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JULY President's message

James L. Hyer, Esq.

July 2021

Not long ago I sat in a continuing legal education seminar covering issues of attorney well-being and was shocked to learn of the daunting statistics pertaining to those of us involved in the practice of law. Without question, attorneys and judges are subjected to immense pressure on a daily basis, which can take a toll on our physical and mental health. Studies have shown that those in the legal profession are more susceptible to substance abuse, mental health issues, and suicide. In May of this year, the American Lawyer published an article which noted a study on attorney well-being:

More than 3,200 law firm attorneys and staff took the survey, and a greater proportion of them reported instances of mental health troubles across the board, compared with our last survey conducted in 2019 and released in early 2020. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they felt depressed in 2020, an uptick of nearly 6 percentage points from last year; 71% said they have experienced anxiety, up 7 percentage points over the previous year; and 14% said they have a different mental illness, up a little over 2 percentage points.

This raises the question of how we are to address these concerns within our profession, to both help our colleagues who are in distress, and to improve upon the situation so others will not be as susceptible to these problems. I believe a good start is to reflect upon the earlier days of our profession to learn from our own history as we proceed into the future. In that spirit, I would like to share some perspective I received from reading, “Country Lawyer” by Edward Bellamy Partridge.

Set in the Village of Phelps within Ontario County, New York, Bellamy recounts his experiences as a child and then law partner of his father Samuel Selden Partridge, who practiced law in the rural community in the late 1800s until his death in 1913. The book recounts memories of the author, who also referenced notes taken by his father found after his death, which Bellamy believed his father had intended to use in penning his own memoir, which never came to fruition.

Among the recollections of his family and the community within which he was raised, Bellamy shares anecdotes which reflect upon the challenges of the practice of law in that time before the advent of modern conveniences such as computers:

My remembrance of my father as a country lawyer dates from the time when I first saw him standing in the light of the evening lamp removing the tape by which the pages of a legal paper were bound together. Having removed the tape, he shuffled the pages and went around the dining room table, distributing them among members of the family, who sat with pens in their hands and inkwells before them, ready for an evening of copying. This was back in the eighties before the typewriter had come into general use. It had been patented in the sixties, but the inventors were still busy trying to make it work, and all legal papers had to be written out by hand.

Well before the days of Lexis Nexis and Westlaw, where we are able to conduct a wide scope of research in a short time without the need for travel or review of voluminous texts, Bellamy recalled his father’s coveted law library which he obtained earlier in his career:

It was while he was working on the railroad right of way that he inherited the fine law library of his uncle in Rochester. Until this time, his law books had been few and battered; he had a set of the revised statutes, several form books, and a few text books of the law of real estate and wills. When a question came up which required research he had been compelled to go to the county library. Now, however, with one of the best libraries in the county in his own office and about all the work he could handle, he began to feel that he was really on his way.

Even the furnishing of a law office was more difficult than today where furniture, supplies and equipment may be ordered and delivered almost immediately. Following the loss of his initial office to a fire, Bellamy recounts his father’s efforts to prepare a second office:

After my father had been in the new office for a few days he called in Elder Woodruff and had him measure the place for a desk. The elder said he had some fine butternut that he had been saving for a long time for such a job, which he thought he could finish in about a month. My father had high regard for Elder’s ability to make either a prayer or a desk and told him to go ahead.

Even with eight children to feed and handling his case load alone as a solo practitioner for most of his career, Bellamy noted that his father was able to maintain a healthy work-life balance that we all should strive for by engaging in hobbies such as gardening:

Ever since my father’s boyhood in the country he had wanted to grow things. With an acre of ground a man can keep himself pretty well occupied during his spare time. Always an early riser, my father was now up with the first twitterings of the earliest bird. He was at work in his garden long before the sun came up above the distant rim of the world,” and noted further, “For a good many years he worked in it for an hour or two every morning before going to the office and for another hour or two in the evenings before darkness, together, doubtless, with mosquitoes, final drive him inside…

Later Bellamy recalled the passing of his father and the funeral service where so many people had told him that his father could not be replaced which caused him to think about the larger changes in the practice of the law at that time:

It was true what they said about nobody’s being able to take my father’s place-for that place had ceased to exist. The small town was no longer dependent on the country lawyer. All the best of the younger legal talent had begun to drift to the county seat or the larger towns. In the quarter century since my father’s death the drift has been pretty well completed. Here and there a shrewd old counselor will still be found among his battered books in a grubby, paper-littered office in an out-of-the-way country town. But the country lawyer, as he existed between the days of Abraham Lincoln and Calvin Coolidge, is no more.

Bellamy himself passed away in 1960 and while the country lawyer may very well not exist in the same manner as it did during the days of Samuel Selden Partridge, or even his son who shared his life’s memories in this book, we can take some very important lessons from the lives of these two colleagues from the past. First, while the practice of law will always have challenges, there is a vital importance of those within the legal profession to seek out work-life balance to ensure not only that our lives are led in a fuller and healthier manner, but that we are able to serve our clients in a more meaningful way by being our best selves. Second, that like the country lawyer whose story was shared by his son, we are all only here for a short time and we should make the most of it.

The WCBA has a long-standing commitment to assisting our members and those within the larger legal community who are struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse, through both seminars on these issues, as well as through the WCBA Lawyer’s Assistance Program which offers confidential assistance to law students, attorneys and judges. For more information about the WCBA Lawyer’s Assistance Program, please contact Daniel Seymour, Esq., who may be reached at 914-262-0548.

View the July issue of the Westchester Lawyer Magazine here.