Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers: Asleep at the wheel

Issue January/February 2016

Q: Almost two years ago, probably because of sleep apnea (now treated), I banged my head in a minor collision after falling asleep while driving. Now I'm wondering if that's why I recently somehow forgot to prepare for a case until it was too late to do a good job. I confessed my lapse to those concerned, and the client was not damaged, but I felt awful about it. Do you think this is because of that head injury? (My memory was impaired for a day or two at the time.) I've wondered if this will mean I need to stop practicing.

Years ago, when my former wife and I felt like it was time for a change, we moved to Florida; while there, she got a job in real estate, and I decided to go to law school. After returning to Massachusetts, where I have been practicing ever since. That marriage, which was my second, ended after I met my current wife online; she is from Russia and had a pretty good career going there, but since our marriage she hasn't worked, and we don't talk much, so I'm about ready to call it quits. Meanwhile, because my practice slowed down, we've had to file for bankruptcy. I maintain some kind of life balance via fairly frequent fly fishing trips with buddies, but if I can't stay on top of my legal practice, I'll need to figure out how to make a living. How do I assess that problem?

A: Let's begin with the head injury issue and then zoom out to a wider angle. To conclusively rule out some kind of neurological/cognitive impairment, if not already done, it would make sense to seek both a new neurological exam (fleshed out, if your neurologist thinks it appropriate, perhaps by neuro-imaging) and neuropsychological testing. The latter would be performed by a psychologist with advanced training, and would take hours to do and interpret. Although health insurance would have to agree to authorize it (not easy to accomplish, but the head trauma history will help), this kind of testing would be a way to carefully assess many different kinds of functioning and to learn which, if any, are out of kilter in comparison to your general abilities or to others in your age group.

But I'm not sure whether that will turn out to be the key issue, since in some ways you may have been "asleep at the wheel" in general, not only when driving. Your history, at least as you describe it, seems to show a pattern of, let's say, "living in the moment" and "going with the flow." While many professionals are too buttoned-up and wish they could move in that direction, you seem to be at the other end of the continuum, someone who "finds himself" in one situation or another based on impulse or what seemed like a good idea at the time. That pattern seems to apply to your personal life as well as your career path and time management. With a low threshold for making changes in your life (relationships, career commitments) these choices are made too easily, and only later you notice what may be going wrong. Fortunately, when it comes to the substance of your legal work, your standards are appropriately high to the point that you blew the whistle on yourself and could not tolerate the idea of potential negative impact on your client. That kind of professional conscience is admirable.

If it turns out that the lapse in your work was not the result of cognitive deficit, one might speculate that it was your way of signaling that you are no longer feeling sufficiently gratified or stimulated by your work life. It would probably be a mistake to simply leap to a new woman or a new line of work. If you have a therapist or coach, this would be a good time to focus on seeking to become much more aware of the feelings and underlying thoughts that probably drive your behavior and choices. You know that you have a passion for fly fishing, and have stuck with that activity. Now you can gradually identity what is most meaningful and gratifying to you in the worlds of legal practice (or other work if necessary) and human connection, and then make conscious decisions about what course to follow. It's usually better to steer toward a planned destination than to drive aimlessly and eventually run out of gas. You may be in need of a GPS - Grounded Perception of Self.

Dr. Jeff Fortgang is a licensed psychologist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor on staff at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts, where he and his colleagues provide confidential consultation to lawyers and law students, and offer presentations on subjects related to the lives of lawyers. Q&A questions are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking LCL's assistance.