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The good life?

Jim Dinwiddie, Harry Rankin, and Ross Turner had at least five things in common.  They were all from Kentucky.  They were all lawyers.  They were all men.  They were all in their late 40's or early 50's.

And they all killed themselves.  

So have about a dozen other lawyers in Kentucky since 2010.  Lest you think it's something in the water there, it's not.  The Mecklenburg Bar in North Carolina lost eight members to suicide in nine years.  Rick Halprin, a Chicago defense attorney who'd represented numerous mob figures, killed himself three days ago.  Jake Waldrop, a public defender from the Atlanta area, was found dead in his car from a gunshot wound to the chest, a suicide note nearby, in February.  Andy Hart, a federal public defender who had represented Guantanamo Bay detainees and was scheduled to begin a trial this month for one of the people accused of conspiring to blowing up a bridge in the Cleveland area, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in May; he was 38.  A study done back in the 1990's found that male lawyers between the ages of 20 and 64 were more than twice as likely to commit suicide as men of the same age in other occupations.

OACDL, the state criminal defense bar organization, has a listserv, and Hart's death generated a lot of comment there.  Many people knew him, and a lot of them had some very good words to say about him.  And then, too, there's the "there but for the grace of God go I" thought that passes through your mind.  Some confessed to the same feelings of depression and despair that probably drove Andy to take his life.

This isn't an easy profession.  Jim Dinwiddie's son Jay was the executor his estate, and had to review the files his father was handling, a mix of criminal, divorce, and domestic-violence cases.  He believes it contributed to his father's suicide; "just reading the cases I got depressed," he said.  Any lawyer who's been around for a while can tell you about the case he handled, the one where he'll go to his grave believing his client was innocent, but the guy got convicted anyway, and what gnaws on the lawyer is the thought that that's because of something he did or didn't do.  More likely, the lawyer won't tell you about that; he'll carry that around inside.  I know I do.

That's not to single out criminal law.  I stopped doing divorce work because I couldn't stand to see what people would do with their own children, and I really couldn't stand to be a part of helping them do that.  People come to lawyers with their problems, and sometimes dealing with people's problems on a day-in, day-out basis is just too much to bear.  You think the lawyer suicide rate is bad, take a look at the rate for psychologists and psychiatrists.

And then there's the pressure.  This isn't a 9 to 5 job.  There are nights you lie awake trying to figure out how you're going to get everything done.  Or you worry about that big case that you haven't done anything on yet because you just can't find the time, and you think that if only you get a day or two of just to work on that it'll be okay, but you know deep down that you're not going to get that day or two with nothing else to do, and sooner or later that case is going to bite you in the ass. 

But you know what?  It's not a bad life.  You can make a decent buck; it sure beats the hell out of getting paid $7.50 an hour as a home health care aide, changing adult diapers, or a lot of other jobs you can name.  If you can't find somebody else who's worse off than you are, you're not looking very hard.

What struck me about the comments on the listserv, or in reading newspaper articles about lawyer suicides in doing this post, were the frequent references to isolation.  I'm lucky that way.  I work in a big county, and I've been around a long time, so every day when I walk over to the Justice Center I run into other lawyers I know, and we talk about the troublesome clients and the troublesome judges and the troublesome prosecutors, and we laugh about the absurdity of a lot of the things we go through.  "I was getting nothing done quickly for a while there, but now it's taking me longer to get nothing done," a lawyer told me in the elevator the other day.  I knew exactly what he meant, and we both laughed.

So have a laugh today.  Sure, it's tough sometimes, you see things that shouldn't happen, you do or don't do things that you regret doing or not doing, and you know when you get something done there's going to be something else you have to do.  But if you're reading this blog, it means that you care enough to try to be good at what you do, and you probably are.  Take pride in that, and hug a fellow lawyer today.


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