With the work force aging and baby boomers moving toward/entering retirement, there has been an increase in dementia in the workforce. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive disease that worsens with time and impacts the person’s mental functioning in multiple areas. Symptoms often include declining memory (difficulty remembering common words, people, recent events, etc.), declining mental functioning (difficulty doing simple math, disorganization, confusion, etc.), and changes in mood and behavior (mood swings, agitation, social withdrawal, personality changes, etc.). Alzheimer’s disease is usually thought of as a disease that occurs in older adults (onset after 65 years old), but a small percentage of cases occur in those in their 40’s or 50’s (called younger-onset).
If you are concerned about a friend or colleague, the first thing to do is to talk with him or her to see if there is another reason for the changes that you are observing. For example, memory issues and changes in mood are commonly caused by poor sleep (other possible causes include medication side effects, alcohol abuse, stress, anxiety, and depression, just to name a few). For example, anyone with small children at home will know firsthand how poor sleep can dramatically impact your memory and word-finding abilities. Therefore, approaching your friend or colleague with your concerns, and asking if they have noticed the same changes, is a good place to start. Often times, people who are developing dementia try to compensate for the lack of functioning they are experiencing. This, along with a fear of the unknown, can sometimes result in the person feeling defensive or anxious. This is why a supportive, kind, and genuine approach is best. If you do not feel as though you have a close relationship with your colleague (and you think approaching them might not be seen as helpful), I recommend involving trusted colleagues/friends/family members of the colleague you are concerned about. An example of an appropriate conversation can be found here.
But let’s be honest, most people who observe a colleague declining in their ability to practice will most likely do nothing. It’s normal to feel like “someone else” must know more about the situation than you, or that “someone else” who knows the person better is probably handling it. In reality, it is part of our professional (and personal) responsibility to take action to help a colleague who is struggling. Early intervention and treatment leads to better outcomes. Intervening sooner rather than later can result in addressing smaller problems before they become large problems, getting the treatment he/she needs, coming up with creative supports to allow the person to continue working in a different capacity, or actively planning for retirement/handing cases off to another lawyer. In addition, by acting upon our concerns, the attorney can act in a manner that protects their professional reputation, their dignity and, it helps to protect the clients who need competent representation.
At times, an impaired lawyer might not be receptive to the concerns voiced by a colleague or friend. These situations are especially difficult for the attorney involved and those trying to help. While the best outcome or response from your colleague is not guaranteed, avoiding the problem usually makes it worse. If you feel unsure about how to help a colleague in need, give us a call at LCL and we can work with you to come up with some options that might work. As a very last resort, you may need to seek help from the Board of Bar Overseers (BBO) to help define the obligations of everyone involved. If the attorney has become involved in the disciplinary process, you may be able to steer the attorney into the BBO diversion program where they require a lawyer to be evaluated by Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers which may facilitate the individual obtaining the health care necessary to allow them to adjust to their new situation.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, it is always best to act of your concerns rather than ignore them or hope that someone else will step in. At the very least, talk to other colleagues to see if others share your concerns. Next, a simple statement of concern can be the impetus for change. For example, my colleague could approach me and say, “Hi, Shawn. How have things been going for you lately? I’ve noticed that you’ve been having a little difficulty with remembering common procedures that we use every day. Is everything OK?”
If you have questions about how to approach a colleague that you are concerned about, check out our resource page or give us a call at LCL!
Shawn Healy, PhD