Hurley: How JLAP helps attorneys battling depression

Keywords JLAP

By David Hurley

I have been practicing law in Indianapolis for nearly 40 years. Throughout that period and before, I have suffered from severe major depression. Depression for me has always been one of degree. It never goes away. It is never cured. It is only managed, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I desperately try to live what I can consider to be a normal life like many others do, but oftentimes I do not. For the most part, I have been able to practice law while coping with depression, but it has never been easy.

Approximately 20 years ago, I helped found a mental health support group with the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program. During the 1990s, I built up enough nerve to “go public” about my illness. I started to give speeches to other lawyers, eventually teaching seminars and writing articles. That seems like a lifetime ago. Very few lawyers at that time would disclose publicly their struggles with depression. Fortunately, that climate for disclosure has changed for the better, and now many lawyers and judges have publicly said it’s OK to be diagnosed with depression and be a successful attorney at the same time.

With the development of the JLAP support group, I started working with other lawyers, trying to find ways to help them deal with their depression while successfully practicing law. What I have learned is that, as in many support groups, talking openly with fellow attorneys allows group members to discuss their issues while getting emotional support from their fellow lawyers.

Getting a lawyer to reach out for help is never easy. Support groups help, but sometimes lawyers are not ready emotionally to seek assistance from others. Often, I’ve worked with attorneys who tell me they were fearful a client, partner or others would find out about their illness and they would be punished or ostracized for it. The stigma attached to depression has been a major factor for lawyers getting help.

Although I have worked with and counseled many attorneys over the years, I try not to lose sight of the fact that I’m no different from them. In fact, my depression has many times been worse than that of the lawyers I help, and I have had some episodes that have been very serious. People such as me always think we are here solely to help others. It is very difficult to accept help from anyone. Until very recently, that was the way I lived.

Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure to work with Amanda Whipple. I met Amanda at a JLAP meeting and began to help her through some rough times. I not only counseled her, but we started doing some legal work together. We bring different strengths to the table, while our weaknesses seem to be offset by the other. Earlier this year, Amanda joined my law office, and in addition to teaching, she is developing a very successful practice. I continue to mentor her and help her with her personal struggles, but recently our roles have been reversed.

Although I knew my depression had worsened over the past few years, I just accepted it like I always had in the past. The insidious nature of the disease had crept up on me, and I lost sight of the fact that I’m no different from anyone else who suffers from this terrible illness. I assumed I would fight this battle alone, and I would never let another lawyer help me. But Amanda, by dealing with her issues of depression and anxiety in an effective manner, knew how to get me to open up and accept help from her. As a friend and JLAP volunteer, Amanda has been able to help keep me from destroying my practice and myself.

What Amanda has done for me is nothing less than life-saving. She has helped me get my legal practice back on track and supported me through some pretty rough times. I continue to deal with some significant issues, but no longer am I doing it by myself. What I have learned from this experience is that at one point you can be the mentor, while at another time you can be the mentee. Sometimes you fill both roles at the same time. I have a better appreciation of how hard it is to reach out to a fellow lawyer and ask for help. It gives me a much better perspective to try to walk in their shoes. But most importantly, it has given me a better understanding that people want to help you and will help you when you have the strength and courage to ask for and accept their help.

(Note: Amanda agreed to be included in this article. JLAP never discloses names without permission).

David Hurley is a partner in the Indianapolis firm of Hurley & Hurley PC and is a frequent speaker in the legal community on the topics of substance use and depression. Amanda Whipple is a general practice attorney in Indianapolis, an adjunct instructor and a JLAP volunteer.

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