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But, he said, those close to the person should not shrug off small signs such as behavioral changes, memory loss, confusion, judgment problems, or a loss of social skills. “The problem, of course, with high performing individuals with a lot of cognitive reserve [such as lawyers], is that you can lose an awful lot before it rises to the level where people are starting to fail the tests physicians use,” making it even more difficult to identify in those people, he explained. It is important to keep in mind that one symptom of the disease is a difficulty with judgment, which can further compound the confusion surrounding getting someone help, he added. Lawyers who are confronted by colleagues, management, or loved ones with concerns may lash out, deny there is a problem, and accuse others of attacking them for nefarious purposes. “There’s a neurological piece of this. The illness can rob one of the ability to self-monitor. A person can lose their awareness of the illness,” Dinwiddie said. Once a suspected problem has been identified, there are a few things law firms can do in order to properly respond, according to the panelists. They include administering a diagnostic evaluation by a medical professional, usually a neurologist; following a predetermined plan, policy or framework, which would include to whom reports should be made and how they should be handled; an effort can be made to make accomodations if the disease is in its earliest stages, for example by allowing the person to take on non-client work or work that is supervised; and, if necessary, reporting the attorney to the proper disciplinary authorities if an ethical lapse has occurred. An additional evaluation could be conducted — by one or a combination of a neurologist, psychiatrist or geriatric physician — that, rather than simply identifying the disease, evaluates the attorney’s competencies in a number of core areas in which they need to be able to function in order to practice law, the panelists suggested. The most difficult part of the process can be getting up the courage to bring the problem to light in the first place, according to the panelists. Robinson suggests law firms appoint a go-to person to which colleagues can report themselves or someone else who appears to be cognitively impaired, someone who is approachable and able to address the issues with confidentiality and compassion. And, she added, it always helps to have company when first confronting an individual who appears to be impaired, either by a condition like Alzheimer’s or by alcohol abuse.
For the original version including any supplementary images or video, visit https://www.law360.com/articles/1019796/panelists-address-how-to-handle-a-lawyer-who-is-impaired
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