Interlock Member Assistance Program

On the verge of collapse: how to help a colleague in trouble

by Nancy Payeur, Regional Director, Interlock

"A partner in our firm recently lost several cases he should have won. Not only that, but two of the firm's clients have complained to the Law Society that he hasn't followed up on their files. And his behaviour towards other lawyers and staff at the firm has dramatically changed. This is someone who is normally very outgoing, and now he's withdrawing . spending most of the day behind closed doors. When we ask him if anything's wrong, he denies any problems. This has been going on for months now, and it's not getting any better."

The above scenario is typical of those I hear from lawyers who have contacted Interlock out of concern for a colleague. It's easy to overlook the early signs of distress in others with whom we work. We may sense something is wrong, but are not sure - or may conclude that it's a private matter and that a gesture of help will not be welcome. We may even harbour resentment if a colleague's failings are impacting on us directly in the workplace and think it's up to them to take responsibility for their own problems like everyone else.

Avoiding a problem can have serious consequences, however, both for a lawyer in trouble and for others in the firm. Lawyers need to rely on each other. For partners in particular, the overall financial interests of the firm, as well as the interests of each partner, bring a heightened sense of urgency to the situation.

If you are wondering whether another lawyer needs help, here are some warning signs of distress:

  • photo of two people having a discussionLateness or absenteeism
  • Missed deadlines or court dates
  • Forgetfulness
  • Lowered productivity and drastically reduced billable hours
  • Increased number of personal calls
  • Personality changes: irritability, mood swings, angry outbursts
  • Withdrawing or avoiding others
  • Alarming statements - suggesting self-harm or threats
  • Deterioration in personal appearance and grooming
  • Signs of severe fatigue
  • Signs of potential drug/alcohol use: bloodshot eyes, smell of alcohol.

The lawyer I've described in my scenario may be struggling with any number of things - marital problems, a runaway teenager, addictions, a psychiatric illness, workload stress or pressing financial difficulties. He may be "collapsing" - losing control of his life in a number of ways and finding that his habitual coping methods no longer work.

Law firms often wait far too long to attempt to address a situation that may already be chronic. This may be due to a natural reticence or awkwardness about approaching a colleague on the sensitive issue of work performance, or to the human tendency to deny or minimize concerns until they are blatantly obvious to all. But whatever the reason, delay may worsen the problem. A matter that could have been dealt with effectively early on can easily become entrenched and more difficult to turn around later. At that point, a partner may instead be expelled from the partnership and end up trying to work alone - unprepared and without adequate resources and support. That can easily lead to a marginal legal practice that spells further problems ahead for both the lawyer and clients. 

Recommended steps in making the approach

My advice in such a situation is straightforward. The partner who has the most positive relationship with the lawyer must make the approach and level with him or her. I would usually suggest this as the first step. The person confronting the lawyer needs to be prepared for a range of reactions - from defensive denial to angry counter-attack. In the best of all possible outcomes, the lawyer will acknowledge the concerns, possibly explain what is going on and admit that he or she needs some help. Here are the key steps to follow.

Express concern for the person's well-being

We are all better able to hear criticism when we believe that someone is trying to be a caring human being, and there is positive intent.

Review the specifics

During the meeting, you must calmly build your case, describing examples of the concerns, including complaints from clients, deadlines or court dates missed, irritable or withdrawal behaviour, etc. The goal is not to provide an amateur diagnosis or become a counsellor to your colleague, but to provide clear, compelling and unequivocal feedback about a pattern of behaviour occurring over a period of time that is causing serious concern. When you are making this approach on behalf of a number of partners, let the lawyer know this, as kindly as possible, to indicate the seriousness and urgency of the situation. 

Listen to the response

Your colleague may surprise you and acknowledge your concerns readily and openly. Or he or she may deny or minimize the problem, or become angry, perhaps accusatory. Do not be drawn into arguing, but continue listening actively and probe for an understanding of that point of view. Restate and summarize your concerns and give the person time to think over your feedback if that appears necessary. Don't leave things hanging though — follow up within 24 hours to finish the conversation. 

A plan of action

Whatever the response, let your colleague know that you will provide concrete support and will help sketch out specific plans to "get things back on track." Depending on the core issue, this will include a range of alternatives.

If the lawyer needs to improve practice management skills, the plan could include additional training, appropriate systems and administrative support. If the lawyer's ability in certain areas of the law is the issue, the plan could include a mentorship structure, the help of lead counsel on specific types of cases, continuing legal education or limiting the lawyer's practice in the firm to proven areas of competence.

If personal or family issues are involved - including addictions, marital or mental health issues - you will need to provide information and assistance, such as a referral to Interlock's Member Assistance Program. You may also wish to consider exploring resources available through the Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP), including ongoing peer support. 

A final note

Remember that you cannot take responsibility for "fixing" the problem. All you can do is let your colleague know your concerns are serious and together plan a way to resolve them. You do need to ensure there is follow-through, and that your colleague understands that things cannot continue unchanged. In the case of either a partner or an associate in your firm, it needs to be clear what actions will be taken if changes are not forthcoming. Both elements - supportive resources and clear requirements for change - are necessary components of a successful plan.

These conversations take courage. Give yourself credit for facing the problem directly and offering help. The rest is up to your colleague.

How to reach Interlock

Interlock offers personal counselling and referral services that are confidential and available at no cost to individual BC lawyers and articled students and their immediate families. Interlock can help with personal, relationship and family problems, stress management, substance abuse or work-related concerns.

Interlock can be reached at: 

Lower Mainland: 604 431-8200
Toll-free in BC: 1-800-663-9099