Not Fit To Drive a Car

I never quite know how to react when I hear that a lawyer has experienced/is experiencing a mental breakdown during legal proceedings.

Via the Fayetteville Observer:

The former lead prosecutor in the sexual assault court-martial of Fort Bragg Brig. Gen. Jeff Sinclair appeared irrational and suicidal less than a month before the trial, and at times broke down in tears because of the stress of the case, a witness testified at a pretrial hearing Tuesday.

“I’ve never seen a human being so stripped of logic and rationality,” said Brig. Gen. Paul Wilson, the former staff judge advocate for Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, who saw Lt. Col. Will Helixon two days before he quit the case.

“He was absolutely not fit for any kind of duty. I wouldn’t trust him to drive a car” that day, Wilson said.

My personal opinion of LTC Helixon, based on my interactions and observations of him will not be discussed here (or in any other post, for that matter). However, it is certainly illuminating when one of only 3 Brigadier Generals in the Army JAG Corps states (in court, under oath) that he wouldn’t trust you to drive a car because of your mental state.

This made me think about lawyers who find themselves stressed to the point that they can no longer effectively practice law.

Some lawyers operate in the proverbial vacuum. They are alone with their cases, with their only support network being the other voices inside their head. When one of these individuals finds themselves in the midst of a breakdown, I do sympathize. For most, it is a matter of not knowing the appropriate time to force themselves to seek outside help. Though, their obligation as a lawyer extends to knowing when they are incapable of fully performing their required duties.

Those who do not work in a vacuum are a bit more fortunate in this regard. The practice of law is stressful. Nobody doubts that, but it is far easier to endure with an office full of water-cooler-comrades, capable and often willing to let you vent, seek advice, and give support. They are also capable of letting you know when you need to get help or take time away from the law. The Army JAG Corps is one of those places.

If you are an Army defense counsel, you have the handful of other defense counsel in your office (normally a very tight-knit group) along with other DCs at installations within your region (usually 20-40). As if that weren’t enough, a centralized think-tank exists to support any and all DC efforts–the Defense Counsel Assistance Program (DCAP). It is, in my opinion, the best place to be a defense attorney.

Military prosecutors (called Trial Counsel) are no different. In addition to their peers and paralegals in the local office (which is always larger than the defense shop), their supervisory chain, and the chain of command. They also have their own central support via the Trial Counsel Assistance Program.

If you walk into the average court-martial, you’ll see Captains representing the parties (sometimes you’ll see Majors or higher, but those cases are exceptions, not the rule). Most have 2-6 years of experience as a lawyer. For instance, I had 9 months experience as a lawyer when I became the Trial Counsel for the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. When I became a Defense Counsel, I’d been a member of the bar for 4 years. I think I’m relatively average, which was fine because support was always there for me. Thankfully.

The support my peers and I received was phenomenal. I give most credit to our leadership. The most important thing they did was emphasize keeping our cases and our duties in perspective. They stressed the concept of backwards planning, maintaining a healthy balance in our lives, and keeping good accountability of our cases, tasks, and suspenses. Most importantly, they instructed us to consult them if we ever found ourselves overwhelmed. I know of a few who did this, and all received the help necessary to move their cases forward successfully.

Knowing this, I saw, as both a subordinate and a supervisor, that lawyer stress resulted from one of a few things.

1. Poor time management.

2. Poor calendar management.

3. Poor case management.

4. Poor management of personal affairs.

5. Ethical mishaps (usually starting as a small white lie that snowballs over time).

All of these are relatively self-explanatory and are easy to diagnose and critique, unless, of course, you’re the poor sap who finds yourself in the midst of one of these problems.

Having said that, I’m going to make what, to some, is a controversial statement. Here goes:

If you can’t manage yourself or your practice, you have no business representing clients.

I remember an occasion as a law student intern where I observed a preliminary hearing. The defense lawyer, a morbidly obese man, entered the courtroom, waddled to counsel table, and squeezed himself down between the armrests on the chair. Sweat flowed, and his labored breathing was the loudest sound in the room. It took him several minutes to compose himself, finally culminating with him straining to lean far enough to place his briefcase on the floor.

To nobody’s surprise, his shoes were slip-on.

I wondered, as a young, wide-eyed law student, “Where is his focus right now?” Was it on his client, or was he consumed with offering prayers that his heart would continue to provide blood to mounds and mounds of redundant protoplasm? Meanwhile, opposing counsel, a young, fit prosecutor, sat calmly at his table with files neatly arranged–focused. It didn’t take a law degree to know who was more mentally ready for that day’s hearing.

That story doesn’t need to be about a morbidly obese lawyer. It could just as easily be about an alcoholic whose mind was more in a bottle than in a courtroom. Or someone whose poor time management causes them to stress more about the deadlines they failed to calendar than the motion they’ll soon be litigating. Or a guy whose day is filled with dread that the check he wrote for the rent is going to bounce. None are truly fit to practice law. Clients deserve a lawyer who is focused on their case. 100%.

There are those who will label me as an asshole for this, and, if you ask those who know me, that assumption is correct. They’ll say that everyone has problems now and then, and we should be sympathetic and helpful. I agree. We all have problems. We all need help once in awhile. We should support those in our profession who need help. You’re right.

However, during that time, they are not fit to practice law. Not because they have a problem, but because the problems cause them to focus more on themselves than those they are sworn to assist. Our duty mandates that we represent our clients to the utmost, but it also requires that we be able to identify when we are incapable of doing the same.