The recent suicide of a federal public defender in the State Bar of Georgia parking deck served as a tragic exclamation point for an effort by bar associations in Georgia and elsewhere to stem an often-unseen tide of suicides—successful and attempted—among attorneys.
In what she termed a "bizarre, intense" revelation, Georgia Bar President Robin Frazer Clark said investigators determined that at the very time Thomas "Jake" Waldrop was sitting in his car and preparing to take his own life, between 1 and 2 p.m. on Feb. 12, she and the bar’s Executive Director Cliff Brashier were having a lengthy conversation about her proposed "How to Save a Life" initiative.
"It’s chilling," said Clark. "Literally two minutes after we hung up, Cliff called me back and said, ‘I have some very bad news.’ We were discussing it while a man was committing suicide in our parking deck."
Clark said she is aware of at least three Georgia lawyers who have taken their own lives in the last nine months, including Waldrop. The suicide of an Emory Law School student last year had already spurred a panel discussion there aimed at throwing light on the stresses that can trigger depression or substance abuse and start a spiral that can, if left unchecked, end in suicide.
Three days after Waldrop’s death, Clark named a five-member panel to a new Suicide Prevention and Awareness Committee that was part of her initial plan.
J. Randolph Evans of McKenna Long & Aldridge will chair the panel, which also includes Duane Morris partner and former bar president Bill Barwick; bar executive committee member Elizabeth L. Fite of Kutak Rock; Decatur family law practitioner and state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver; and Atlanta solo Charles "Chuck" Pekor Jr., who chairs the bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program Committee.
The panel’s task, according to the appointment letter, is to "develop new means through which to provide Bar members, their families and colleagues with suicide prevention resources and information, including understanding the warning signs, myths and realities, and attorney specific risks."
According to figures circulated at a bar seminar last week, "The Attorney’s First Aid Kit," the suicide death rate for lawyers is six times that of the general population, and it is the third-highest cause of death for lawyers.
Attorneys are also among the professionals most prone to suffer from depression, according to course materials. A 2008 review of several studies estimated that of about 1 million lawyers in the United States, 250,000 suffer from some form of depression.
Evans, whose practice includes professional negligence, said his interest in the causes and prevention of suicide began with a client.
"I had a client, an attorney with a potential malpractice claim, and it just consumed him," Evans said. "He had [malpractice] insurance, but this claim was all he could think about. He had a 30- or 40-year practice, and he felt like it was about to collapse around him."
After the client took his own life, Evans said, "I tried to learn everything I could about it. Over my career, I’ve had a couple of other acquaintances who’ve attempted suicide; between the career pressures and the economic pressures, people are becoming more susceptible, I think."
Evans said that educating lawyers—as well as their colleagues, friends and families—is key to the program. Other states are already taking the lead in such efforts, he said, and Georgia is learning from their experiences.
"Texas has got a very progressive program and a great video, and some other states do as well; we’re trying to collect all of that," said Evans. "Education is really the single most important tool. There are patterns of communication that are pretty clear signs that something is wrong."
According to a 2009 white paper authored by attorney C. Stuart Mauney of Greenville, S.C.’s Gallivan, White & Boyd, "The Lawyers’ Epidemic: Depression, Suicide and Substance Abuse," the symptoms of depression include a depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, a change in sleeping patterns, fatigue, indecisiveness, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt and recurrent thoughts of suicide.
The warning signs of suicide include an unrelenting low mood, pessimism, hopelessness, desperation, anxiety, inner tension, withdrawal and sleep problems.
Alcoholism, according to the paper, is a factor in 30 percent of all completed suicides, it said.
Evans said that, had he been more cognizant of the warning signs, he might have been able to intervene and prevent his former client’s suicide.
"If I had only known; there are certain kinds of language patterns, certain kinds of conduct that indicate that they don’t see any solution to their problems," he said. "The signs were there, I just didn’t see them."
The bar has a 24-hour confidential hotline through its Lawyer Assistance Program that is served by an outside referral service. Attorneys and law students can call 1-800-327-9631 for help. Pekor lauds the service it provides, which includes the availability of round-the-clock professional counselors.
As a member of the LAP Committee for six or seven years, Pekor said he and fellow committee members are often called upon to offer after-hours advice, referrals, or even to drive a troubled lawyer to an emergency Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
"I get these calls literally at 2 o’clock in the morning," said Pekor. "We have a hotline, but sometimes a lawyer wants to talk to another lawyer. The LAP Committee has a pretty extensive program: You can get counseling, your family and children can get help. We get a lot of calls from family members, and even some from judges who are worried about a lawyer."
"Everything is completely confidential," Pekor emphasized.
Pekor, himself a recovering alcoholic who weathered his own professional and personal turbulence many years ago, said he appreciates the need for a dedicated suicide-oriented program.
"There’s not a practicing attorney anywhere, essentially, that doesn’t deal with anxiety on a routine basis," said Pekor. "The depression goes hand in hand with that; there’s so much stress. … An awful lot of our suicides over the last few years haven’t been down and out, or about to be disbarred, they’re people from all walks of life, outwardly successful with a good practice."
"Probably 75 percent of those suicides were preventable," Pekor said. "There are a lot of warning signs you can look for, and that’s what we’re trying to raise awareness of. It’s astonishing how much good you can do just talking to someone who’s willing to listen."