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Inside a Counseling Session

By Travis Pickens

The day will come when using a mental health counselor is as commonplace as using a medical physician. Once it has, we will look back upon the past reluctance to get help as a sort of dark age, fostered by pride, fear, or worse, ignorance, especially embarrassing for a learned profession. We are moving toward that day, but anxieties remain regarding confidentiality, expense and the process itself.

The Lawyers Helping Lawyers (LHL) program has many benefits, e.g. information, peer support and counseling. This article is written to illustrate a counseling session. Each year, six sessions with a mental health counselor are provided to OBA members as a member benefit. The sessions are privileged and confidential and are not reportable to the General Counsel’s Office, unless the visiting lawyer decides to waive that confidentiality. The benefit is part of our dues, so there is no additional charge.

MAKING AN APPOINTMENT
You will make an appointment by calling the LHL phone number 800-364-7886 and booking a time that is convenient for you, just as if you are seeing a physician. The LHL staff is careful not to book you before or after another attorney so there will be no surprises when you are in the waiting room, or on your way in or out. Generally, you will not have to wait for your appointment as they are in 50-minute increments and the counselor is careful to make sure appointment times are honored, with enough time for the office to clear before you arrive.

The counselor will likely be either a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Licensed alcohol and drug counselors (LADC) are also available as needed and appropriate. OneLife is the employee assistance program that provides the confidential counseling services for the OBA and facilitates referrals through Lawyers Helping Lawyers. OneLife is located in Oklahoma City and has licensed therapists across the state who contract to provide counseling, including Deanna Harris, who serves as the liaison between OneLife and the OBA.

AT THE APPOINTMENT
At your appointment, you will meet the counselor and he or she will explain the intake paperwork, which includes your contact information, chief concern(s), some background information, the privacy policy and the counselor’s disclosures which include his or her credentials.

The counseling session takes place in a small office with the door closed and no interruptions. It is client-centered and designed to address what you are wrestling with and to provide feedback for that specific issue, based upon the counselor’s education, training and experience. It is not heavy psycho-analysis. In other words, it is generally “therapy – lite,” that is directed by your concerns, unless more is necessary as determined by you and the therapist.

For example, your concern may be one very common among lawyers, that of “replaying” events or concerns over in your mind (e.g., a bad experience with a case or client, domestic arguments, career regrets), ruminating on them to such a degree that it interferes with your day-to-day work or relationships in the present.

Because of training and experience, the counselor would be able to tell you that obsessing over the past is indeed a common issue for lawyers, since many of us have perfectionist tendencies (and are fiduciaries with the highest responsibilities, bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct). And, while attorneys are comfortable providing the solutions to the problems of clients, we are not as adept at dealing with our own, so there is often a level of denial that must be overcome.

In this example, your counselor might discuss the commonplace nature of this tendency in our profession and suggest reframing negative experiences in such a way that they contribute to meaningful learning experiences, and allow them to be put into a larger perspective. The counselor would also likely provide you concrete self-help tools to assess and check yourself for this tendency, and to deal with it more effectively. Your counselor may suggest helpful internet articles or books. This guidance is not only based on the education and training of the counselor, but that counselor’s extensive experience with our profession. The counselor is not a physician and cannot prescribe medication, but may recognize the need for deeper work and recommend either a psychologist or psychiatrist in some circumstances.

AFTER THE APPOINTMENT

There is no invoice or other confirmation of the visit sent to you. There are no reminders, survey cards or emails. Unless you choose to tell others, there is no disclosure of your visit, except the counselor keeps track of the number and types of visits for accountability purposes. Your name is never disclosed by the therapist unless you consent.

There is nothing that should worry you  about using this benefit, and there is so much to gain and learn about yourself. The rich irony is that we, the counselors of the law, often spurn the counselors of the mind. We routinely update our computer software; wouldn’t it be a good idea to update our mental “software”? And, why do we often listen to our well-meaning but untrained friends or family (or worse, no one) on these matters when an educated professional, experienced in the unique and not so unique issues of lawyers, is offered to us at no charge?

Every one of us is somewhere on a continuum of mental and emotional health, and every one of us would benefit from counseling, especially when the issues begin to interfere with practices and lives. For some, this service can mean salvation. The only thing indispensable to a lawyer is a clear mind.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Travis Pickens is a lawyer in private practice in Oklahoma City. He served as OBA ethics counsel from August 2009 – January 2015. He has served as co-chair of the OBA Work/Life Balance Committee and as vice-chair of the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program Committee. He is a 1984 graduate of the OU College of Law.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 88 pg. 2405 (Dec. 16, 2017)