When your client commits suicide, what do you do?
Anyone who has done family law for any length of time has experienced the concern and uncertainty that accompanies having a clinically depressed or otherwise unstable client. While attorneys have to maintain a degree of professional detachment in order to best represent our clients’ interests, that does not mean we are immune to concerns over our clients’ mental health.
Some clients are able to process the dissolution of their marriage as a business transaction, focusing on what needs to be done to get through and, eventually, out of the system. Others have a more visceral, emotional response; these are the ones who generate the most concern.
Our Professional Responsibility
If you accept a client into your care, evaluate their circumstances and give appropriate advice, obtain the best results reasonably possible, but leave that client, when everything is done, without the emotional resources to deal with the detritus of their fragmented relationship and move on with their life, I believe you have not reached the full potential of your job.
Attorneys are not therapists, and many of the personal characteristics that go into making an effective attorney, are counterproductive in a therapeutic environment; nevertheless, we have an obligation to obtain sufficient knowledge and understanding that we can recognize those fragile individuals who need more than ‘legal’, advice, and to encourage them to obtain the professional assistance and support that we, as attorneys, cannot provide.
Recently one of my former clients took her own life.
My professional involvement ended in October 2021, but I had watched the online docket because I wanted to see what was going on in her case, and because I was concerned about how she was coping. On an intellectual level, I can tell myself that that I had no ethical responsibilities after I was relieved as her counsel, and that there is nothing I personally could have done to prevent what happened. On an emotional level, it’s entirely different.
Continuing Education: A Gap in Emotional Learning
The California Bar Association requires 25 hours of continuing legal education in a three year cycle. From that total, you must have four hours on legal ethics, one hour on competence and at least two hours dealing with elimination of bias.
Note what is missing: any requirement for education on handling the mental and emotional stresses experienced by clients going through a divorce, and resources for helping them get through it. Individual MCLE providers have programs that address these issues, but the state bar imposes no requirements in this arena. And since many lawyers do only the minimum amount of continuing education required to maintain their license, if the bar doesn’t require it, they’re not doing it.
What Attorneys Should Know About Suicide:
An order granting your request to be relieved as counsel does not automatically terminate your concerns about the client’s well-being. At the beginning of the case I told my client I would not represent her unless she was seeing a therapist, and she told me she was doing so. Should I have done more? If so, what? Would it have made any difference?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Sadly, a client taking their own life during a divorce is not nearly as uncommon as it should be. Law school and the quotidian practice of law do very little to prepare an attorney for such events. The suicide rate among divorced persons is about 2.4 times that of married persons. Within this cohort, divorced men are nine times more likely to take their own life than are divorced women.
One of the questions I ask potential clients in the first interview is ‘Are you seeing a therapist?’ If they say ‘no’, then I encourage them to do so. Sometimes, as with this client, they are so obviously struggling that I will not take them as a client unless they are seeing someone. Even then, however, simply having a relationship with a therapist does not ensure that the client will be able to handle the stress and emotional turmoil that accompanies a divorce.
Anyone who has experienced such an event understands that you cannot simply tell yourself ‘There’s nothing you could have done’ and put it aside; self-doubt, personal recriminations and blame are as inevitable as sunrise. The horrible news that my former client had killed herself brought my office to a standstill. We all discussed whether there was anything we could have done, even though the attorney-client relationship had long since ended, that might have prevented this event.
‘What if I had…?’
‘Should I have…?’
At the end of the day the ultimate question will always remain:
Resources for suicide prevention:
988 Lifeline — The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 200+ crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 9-8-8. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
Ventura County Behavioral Health Get Help Now — Ventura County Behavioral Health is committed to reducing stigma and discrimination. We promote wellness through a whole-person care approach where clients and families are empowered by appropriate, accessible, timely, culturally sensitive, and collaborative behavioral health services.