways treated the situation like a case that required my zealous advocacy. My wife was the plaintiff, cancer was the defendant, and we were going to win this thing if I had anything to say about it. We soldiered on for a few years. Twenty four months came and went with my wife availing herself of every new treatment and clinical trial that came down the pike. Of course I continued to run my practice and keep our young family’s life as normal as possible in the face of this dark cloud hanging over our heads.

I did everything I could do to put us in the best possible situation to keep my wife thriving and healthy. What I didn’t do was pay attention to the creeping, growing, depression that I was starting to feel. “Stress” I called it. But as many know, depression is an insidious disease. I had started closing off even my closest friends and stopped participating in the few recreational things I enjoyed. “No time” for that stuff, I told myself. More important things going on I said. And while I continued to serve the clients I had, I wasn’t so eager to take on new matters. Slowly but surely, this growing lack of interest turned to apathy, with apathy, ultimately, turning to neglect. Mail started going unopened, calls going unreturned. Bar dues went unpaid. Obligations and responsibilities were abrogated. It got so bad I sought refuge by ultimately shuttering my practice to take a job outside of the law. All I needed was a change of scenery, I told myself. I had already started at this new job when I learned of a complaint against me at the BBO. Along the way I had successfully settled a personal injury case for a client. He received his portion of the settlement, I received my fee, and I was to pay his outstanding medical bills from the proceeds. Which I substantially did. Of course, substantially does not quite cut it when it comes to such things. As a result of this, and aggravated by other issues of neglect, in mid-2008 I ultimately agreed to a two and half year suspension.

As they tend to do, things only got worse before they got better. I was laid off just a few months later. My wife’s cancer took a marked turn for the worse, having spread to her brain. Our home was foreclosed upon the same month. It was tragi-comic, without the comic.

All that being said, as my wife’s condition worsened her needs obviously grew. Over time I became her sole 24/7 caretaker, while effectively raising our daughter as a single parent. I finally took steps to address my depression and began to right my personal ship. I had retained counsel to assist in getting our house back, with us being able to remain in the home as the legal matter ran its course. I could have applied for reinstatement to the bar in late 2010, but even had I not had these responsibilities at home, I knew I was in no position to return to the practice of law, on multiple levels.

My wife laid waste to the doctor’s initial assertion that she would only make it two years, and lived for 10. She passed away in September of 2013, almost exactly a decade after we learned she was ill. Not long after that, the four year legal battle over our house was resolved successfully, with the end result being my reclaiming ownership of the home. For the first time in a long time, I was able to think about what the future held for me. I had always wanted to return to the practice of law, but I knew I was not in the best possible place for myself to do so in those early days after my wife died. While I had long ago addressed my depression, I knew I had more work to do on, and for, myself, before I would feel I was in the right place to apply for reinstatement. I knew that Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers was going to play an integral part in putting myself there.

So three or four months down the road, when I thought myself ready to start, I picked up the phone, called LCL, and got Barbara Bowe. It was, without exaggeration, the best decision I had made for myself, in a very, very long time.

There is no way I can overstate how important LCL has been on my path to preparing me to return to the practice of law, on both personal and practical levels.

As I mentioned earlier, when a new person joins the Professional Conduct group, it’s customary to go around the room and have each member share what brought them to LCL. Tell a bit about their personal situation, the troubles they’ve run into, the discipline they faced or may be currently facing. From the earliest days of my troubles, I’d always taken responsibility for what got me there. But I never discussed the situation with anyone, and bristled whenever it would come up, in any context. My telling of my story here is vastly different than how I would have related it even 20 months ago when I started at LCL. Not because the facts have changed, not because I had some epiphany about the situation, but because of the work and process that goes on inside the main conference room on the 8th Floor at 31 Milk Street every single month. Sharing my story, hearing the stories of the other participants, helping each other work our way through the peaks and valleys of life as an attorney is all part of the process. Whether it’s a lawyer in the throes of the disciplinary process or someone who has been back practicing for years and keeps returning to LCL because it’s the perfect venue to work their way through the inevitable stresses that arise for any lawyer, the PCG has something to offer. Of course, guiding us through this process is the professional staff of LCL, specifically, Barbara Bowe. Part drill sergeant, part mother hen, she leads us both collectively and individually to the places we need to be.

There is, of course, more to LCL than just groups like the Professional Conduct Group, or the numerous recovery groups LCL offers. LCL has a menu of sorts. You can pick and choose what you need: A little from Column A, a Little from Column B. In my path back to the practice of law, I’ve been fortunate to be able to avail myself not just of the Practice Group, but also of some of LCL’s other valuable offerings, including LCL’s Law Office Management Assistance Program, or LOMAP.

In my case, it had been years since I ran a law practice, and let’s face it, not too well towards the end.  As I began the process towards reinstatement, I knew that much had changed in terms of law office management best practices and technology since I had last worked as an attorney. I called LOMAP and met with Heidi Alexander. One of the first things she did was suggest to me that I write a business plan. What I thought would be a simple exercise was, with Heidi’s guidance, a transformative experience in how I viewed and approached the business side of practicing law. She also introduced me to law practice management software, something I never had in the past. That first day sitting in her office as she ran through demonstrations of different software packages was nothing short of a revelation. I felt like a kid who just got a video game console for the first time.

As I found myself getting closer to hopefully returning to practice, I attended a meeting of LOMAC, LOMAP’s user group for lawyers who utilize Apple computers and products. The meeting was not only great for the content, but for the chance to meet and network with a group of other, mostly solo practitioners. If you’re in any way responsible for a law practice’s business side, especially a solo practice, you are doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t thoroughly check out what LOMAP has to offer.

This past spring I was reinstated to the practice of law in Massachusetts. There is no doubt that this would not have been possible without the help of LCL.

I mentioned a few times how I view, and tell my own personal story so very much differently since I started coming to LCL. I frame it differently, for myself, more than anyone else. Framing; It’s one of the things that LCL allows us to do. To come to look at our own situations not through the light of therapy, or typically well-meaning friends and family, or even personal introspection, but to look at our own situations through the eyes of possibly the only cohort that can truly understand what we’ve been through and how best to come out successfully on the other side. Namely, other lawyers who have been there themselves. Truly, lawyers concerned for lawyers.

 

Steve (guest contributor)

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