Attorney James F. Ripper had a professional career that a lot of lawyers would have been proud of.
He had practiced for 37 years and his disciplinary record was clean. He was operating a small Rocky Hill, Conn., firm called Real Estate Resources LLC, which focused on commercial and residential transactions, environmental issues and zoning and land use matters.
Then the real estate market took a nosedive, and his practice followed. He started falling behind on rent for his office suite in a building on Silas Deane Highway. At some point, he got desperate for money, and state grievance officials think Ripper dipped into his clients' accounts and took about $125,000.
His situation became untenable. On Nov. 13, Ripper, 64, hanged himself in his Wethersfield, Conn., home. "It appears he saw no way out," said Mark Dubois, the state's chief disciplinary counsel. "This hits close to home because it's such a small bar. He was well thought of by everyone."
Ripper left behind a wife and two adult children.
Ripper's office continues to be staffed by paralegals, none of whom wanted to comment for this story. An attorney was to be named trustee of his practice last week.
Real Estate Resources LLC is just down the street from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a crisis intervention service for bar members. "Some lawyers I know knew him for a long time, and they said they had no clue" of Ripper's troubles, said Beth Griffin, the group's executive director. "You lose a lawyer, whatever the reason, and it's inevitably sad."
Attorney John F. Harvey Jr., of Barry, Harvey & Later in Wethersfield, was a law partner of Ripper's about 25 years ago before Ripper went solo. The two had not socialized since then, but they saw each other occasionally during real estate transactions.
Harvey was across the table from Ripper during a closing about a week before Ripper's death. "He just seemed like himself, just a cooperative, sweet person," Harvey said. His suicide "is an absolute shock and no one can believe it. It's just completely out of the blue."
Dubois said there are usually a couple of lawyer suicides each year in the state, and there could be more that he's not aware of because he doesn't receive official police reports.
"I thought we'd see more of this a year ago," when the economy got significantly worse, Dubois said, "but I wonder if people are now starting to be tapped out on their credit lines and home equity."
'ON HIGH ALERT'
Suicide among lawyers has long been documented to occur two to six times as often as in the general population, according to the American Bar Association. And recessionary times are not helping. Earlier this year, the ABA offered a free online program to members that focused on preventing suicides during a bad economy.
That program came on the heels of the high-profile suicide of Mark Levy, a Washington, D.C., appellate lawyer who regularly argued cases before the U.S. Supreme for the high-powered firm of Kilpatrick Stockton.
Levy shot himself in his office just a few days after learning that Kilpatrick Stockton was laying him off. "We're on high alert because of Mark Levy," said Griffin, of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.
Griffin has heard from several lawyers in similar life positions as Ripper and Levy -- men in their late 50s or early 60s who are facing layoffs, mandatory retirement in their firms, or are feeling their grasp on their practices slip away because the practice of law now requires technological savvy to stay profitable.
"It's hard for lawyers to adjust," Griffin said. "They'll ask me, 'What am I going to do now? All I've ever done is be a lawyer.'"
Just as troublesome are the lawyers who won't open up and talk to someone when they're feeling overwhelmed, Griffin said. "We're educated, as lawyers, to be helpers," she said, and lawyers aren't always comfortable asking for help.
It's not just older lawyers, Griffin said. She gets calls from law school students who read about thousands of young associates being laid off and wonder how they're going to make money in the profession.
Real estate, one of the traditional bread-and-butter practice areas for young lawyers, no longer is as profitable, Dubois said. Consolidations have wiped away local banks. More basic legal work, like real estate document preparation, is heading overseas to India where lawyers with 30 years' experience charge $10 an hour for their services.
"There are more people fighting over a smaller pot and they have to compete with price," Dubois said. "That makes it difficult to pay the rent."
Ripper's case "may be, sadly, the story of another lawyer who became irrelevant" due to rapid changes in the practice of law, Dubois said.
When lawyers are solo practitioners or work in law firms with a handful of attorneys -- as the majority of the bar membership does -- it's easy for lawyers to feel lost and helpless, said Fairfield attorney Frederic Ury.
That opens the door for Connecticut to consider adopting a law office management assistance program, as several others states have done, Ury said. Those programs, much like Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, are designed to be confidential, but they offer help in getting lawyers' practices back in order when they lose control of their finances or the workload overwhelms them.
"In those programs, people come in and help you not do something drastic," said Ury, who heads a state bar association task force on the future of the legal profession. "At a time like this, that would be something worthwhile to look at."
Ury said there's little time for socializing when lawyers are scrambling for business, and members of the bar don't interact with each other enough to know when a fellow bar member is in trouble.
Harvey, the Wethersfield attorney, said the topic of lawyers feeling like they're losing control never comes up in conversations until something tragic happens.
"I don't think lawyers talk about any of this until after the fact," he said. "People are just running around, trying to help their clients and get home by 6 o'clock."
The confidential hotline for Lawyers Concerned For Lawyers in Connecticut, a crisis intervention and support group, is 1-800-497-1422.