Professionalism in Practice Newsletter Article, Summer 2024

Authored by Michelle Fontenot.

I am the director of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program (TLAP) and am so happy to be in a position where my background as a therapist and as a lawyer are combined in a daily way. This makes me realize that the excessive number of years I spent in graduate school led me to a place where I can be of service to the legal community.

The ethical conundrums of the work that we do at TLAP arise in many ways. As you may know, lawyers and law students struggle with mental health and substance use challenges more than the general population. Attorneys also contemplate and die by suicide at extremely high rates. Our program tries in many ways to let the legal community know that it is safe and confidential to call us for help.

So here are some issues that I’ve dealt with in my work. Many of the issues and the hallmark of our program is to maintain the confidentiality of callers. We work hard to make sure that people know that they can feel safe that calling TLAP will not lead to any reports of their challenges to the disciplinary system or to the Board of Law Examiners.

How do we encourage lawyers to call us before they are in a crisis? How do we encourage the legal community to call when they have concerns about another legal professional without feeling like they are getting that attorney in trouble? We know from experience and from research that problems are easier to deal with when they are in the beginning stages. Attorneys know that waiting until the last minute is a terrible way to practice law and usually not very effective. The same is true of situations of mental illness, substance use and stress. It’s much easier to address all of these issues when they first arise. But there is a huge stigma in the legal community that causes lawyers to not ask for help. Attorneys often function as islands and pretend that they don’t need help with anything. What I know from my own experience is that when I became a lawyer, I was presumed competent, but certainly didn’t feel competent. I needed someone to watch and follow their example. My first boss became and remains a mentor to me. She would come watch me in hearings and trials and give me questions to ask and feedback later. This was initially embarrassing, but I quickly learned the value of being vulnerable in making me a much better litigator. My mentor remains someone I call when I face quandaries in my legal career.

How do we maintain confidentiality when someone calls us to report another attorney that they are concerned about? I have gotten creative with callers who want to keep something in their files to confirm that they have met their ethical obligation to report impaired attorneys under Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct 8.03(c). I have sent emails to the reporting attorney thanking them for making a report without using any attorney names. Additionally, I suggest they keep a record of the call in their files.

Other times, when I have called an attorney in response to a concern by a colleague, the attorney wants to know or guess who called in to report them and they often play a guessing game. It’s pointless for them to ask and name a variety of people because we never divulge the name, but it is understandable for people to want to know who saw their need. I struggle with how best to communicate that the person who called did so out of care and move the conversation toward a conversation of the resources available to them. Generally, given the statistics of lawyer mental health challenges, I let them know they are not alone in their struggles and getting help is a step of hope and wisdom.

Lastly, I struggle sometimes with the emotional weight of holding onto the stories I hear in calls that I receive in my job. Usually, I am good at taking care of myself and set good boundaries on my work. However, when things are harder in my life, I tend to struggle more with the emotional weight of hearing people’s struggles. Those are the times that I cherish hearing about how someone was helped by calling. I often ask a caller how they heard about TLAP. I just heard from someone that they remembered TLAP was a resource because when they were a 1L, TLAP spoke at their orientation. Despite the fact that they graduated 6 or 7 years earlier, they remembered that there was a safe place to get help and they called. That was a good day!

Bluebook Citation

Professionalism in Practice Newsletter Article, Summer 2024 Texas Center for Legal Ethics (2024), from https://legalethicstexas.com/on-the-merits-blog/professionalism-in-practice-newsletter-article-summer-2024/ (last visited Jul 18, 2024)

Show All Articles