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How Do I Say This?

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

He’s late for meetings and seems distracted.  She’s increasingly irritable and rude, even with clients.  He’s disheveled and not himself, and I thought I smelled alcohol.  She’s increasingly withdrawn and moody, and her productivity has slipped markedly.

Regularly we receive calls from lawyers worried about changes in the behavior, performance, and even appearance of a colleague.  The caller’s concern has risen to the level of a call to action; doing nothing is no longer an option.  Circumstances or simple concern dictates some kind of intervention to address the troubled attorney’s performance.

Addressing such a problem in the context of a large firm or corporation is often governed by protocols and procedures outlined in a written policy.  However, in small firms or shared space, what to do is less obvious.  For many, the thought of discussing a behavioral issue with a colleague feels too much like invading personal territory, and poses the risk of reactive anger, defensiveness, hostility (the “butt out” response), as well as rupturing the relationship without achieving the desired results.

It’s helpful to keep in mind the following caveats when thinking about a troubled colleague: 1)  It is not necessary to diagnose the problem, only to describe how or why it is a problem, and how it affects you. (The behaviors described above could indicate depression, anxiety, substance abuse, traumatic stress, marital/family upheavals, medical disorders, and/or something else.)  2)  If the person could solve the problem on their own, they would have done so by now, as the workplace is usually the last place a behavioral problem shows up.  3)  Defenses, (which are, by definition, unconscious and are likely to come into play to some degree) arise in the face of a perceived intolerable threat to one’s physical or psychological well-being, so “saying it with love,” or at least with a spirit of compassion and concern, and a desire or offer to help increases the likelihood that your message will be received.  4)  Seeking good advice in advance of any intervention will help assure an outcome favorable to both the troubled attorney and others affected by his/her behavior.

This is one of those situations when your state’s free and confidential Lawyer Assistance Program (in Massachusetts, will be a valuable resource, and can help you clarify and assess the issue and construct a problem solving strategy to optimize for a win-win outcome.

An article recently posted at entitled Delicate Conversations:  Is It Depression?  Offers a helpful list of Do’s & Don’ts when talking to a colleague affected by  depression, but is also applicable to problems other than depression as well.

Nancy Brown, LICSW

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