Following wave of suicides, Florida Bar president put mental health on the docket

Michael J. Higer, partner at Bergerman Singer and 2017-2018 president of the Florida Bar.
Michael J. Higer, partner at Bergerman Singer and 2017-2018 president of the Florida Bar.

It has been a year since high-profile Miami lawyer Ervin Gonzalez, 57, was found dead in his Coral Gables home. Despite a successful career that included the presidency of the Miami-Dade Bar association, he apparently committed suicide.

Sadly, that tragic event wasn't a first for South Florida's legal community. Also in 2017, federal prosecutor Beranton Whisenant shot himself at Hollywood beach. The year before, high-profile tax lawyer Steven Cantor jumped from the 14th floor of his Coconut Grove office building. And in 2013, the death of Richard Sharpstein, a well-known criminal defense attorney, was ruled a suicide.

Gonzalez's death struck hard in already-reeling legal circles. When Michael J. Higer took office just weeks later as president of the 106,000-member Florida Bar association, he made mental health awareness a priority.

On June 15, West Palm Beach-based criminal defense attorney Michele Suskauer takes over the presidency. She has promised to sustain the bar's focus on mental health — especially relevant with the recent suicides of designer Kate Spade and TV's Anthony Bourdain — and efforts on gender equality.

Q: We have seen an unfortunate string of suicides by well-known figures, including several local attorneys. Is the suicide rate higher among lawyers than in the general population, and if so, why might that be the case?

Our legal community has seen a string of heartbreaking and unfortunate suicides in recent years. By all outward appearances, several of these suicides involved lawyers who were at the peak of their professional success. Sadly, although these made headlines, they are not outliers. In fact, the suicide rate of lawyers is double that of the general population, according to data published by the American Bar Association.

Although troubling, this is not surprising given the inherent stressors in our profession. The same personality traits that make for a successful lawyer — relentless advocacy, pursuit of perfection and round-the-clock accountability — are the same qualities that, without proper support and self-care, can lead to a stress that feels insurmountable and a path towards destruction. Unfortunately, the stigma that typically accompanies the public’s perception of mental illness challenges lawyer’s ability to address their need for help.

Q: The legal profession by nature is adversarial. Do you think this high-stakes environment contributes to the stress that attorneys face?

A 2015 Florida Bar membership survey found that 33 percent of Florida lawyers report high stress as a major problem; 32 percent reported that balancing work and family was a significant challenge; and seven out of 10 said they would change careers if they could. National studies paint a similar picture: the alcoholism rate for lawyers is double that of the general population, and lawyers are nearly four times more likely to suffer from severe depression (source: National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being).

When thinking about the nature of the profession, the data should not be surprising. The legal profession by its nature is adversarial, built on a system of winners and losers, which on its own places a significant amount of stress on practicing attorneys, many of whom sacrifice their own self-care in pursuit of service to the client. We act as sponges, absorbing the issues and traumas brought through the door by clients. Our clients often come to us at the most trying times in their lives. We constantly work under severe time pressures. We search for definitive answers to questions in which there are only gray answers. We are accessible 24/7, often during vacation and other times which should be our personal space. Additional demands brought on by the proliferation of technology and an increasingly competitive market only compound this reality.

Lawyers also tend to be ambitious, over-achieving Type A-personalities, and many in our profession don’t like to admit or show any sign of weakness — even to our friends, colleagues and family. We thrive in portraying an image of invincibility. This is in part why The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors formed the Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers, so that we can focus on reducing the stigma that often accompanies mental health issues and create a forum for speaking up before it is too late.

Q: Like most professions that require advance schooling, obtaining this education can be costly. What is the average cost for law school today and how might this added financial burden contribute to pressures faced by attorneys?

Demands on our profession are rigorous, as they should be, given the responsibilities for which we are entrusted, and begin in law school. The average cost of a private legal education can run upwards of $30,000 a year; for public schooling this figure can be close to $20,000. Many attorneys carry this burden of financial debt with them well into their careers, creating more pressure to succeed.

Q: How is the Bar’s new health and wellness initiative working to address this and what have the results been thus far?

The Florida Bar’s Special Committee on the Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers was formed last year and has since been busy identifying ways the bar can destigmatize mental health issues within our legal community. The first step was improving Florida Bar rules and adding new programs to support our lawyers in better balancing their personal lives and career obligations. Current initiatives include an online support group and hotline, dedicated continuing education courses on mental-health training, and the distribution of educational materials to help guide law firms on best practices in promoting mental wellness.

Additionally, the Bar has been hosting town hall meetings in partnership with Bar associations across the state to help get attorneys comfortable with confronting the emotional struggles they face. Hundreds of attorneys have attended these events, and the camaraderie has been refreshing and therapeutic. Attorneys talking with one another about their personal challenges and addressing difficult issues head-on is a critical outlet for support. Talking about the problem helps spur solutions, and research shows that attorneys can benefit from a healthy diet, regular exercise, and maintaining a healthier work environment such as the use of standing desks.

Mental health and access to resources that promote wellness will remain top priorities under the leadership of our incoming president, Michelle Suskauer. Michele and our Board of Governors understand that we cannot eliminate stress from our profession entirely. But we can identify specific ways to help attorneys lead healthier lifestyles, and we need to eliminate any barriers to care and support that exist.

Q: How do you personally cope with the stress? Do you have any bandwidth for a personal life?

Believe it or not, most of the factors that contribute to the profession’s stress are the same that make me most fulfilled in my practice. I love working hard, love the daily battle for justice and have a real passion for the law.

You must love what you do because it intersects so much with your personal life. That said, I believe strongly in the value of personal time, and I make sure to carve out even a little bit of it each day, whether its practicing mindful meditation or other stress reduction techniques, spending time with my family, or simply watching my favorite baseball team, the L.A. Dodgers, make another World Series run — hopefully more successfully this year. I also find comfort in my religious observance. And importantly, I have made physical exercise a part of my weekly routine at least three to four days a week.

Q: What have been the Bar's other priorities under your tenure?

In addition to health and wellness, The Florida Bar remains focused on a number of critical issues to our members, the public and the judiciary, including expanding access to justice; encouraging more inclusivity both on the bench and within the profession; and supporting our members, especially our solo and small firm practitioners who rely on our support and resources to grow and sustain their practices.

The Florida Bar is also working to educate voters statewide on the work of the Constitution Revision Commission through a program called Protect Florida Democracy: Our Constitution, Our Rights, Our Courts. One of five ways to amend our state constitution, the commission meets only once every 20 years and its proposed amendments go directly on the ballot without any review. To date, nearly half a million people have visited the Protect Florida Democracy website and nearly 2,000 people have attended our statewide events, making us hopeful that our efforts to inform, educate and engage are working.

We also continue to strive to bridge the access to justice gap which is a critical issue not just in Florida but in our nation. In Florida, for example, only 14% of people who qualify for legal aid services can actually access those services. One of the many ways that we are attempting to address this issue is through technology platforms, such as Free Legal Answers, which connects lawyers 24/7 anyplace, anytime with a Floridian in need.

Q: A few years ago, before the #MeToo movement, the Florida Bar published a survey of female lawyers that showed many had been harassed or discriminated against. Do you have any evidence to indicate whether that situation has improved?

On the heels of the Bar’s 2015 Young Lawyers Division survey, which found that gender bias is still a significant issue in our profession, The Florida Bar conducted an additional survey, this time canvassing a wide cross-section of its full membership. The results were similar: of the more than 6,000 attorneys polled, only 48% of female attorneys felt they were paid on par with men, while 6 of 10 women lawyers believe their male counterparts get more respect.

The findings were disheartening and unfortunately not surprising, as they are consistent with national figures for our profession — and for many similarly situated corporate fields. However, our goal has been to spend less time debating the extent that gender bias exists, and more time identifying solutions to help rectify it.

The Florida Bar’s Special Committee on Gender Equality & Diversity was formed last year (which I chaired) and has outlined a series of recommendations that it is currently moving forward to implement. These include developing continuing education courses on gender bias and discrimination; creating gender bias tool kits; continuing a recruitment push to elevate women to leadership positions within The Florida Bar; and a confidential procedure for lawyers to report instances of gender bias. One of the most critical recommendations was the most obvious, which was to keep the committee in place to implement the recommendations and appoint my successor to chair it this year.

These recommendations won’t alone solve the issue, but hopefully they can help shine a light on the problem and bring it to the forefront of our collective consciousness to address.

Florida's legal profession

Lawyers in Florida: 106,000 Florida Bar Members; 87,962 eligible to practice (as of April 1)

Lawyers in Miami-Dade: 15,836 eligible to practice (as of April 1)

Range of hourly rates: 81 percent of respondents to the Bar’s 2016 Law Office Management & Economics Survey list their hourly rate as over $200

Michael J. Higer

Title: President of The Florida Bar, (through mid-June); partner at Berger Singerman

Professional background: 30 years experience, the past three at Berger Singerman. Previsiou he served as co-founder of Higer Lichter & Givner, LLP.

Specialty: Commercial litigation (business, insurance, real estate, banking and intellectual property)

Education: High School – Palmetto Senior High School; B.A. – University of Florida; J.D.,cum laude, University of Miami School of Law

Personal: Married for three decades to Bobbie. Two children, Samantha, 28; Adam, 26

Personal philosophy: I approach work and life every day with a caring heart and purpose. I love what I do and cannot wait each day to get my day started and cannot rest until I have squeezed every moment out of the day. I am so blessed to partner with Bobbie who shares my passion and love for all that we do together.