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celli660

Client Suicide

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I talked to a practice advisor the other day in reaction to one of my client's taking their own life.

He seemed to think that it was fairly common for lawyers to have clients take their own lives, especially in family and criminal law. Is that actually the lived experience for you guys?

Just for some background, this was a little messed up for me because I was negotiating a deal for this guy and hadn't heard back from him for a couple days. I even went to his house and talked to his neighbours. After calling police for a welfare check, an officer stopped by my house and let me know that the client was deceased.

The flip side of this is that I felt very guilty because I had been representing him in a high-conflict family situation and he had some charges related to some post-separation behaviour with ex-spouse. He had asked me about what a plea deal entailed and I explained the ramifications. Shortly after that he took his life, so I can't help but feel like it was my fault for setting out the consequences of the plea and having a record.

Has anyone been in that situation and second-guessed their advice after the fact? Should lawyers be so fatalistic and honest about the consequences of a decision?

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I'm really sorry to hear that. It's hard, but try not to blame yourself. You didn't create this situation. You didn't sign up to be responsible for the consequences of other people's decisions. I've had clients die before too, and you can't help but second guess your handling of the file. You can PM me for more details if you want to talk about it. The worst situation I think about from time to time is when a child died in the custody of the other parent who had been supervised before but wasn't at the time of death, and I wondered if I should have pushed for their contact to be supervised. But the evidence at the time didn't warrant that. Still, maybe I should have dug deeper? It's one of those things that comes along with dealing with difficult subject matter and talking about it helps. Again, it wasn't your fault, and you shouldn't take responsibility for it.

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I am very sorry that you had to go through this. It is not an easy time and everything you feel is natural.

I am a family law lawyer. I had clients with two failed attempts and a client's teenage child who succeeded. Telling my case management judge what happened to the child is something that will stick with me until I die.

The pandemic by no means is helping in any way. I find myself spending more and more time on Zoom with clients in distress trying to talk them through some difficult situations and referring them to mental health assistance.

This is just an unfortunate aspect of our profession due to the fact that in criminal law and family law, we see people at their most vulnerable and their lives in a series of crises. A lot of the times, we are given absolutely disastrous files with little time for us to remedy a developing crisis.

Please please please don't take this personally. It will destroy you from the inside if you blame yourself for the situation. I had been through this myself reflecting on my actions and advice. Let me tell you the answer: in 99% of the times, there is nothing more you can do if you had been diligent and conscientious in practice.

If you want to talk, please PM me.

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This is in no way your fault. I haven't had clients die of suicide that I know of, but I've had deaths due to overdose. There's always going to be the lingering question of whether your actions formed part of a chain that led to the outcome, but that's always true in a butterfly-effect sense. Just like driving on the highway can cause someone else to have an accident simply because you're there. It isn't your fault.

Even if you had failed in some way at doing your job properly, we'd have a discussion about putting things in perspective. But in this case that isn't even true. All you did was communicate reality to your client. You didn't create the reality. And you can't possibly be expected to withhold truth from a client only because you think he can't handle the truth. That really would be doing your job improperly.

It's true that certain practice areas are going to expose you to this much more than others. I mean, it's just obviously true that some areas of law involve working with people who are experiencing far more personal difficulty than others. You do need to develop a certain detachment if only to save your own sanity. It isn't only suicide - the personal consequences of our work are very real, very direct, and change peoples' lives for better or worse. Your base case scenario when things fall apart for a client is when you can know, at least, you could not have done anything differently. Seems true in this case. In the future, it may not be true. Even still, if you do your best and use your best judgment, it still isn't your fault - any more than it's a surgeon's fault when they do their best but their best isn't good enough.

Anyway, I hope you manage to put this in perspective. It's a lesson everyone faces sooner or later, if you do this sort of work.

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I have to echo everyone here. I've had a client killed by opposing party shortly after final minutes were signed. My firm has had deaths by suicide and overdoses.  It still hurts come the anniversary. We care despite what people think of lawyers. 

We aren't mental health professionals nor should we be. Our role is to work our client through complex legal issues and a certain detachment is required to do so. We can help de escalate in times of crisis and make referrals as necessary. Our job sometimes makes our clients uncomfortable, especially in areas of the law that touch so intimately in the lives of our clients. Diplock's words were striking and worth reiterating:

6 hours ago, Diplock said:

Even if you had failed in some way at doing your job properly, we'd have a discussion about putting things in perspective. But in this case that isn't even true. All you did was communicate reality to your client. You didn't create the reality. And you can't possibly be expected to withhold truth from a client only because you think he can't handle the truth. That really would be doing your job improperly.

Take some for yourself. It's ok to grieve and feel the loss. It's not your fault, celli660. 

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10 hours ago, celli660 said:

He seemed to think that it was fairly common for lawyers to have clients take their own lives, especially in family and criminal law. Is that actually the lived experience for you guys?

Yes, and I don't even do high conflict law like family or crim. I do small town solicitor work. In my first year of practice I called the practice management helpline for similar reasons... my client was essentially in an intractable mortgage/debt situation with some other complicating factors. 

It's inevitable because:

  • life is tough
  • suicide is a top 10 cause of death in Canada
  • we interact with many people in ways that are necessarily intimate; we know their biggest issues, how they are feeling, and are in positions to find out how they died.

Everyone is correct that the reality of your client's situation is not your fault. 

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Im sorry you're going through this OP, and let me add my voice to the chorus telling you this isn't your fault. In addition to the practice advisor, if you need some grief counseling or mental health support please reach out. I know many provinces have some lawyer-specific supports, in Alberta it's called Assist: https://lawyersassist.ca/

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Just adding another voice to the "Don't put this on yourself" chorus. Not a lawyer, but coming from another high-conflict field, I've had numerous client deaths weigh on me really heavily. You deal with people in horrible situations all the time, some of the situations are not going to get better. Or they will for a while, and then get worse again. It's difficult because you can always imagine having provided different advice/assistance that may have somehow obtained a better outcome, but that's not a fair standard to apply to yourself. People are complicated, messed-up, and get turned inside out and do all kinds of unpredictable stuff. You did what you could, and you should be proud of the efforts you made.

-GM

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I was once told as a young first responder:

"Remember - you didn't start this fire.  You are here to assist these folks on their very worst day.  But that day was bad before you got here- you can try your best, do all the right things and the house may still burn. It would have burned without you as well"

I try to keep that in mind when dealing with things like this.  It isn't easy, it doesn't always work, or it might for a time.  I used to meet with a counselor every week, I am down to once a month now.  It helped me immensely.   I wished I started much earlier. There are things you can do, training you can take that can assist.

Plus, know that how you feel now a) isn't how you will feel forever; and b) is a perfectly human reaction to what you experienced.

 

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Everyone, thanks for the horrific confirmation of normalcy. Not so sure if you recall, but I was just called last year, so this is all kind of new to me.

To be truthful, I had a pretty serious anxiety that this was the circumstance when I went to the client's home. Having the police confirm the death was a huge weight off my shoulders. The death was brutal, but the specter of the death was far worse than the actual news.

What I was mostly grappling with is the severity of my advice. I told my guy how and what a guilty plea would do to his career, the parenting situation, everything. In hindsight, I could see that it might have been a bit much to unload on a poor guy on the eve of trial. Do you ever pull your punches or try to trickle in the severity of a legal consequence when you know the client is screwed? Are there strategies for advising your client that their life is over in a nice way?

I want to know how to approach these situations with honesty, candour, and compassion so that this doesn't happen again.

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Someone once told me a great quote, and I live it to this day.

 

"Your life is never over until you're dead. Even then, it may not be over."

So (disclaimer being I'm an articling student, but having experience breaking bad' news before to a client), I'd say don't frame it as doomsday. But just a new reality and present different opportunities that still exist for the person. Because there always are opportunities.

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Everyone else already said what I wanted to say, so I just wanted to re-enforce the idea that it is not your fault!! Don't think that for even one second. 

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15 hours ago, celli660 said:

Do you ever pull your punches or try to trickle in the severity of a legal consequence when you know the client is screwed? Are there strategies for advising your client that their life is over in a nice way?

There's always "you never know what will happen in Court; things might look differently to the Judge... we'll see what the other witnesses say, right?" (Again, not a lawyer, of course, but statements that help somebody get into the police car are thematically similar... actually you would be at a slight advantage becauase no one would later accuse you of sugarcoating things purposely in order to an induce an incriminating statement, but I digress...)

One thing you don't want to do is sugarcoat/euphemize things so much that the client doesn't really understand the advice. I always remember doing next-of-kin-notification training: "Don't say someone's 'gone'; don't say someone 'slipped away'; don't even say someone 'lost their life' - if you don't put the word "dead" in there, there's a chance that they will hook onto one of the other words and just heard what they want to hear."* All that to say, there can be a fine line between giving news compassionately, and failing to communicate the news at all.

-GM

*So, of course, one of my "heavily francophone" troopmates, when it was her turn, just knocked on the door and literally said "Hi. Your son's dead."

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One doesn't also need to assume the future for their client.

An individual can have a criminal conviction on their record. They can go through a period with limited access to their children (very few lose all access). Many, if not most, do come out of it somewhat intact. They go on and create lives for themselves.  If this wasn't the case our recidivism rate would likely be 100%.

In the end - we don't know what the full ramifications of a certain legal step will be outside the immediate legal results.  We don't know if their boss will hire them back, we don't know if they will remain in their children's lives.

It is tempting to project, but remember we generally come from a place where the thought of a criminal conviction feels career ending (I say feels because we know that even this isn't true). 

The older I get the less likely I am to pretend to know my client's situation enough to opine on their future, and as well the older I get the less likely I am to opine on what I don't know.  and the amount I don't know seems to be growing much faster than that which I am learning!

*Celli- I am only saying this in an attempt to address your question directly.  One of the things I don't know is what was said in this circumstance or how it was said, meant or received.  I in no way mean to imply that another approach would have resulted in another outcome - because well that's another thing in the long list of things I don't know.

 

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So sorry to hear that this happened. I wanted to echo what others said here about not blaming yourself, seeking someone to talk to, etc. After an incomplete suicide in my job, I took a two-day certification called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (https://toronto.cmha.ca/asist-applied-suicide-intervention-skills-training/), which helps me feel better equipped when working with clients in distress. It's not a guarantee that you will catch every person, but it might provide a helpful framework moving forward. Take care.

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