Lawyers Starting Over

It took a tragic incident one late summer night to change a high-profile Toronto lawyer’s life.

Facing charges of criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a vehicle following the death of a bicycle courier with whom he allegedly had an altercation, former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant now faces a career as uncertain as the fate that awaits him in the justice system

According to one Toronto lawyer, who was acquitted of criminal charges he once faced, someone in Bryant’s situation ends up in the “twilight zone” and runs the risk of becoming “psychologically very isolated and developing depression.”

Keith Anderson has been down that long and lonely road — though he was never charged with committing a crime.

For 11 years, Anderson thought he had a “miserable, ugly life,” which began in 1992 when his father, a real estate agent, died at the age of 59. At the time, Anderson was a 31-year-old real estate lawyer practising in Sydney, N.S., who had stayed in touch with his dad every day. Following his father’s passing, Anderson began sinking into a deep depression.

He would often cry on the way to his firm where he was a senior partner and where he would often put in 12-hour days. He had insomnia; he cut off friends.

Anderson wasn’t happy — but he didn’t know he was sick — until an unfortunate professional circumstance got him to seek help.

In late winter 2003, Anderson, who is single with no children, bought what he thought would be the perfect house for him at the time. It was near a lake, “hidden away from the world,” with no neighbours for miles.

But to purchase the property, Anderson used the money he received from the sale of his previous house that carried a mortgage that he didn’t pay off.

The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (NSBS) advised him of a complaint against him — from the bank, he thinks — and Anderson retained counsel. His Nova Scotiabased lawyer, Guy LaFosse, noted that Anderson had never before been sanctioned by the NSBS, and suggested he see his doctor — who prescribed him medication to treat depression.

Four days later, on March 11, 2003, the NSBS suspended him pending a final resolution. The following day, Anderson suffered a “mental breakdown” and spent the next three months in bed “stripped of self-esteem and self-confidence.”

On June 23, 2003, the NSBS handed him a two-year suspension — and in so doing, actually “saved” his life, said Anderson.

“My mind was unravelling — and thank God they got involved, because I’d have been dead,” he explained in an interview, adding that there were many nights, when the “pain, angst and misery” was overwhelming, that he thought of taking his canoe on the lake and never coming back.

The disciplinary action helped get him “out of an unhealthy work environment and focus on me,” he said. “I could get healthy. I could have a second chance at a real life.”

With help of family members, Anderson said he knew he was going to be okay.

But not all lawyers can cope after being suspended or disbarred from practice.

“A lot of them get very angry and upset, and some of them descend into addiction — and sometimes never get out of it,” explained John Starzynski, who serves as the volunteer executive director of the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program (OLAP).

Starzynski said the addictions cover the gamut, from alcohol and drugs (particularly cocaine) to occasionally sex and often gambling.

The latest — and fastest growing addiction that Starzynski sees through OLAP — is to the Internet.

“People are on their BlackBerrys all the time and can’t put them away. They miss lunch, they miss appointments — they miss time with their families. They put everything in their life on hold so they can be electronically connected to something.”

He noted that many lawyers are struggling with some form of addiction before they run into professional problems where they might face some form of sanction.

“For some addicts, it’s a wake-up call and they will learn from the experience,” said Starzynski. “Or, it will be even worse than it already is and, for some people, send them deeper into the addiction.”

But he explained that for all, there’s no denying the “huge humiliation” that comes with seeing one’s name listed in, say, the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Discipline Digest. And lawyers in those situations need some form of lifeline.

Often, they will turn to the 31-year-old OLAP, which provides such 24/7 services as professional counselling and peer support to judges, lawyers, law students and their immediate family members, to help put their lives back in order, said Starzynski.

Lawyers faced with difficult professional challenges who move on with their lives are those with good family and friends, “who accept them for who they are and not judge them for what they did,” said 59-yearold Starzynski, who after 14 years of practising family law on his own in Oshawa, Ont., was forced to quit in 1990.

His long battle with bipolar disorder, which previously found him hospitalized for the illness on several occasions, had reached a breaking point.

“I collapsed on a Monday and I had four motions and five trials waiting, and all of a sudden somebody had to take care of that stuff,” said Starzynski.

His wife, Marg, who worked as his office manager, found a lawyer to handle the imminent files and then, the office was closed.

In 1996, Starzynski got involved with OLAP, which at the time only provided support for alcoholics. So, he obtained funding from the Law Society and the Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Co. (LAWPRO) to expand OLAP’s mandate to include other addictions and mental health issues, stress, burnout and suicide prevention.

That latter issue is one that resonates for Starzynski, whose mother and two grandmothers suffered from depression.

He has come close to taking his own life twice. Once, shortly after he left his practice, a former client planned to sue him. That had never happened to Starzynski before and it made him question his competence.

Distraught, he took all the six different pills he still takes to treat the chemical imbalance in his brain, dumped them onto his bed, phoned his best friend and told him he was “getting out of here.” But he fell asleep before taking the pills.

His second suicide attempt occurred in 1992 — two years after he left his practice — when he was going to run his car in the garage. Fortunately, his wife arrived before he started the engine.

What sparked the second try was Starzynski’s realization that he was no longer “in the club” anymore and had to re-qualify in order to get his licence back. But he wasn’t well enough to do so.

“I forgot about the fact that I was a husband, father [his sons were 12 and 14 at the time, and both have bipolar disorder] and son, and about other things that were really important to me because I was focusing on the

[T]]here’s no denying the “huge humiliation” that comes with seeing one’s name listed in, say, the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Discipline Digest

fact that I wasn’t a ‘lawyer’ anymore,” recalled Starzynski, who now also has two grandchildren. “My definition of a lawyer was somebody in the office, going to court every day, seeing clients, making money — and I wasn’t doing that. My whole selfesteem was tied up in the word ‘lawyer.’”

He explained that some lawyers who seek assistance from OLAP “will give up their families, their money, their homes — will give up everything as long as they can retain their license that has such intrinsic value of prestige.”

Starzynski has reconciled the fact he will never practise law again, though he adds that he misses it but will always be a lawyer in his training and his thinking. His clients now are the lawyers who come to OLAP for help — and his writings and public speaking about his illness and other mental health issues reach an audience that extends beyond the legal community. “I totally accept my illness right now. I embrace it, in the sense that I realize that it’s going to be with me for the rest of my life,” explained Starzynski, who lives in Guelph, Ont. “I can be angry at it, which I have been, or I can try and minimize it, which I do every day working on my recovery. But some days, I accept that I won’t be able to be as well as other days.”

Meanwhile, Anderson has been on the road to recovery for the past three years.

The 48-year-old 1983 law graduate from Dalhousie University, who holds a master’s degree in law from University College in London, has been speaking publicly and writing about his battle with depression. In fact, one of his personal accounts was published in the January 2009 issue of the NSBS’s monthly magazine, The Society Record, and elicited about 20 e-mails to him from people who read it. One of them was from a lawyer whose role with the NSBS six years ago was, as Anderson explained, “to get me suspended,” but who now praised Anderson’s “courage” for sharing his story with others and offered his advice to help get Anderson reinstated as a lawyer.

“To get that from him left me a little overwhelmed. I felt a bit of redemption,” said Anderson, who pointed out that he has not talked with his law partner’s “voice” since the NSBS’s suspension. However, Starzynski noted that most lawyers offer considerable support for colleagues in distress who might fear they will be shunned or judged as a result of their situation.

“We have about 100 volunteer lawyers who are willing to talk to lawyers who have problems and try to help them.

“They will call them, if it means every day, and meet with them because they really care about other people in the profession and understand the stresses lawyers go through because they’re lawyers themselves,” he explained, noting that some firms contact OLAP to obtain assistance for partners or associates going through a hard time.

“You’re going to get a minority of lawyers who will be unaware what a mental illness is about, and won’t help and will judge. But those are the people I feel sorry for.”

Thanks to the boost Anderson has received from most quarters in the legal community, he’s now “working on” his return to practising law.

“I have no money, no personal goods like I had. But I can sleep at night, read a book — I can laugh. The material goods will come one day, and if they don’t, that’s life.

“But things now are wonderful.”