Oklahoma Bar Journal
Perceptions, Pills and Practicing
By Scott B. Goode
I was not born into, nor was I raised to be white collar. I am the son of a marine and boilermaker welder. I grew up in a little town in the south Grand Lake area called Ketchum. My first job was pumping gas and cleaning boats at the Arrowhead Yacht Club. I performed odd jobs mowing and weed eating lawns at the expensive lake homes in the area. I baled and stacked hay – the small, square ones that weighed 50 pounds each. I laid asphalt on the local roadways and helped pour concrete for foundations of new homes. Prior to practicing law, when I got home from work at night, I was dirty and slept like a baby. Not always so easy as a lawyer.
I needed out of that town. I had seen happiness on the faces of the wealthy families who would come to the lake for summers and weekends and was sure wealth would bring me the same. I had gotten into my own legal troubles as a juvenile and wasn’t overly happy with the services I had received from my counsel. I formed a plan to become a lawyer and to actually help people instead of taking their money, seemingly, to do nothing. It would get me out of the area and undoubtedly bring the financial success I so hungered for.
I joined the U.S. Navy at 17 and left for bootcamp within a few days of graduating high school. I spent my time after bootcamp working on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise, launching and recovering aircraft. Hot, wet and sometimes freezing cold, exceedingly long shifts in the climate of the Atlantic and Persian Gulf. When my time was up, I was ready for school. I had never been more motivated in my life.
In December 1999, I attended Northeastern State University in Tahlequah and completed my bachelor’s degree in three and a half years. I started law school at TU in August 2003 and graduated with a certificate in Native American Law in just under two and a half years. I left TU with expectations of changing the world and becoming wealthy to boot.
I had been interning at the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office and was immediately hired as an attorney after passing the bar exam. I was in more debt than I had ever been, and between my student loans and all my other monthly living expenses, I was barely able to make ends meet. Something just wasn’t right. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. I saw the private bar in their custom suits and brand-new, imported cars and wanted to be them. I plugged away for another year with the Public Defender’s Office and finally decided I had learned enough procedure and had gained enough courtroom experience to hang my own shingle.
In 2007, I leased an office, bought a computer and printer and had some business cards printed. I was ready to alter the legal landscape of my state and community. I truly had no idea what I was in for, nor was I in any way prepared to handle what the private practice of law would entail. It was both the best and worst decision of my life.
In 2008, I got married, paid for a wedding, bought our first house and purchased two foreign-made cars. While I was making more money than I had been as a public defender, the expenses began to steadily grow beyond our means. In August that same year, my father was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Within a couple of months, he contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. I sat with him during the last week of his life and watched him suffer greatly. He gasped for air with each breath and cried out at night, not knowing where he was. He was the strongest man I had ever known. He was a U.S. Marine during the Korean War and an overly tough disciplinarian who became docile and overly kind later in life. I had never in my life seen him so frightened and, unbeknownst to me, it seriously affected me to have witnessed his death.
I was back at work the day after my father died. After missing a week to be by his side, I could not afford to miss much more. It was only me. I not only did all the lawyering but also all the other work that comes with starting and running a law firm. To say I was busy when I returned was an understatement. I didn’t have anyone to help me – no mentor to teach me the areas of law I had not previously dealt with, and due to me not billing hourly, my caseload was skyrocketing. My fear of failing, malpractice and bar complaints was unbearable, and all I could do was keep opening new cases in order to put food on the table and pay all the debt I had just incurred. The pressure was intense, and I felt like I was suffocating, just like my father, gasping to stay alive just a few more moments.
I didn’t even realize the amount of change I had experienced in my life during those 12 months. In hindsight, any one of those experiences was more than enough change for one year. I remember walking out of my house, headed to work one morning before sunrise in December that year. I stopped, halfway to my expensive car, and looked back at the house I had just bought. My mind went to my new wife, still asleep, depending on me to bring money home that night. I looked back at my new car. I realized I was terrified. I wanted to call my father, but he was gone. I knelt down and cried, alone in the dark. I needed something to help me deal, and I was about to find what I thought was the cure-all.
I remember seeing a commercial on television. It asked if I was feeling well. No, I don’t feel well at all. It asked if I was always unhappy or anxious. Yes, I’m constantly unhappy and anxious. Then it told me to go see my doctor, so I did. A few medications were prescribed at first, but none seemed to do anything for me at all. After a few months of going in and telling the doctor I didn’t feel any better, he prescribed Xanax. The first time I took a Xanax, I distinctly remember thinking, “I will never be unhappy again!” It was like a nuclear bomb went off in my life. Within a few months, I was running out of my prescription in the first or second week, but the doctor wouldn’t prescribe me anymore. So, I found what I needed on the streets. Very soon, and by way of which I will not discuss, it became very apparent to me that obsessive use of Xanax and the practice of law do not mix well. I still hadn’t learned any other healthier coping mechanisms, so, of course, my attention moved to another substance. Opiates didn’t have the drowsy, slurred speech effect. Within a few years, I was unable to sustain the necessary high, and I began supplementing with methamphetamine. Today, as I write this, I weigh 180 pounds. In May 2015, I weighed 135 pounds – if you can imagine what the loss of 45 pounds looks like on a 5’9” frame. My skin was grey. My eyes were sunk into my head. I had sores on my arms. I was your typical meth-head but in a suit.
My wife gave me an ultimatum. Rehab or divorce with sole custody to her and supervised visitation to me. I had “come to” after a week-long binge and blackout and saw fear on my wife’s face, as opposed to anger, for the first time. I finally gave up. I broke down. I sobbed uncontrollably. I begged for someone to tell me how to make it stop. I couldn’t make it stop. I had utterly failed and had finally realized I could not do this on my own. I like to say I finally became teachable.
A few years earlier, in an attempt to appease my wife, I had contacted Lawyers Helping Lawyers, and my sponsor took me to my first 12-step meeting. I didn’t really want to be there but couldn’t help, like us 12-steppers say, but to learn a few things by osmosis that would eventually ruin my drug and alcohol career. They said, “Go out and try some controlled using – drugs … alcohol … it doesn’t matter. Just keep in mind what we have told you about ourselves.” When I “came to” that day, to see the fear on my wife’s face, I knew what I was, and I was finally willing to go to any length to fix it.
In-patient treatment was quite literally exactly what I needed. They took away my cell phone and laptop. They forced me to stop worrying about my clients and their problems and to concentrate on myself. For the first time in my life, I became introspective and capable of seeing what issues I had and what I could do to help me in dealing with them. My Lawyers Helping Lawyers sponsor had told me living my life only to practice law was simply not sustainable. The Alcoholics Anonymous group he introduced me to was a way to get out of my own head and gain some proper perspective. I just hadn’t listened, but now I was ready to hear it. I had always sworn to my wife I would never go to rehab. I couldn’t. Don’t you know who I am? What if someone there knew who I was? Now I knew I couldn’t afford not to go.
After I completed treatment and returned to my practice, I realized my career choice had played a major role in the decline of my mental and physical health. The emotional toll we lawyers pay on a daily basis is quite substantial. It was clear I not only needed to make personal lifestyle changes at home but also professional changes at work too.
If I lose the potential client due to this, that's OK. There will be others, and my emotional well-being is more important.
As soon as I could, I hired a full-time paralegal. I needed someone there to answer the phone, schedule appointments and draft simple documents. In short, I needed someone to help share the load. This allowed me to be more productive, and in turn, I was able to hire additional support staff and attorneys. It’s extremely important for me to have someone to talk to who knows my cases even if I only need to vent about a client being unreasonable. I need colleagues for camaraderie. I cannot be alone for long periods of time. I simply needed to swallow my fear of being responsible for paying someone and just do it. Now, I couldn’t function without my paralegal, Trina. She has 24 years of experience and brings more to the table than even I do in a lot of situations. Money very well spent.
Proper Office Management
I started keeping a digital calendar and actually using it. I now do my absolute best to keep from overloading my weekdays. I distinguish between “big” items like jury trials, bench trials, mediations, depositions, etc. from the “small” items like status conferences, arraignments, no-issue settings and initial consultations. Big items go in first and smaller items have to be worked in. If my calendar is full, I will schedule an initial consultation two or three weeks out. If I lose the potential client due to this, that’s OK. There will be others, and my emotional well-being is more important than the few thousand dollars I might have made. Also, I am no longer afraid of relaying to a judge I am booked on some specific morning. They will work around it.
My previous practice was to quote an amount of money I considered fair based on industry norms for each specific part of a case. For example, $2,500 to get to a temporary order in a divorce or paternity case or through the preliminary hearing in a criminal matter. $3,000 for the discovery process to be completed or to get through motions. Then some other amount for trial on the merits. More often than not, I ended up making much less money than I would have if I would have put the retainer in the IOLTA and billed it out at a fair, hourly rate. Also, by taking money upfront and considering it earned as of paid, I took the chance of having to get into my own account for reimbursement if the client decided not to move forward or if they decided to retain someone else. What if I was broke and could not pay it back? This caused extreme anxiety for me. Finally, when I took a case with all my money upfront, I wasn’t incentivized to close it as much as I was to get another new client so I could get more money. By properly billing hours, I now have more incentive to work on and eventually close files than I am in getting new ones, and if someone decides to not move forward or retain someone else, I don’t have any worry regarding reimbursement. This one change reduced my stress and anxiety more than any other and helped my bottom line in the process.
I became picky as to what I got involved in. I stopped accepting cases in areas of law I didn’t have knowledge of and stopped accepting clients I knew were going to be problematic. Just like why I had no healthy personal boundaries and why I was fearful to place retainers in the IOLTA and bill hourly, due to my perceived need for money, I tended to accept anything and anyone that would walk through my front door. Dealing with a client who, no matter how hard you work for them, will never be happy and/or is abrasive or disrespectful can affect my well-being. I now refuse to allow my need for a paycheck to dictate if I take cases and clients I shouldn’t. By referring cases in areas of law I have no knowledge of to other attorneys, I lessen my stress and anxiety, I make new friends in areas of law I need training in and, every now and then, I get a nice referral fee with no strings attached. There’s just no need to lose sleep and get a bar complaint for any amount of money.
I have now started using my initial consultation more to screen my prospective clients than to sell them on me. If they came to my office, they are already in need of my services. No sale required. Again, no amount of money is worth the loss of sleep and possible bar complaints. I also find making sure my clients have reasonable expectations of what I can do for them is helpful. I am not that attorney who just tells people what they want to hear to get paid. I will take their circumstances and apply them to the law and relay what I think a reasonable outcome is. If they don’t fully agree, I will not take their money. Instead, I offer them names of other attorneys I trust and send them home to think about it. In short, I no longer allow my need for money to put me in situations where I despise answering my phone, checking my emails or going to court. It is simply not worth it to me anymore.
Set Healthy Boundaries
I began to set healthy boundaries between my work and private life. More often than not, I get to the office early and stay late. In our line of work, this can be necessary. However, when I leave my office, I do not bring work with me – neither physically nor mentally. I typically do not check my emails, nor do I accept work-related phone calls while I am off work. This means I have to turn off my email notifications on my cell phone, and I do not typically give out my cell phone number to clients. I even went so far as to change my voicemail message to say, “If this is a work-related call, I will not return it.” Of course, if I never really stop working, I get burned out very quickly. It hadn’t even dawned on me I never really stopped working before. When I am at work, my clients get all my attention, but when I am not at work, my attention is on my family or my hobbies. If I don’t ever take my attention off work, my work quality suffers. I would rather my clients get a little less attention than to get attention that does them no good. They usually agree with this. My attention is expensive. I actually tell my prospective clients this in the initial consultations while we discuss after-hours calls. Most understand and agree. The ones that don’t would’ve been problem clients anyway, and I’m better off without them.
Ask for Help
I am no longer afraid to ask for help. I’m sure there are a handful of attorneys who roll their eyes every time they see my name pop up on their phone. You know who you are, and I want to thank you. You guys are the best. I used to worry too much about my peers possibly thinking I’m inept as a lawyer. I used to worry too much about what other people thought. There will always be haters. There will always be those out there who want to judge. They do so because of their own insecurities. They’re more scared than you. Don’t worry about them. I am not the absolute best at what I do. No one’s perfect. I have months when I feel like I can’t lose, and I have months when I feel like I can’t win. So is life. What I do know is my clients are more often than not happy with my work.
Asking for help keeps me from learning through trial and error. Trial and error are at my clients’ expense. Please don’t think I can keep from learning the hard way all the time. I still find myself surprised in court on occasion. It’s the PRACTICE of law. The ability to ask for help was the toughest for me. I’m a southern man raised by a marine. Dig in your heels, square your shoulders and push through is how I was taught. I still do that. Now I just am willing to get help from others on my way through. Come to find out, I have support everywhere in my life – my wife, mother, staff, colleagues, Lawyers Helping Lawyers, therapist, even judges. I take pride in letting these people know how I need them in my life, and they are valuable to me. In return, I am given even more respect than I used to get when I acted like I didn’t need anyone. This, I think, is one of my journey’s most beautiful gifts.
Take Pride in Yourself
I began presenting myself professionally. This might seem odd to some, but how I present myself professionally also makes me feel better. I have made it a habit to iron my dress shirts every night and polish my dress shoes as often as possible. Not only do I gain respect from others by presenting myself appropriately while at work, but the acts of ironing and shining shoes, as well as other mindless hobbies, have an extremely therapeutic result on my emotional state. I need to shut my frontal lobe down at least once or twice a day. These tasks can do that for me, allowing me to regain proper perspective and, a lot of times, simply get to sleep at night.
Maybe even more important than the changes I have instituted in my professional life are the changes I put into practice in my private life in order to better my emotional well-being and, due to my history of substance abuse, help ensure I don’t have a relapse. Even if substance abuse is not a problem in your life, the following items can do nothing but good for you.
I spend at least one hour physically exerting myself per day. Every evening, Sunday through Thursday, I get my gym bag and suit ready for the next day. This allows me to get up at 5:15 a.m., splash some water on my face, put on my gym clothes and arrive at the gym a few minutes before 6 a.m. From 6 to 7 a.m. I either work with my trainer or work out on my own, but either way I make sure to get my heart rate up and to break a sweat. After my workout, I sit in the steam room or sauna for 10 to 15 minutes and mentally prepare myself for the day. This might consist of meditation or talking football with the other guys. Whatever makes me feel better. After I shower, shave and suit up, I head to the office and arrive around 8 a.m., wide awake and fully prepared to take on the day. I grew up laboring all day and coming home dirty and sleeping like a baby. When I started practicing, I wasn’t able to sleep. My body wasn’t tired, and my brain wouldn’t shut off. This really helps to make sure my body is tired and, when coupled with the mental exercises I’ve discussed, now I can fall asleep within minutes and stay asleep through the night.
I attend group therapy 12-step meetings at noon each day. I try to do this daily but, of course, because of work, sometimes I only make it two or three times per week. Some, when told this, will say they don’t have a history of substance abuse problems and don’t need it. Actually, the point of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous is to help anyone handle life on life’s terms. When it comes to us addicts, this helps ensure long-term sobriety, but anyone stands to gain from what comes from attending these meetings and following the 12 steps. Ask any addict or alcoholic with long-term sobriety, and they’ll tell you there’s a point where we come to find we are luckier than most for having gone through our addiction and finding the 12 steps and a great AA or NA group. This is because of many things, but, in general, it’s because we are now more capable of dealing with the ups and downs of our daily lives with a smile on our face more often than a frown.
First and foremost, we learn when we feel fear, anger, sadness, resentment or any other negative emotion, we have to ask ourselves if we have any control over whatever is causing that emotion within us. If we do, we know to plan appropriately and execute as soon as possible. If we do not, simply coming to that conclusion and letting it go brings on almost immediate relief. Learning healthy coping mechanisms is an absolute must when it comes to alcoholics, drug addicts and, I have found, for most lawyers who don’t already have them as well. Finding a manner in which to let go of causing us grief that we have no control over can be tough. The conscience breathing exercise and meditation I spoke of earlier comes in very handy here; however, simply walking around the block a few times can work. Just find something that works for you.
Second, attending the meetings gets us out of our own heads. When I walk into my group meeting after a morning of court, initial consultations with people in the worst time of their lives or arguing with opposing counsel, I find by sitting and listening to the other members of my group, I always leave feeling better. My perspective needs readjusting as often as possible because I deal with conflict all day, every day. Constant competition is taxing on me. Hearing other members of the group talk about what they went through, how they found the group and the help they needed and came out happier and more content than they had ever been before resets my perspective, gets me level and makes me feel better. I am then more prepared to complete my day with a smile on my face.
Finally, my group allows me to feel as if I am part of something much bigger than me. In a way, I am closer to each and every person in that group meeting room than I am to my own family. The big book of Alcoholics Anonymous says it this way, “We are like the passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to captain’s table.” This is the one place in my life where the hugs, “I love you’s” and smiles I see and hear everyday are, without a doubt, genuine. Just being a part of that raises me up. I crave it now like I used to crave substances.
I attend individual therapy at least once a week. The one thing I did differently this time than all the other times I tried for sobriety and happiness before was to employ the services of a talk therapist. Due to my upbringing, I had always viewed the use of a therapist as a sign of weakness. I now see it is a sign of courage and honesty. To be honest enough with yourself to admit something isn’t right and to have the courage to actively search out a professional to talk to isn’t easy, but I have found it is definitely worth it.
There are a few certain things I don’t want to discuss in my group sessions, both personally and professionally. I use my time with my therapist to unload those items, and in doing so, it becomes easier to no longer obsess over them. For those of us who doubt if this could help, ask yourself, “Could it hurt?” At best, you’ll feel and sleep better, and at worst, it will have no effect at all. My opinion is this, the idea our society teaches us that women should “hide their crazy” and men should “man up” and grin and bear it is exceedingly dangerous and possibly even deadly in some circumstances, especially for overly cerebral individuals like lawyers who are forced to deal with what we deal with on a daily basis. Is it overly surprising a person who deals with people in the worst spot in their lives and is in constant competition and conflict would need to discuss how they might feel with a professional? It isn’t for me anymore. Just try talking through it. What could it hurt?
I take “time-outs” from work when necessary. Like all of us, I’ll have days where nothing goes right. Where four clients have emergencies, and I forget to complete the draft of that motion that is due by close of business tomorrow. I notice during those days it seems bad stuff just keeps happening. “When it rains, it pours.” Again, I get that suffocating feeling in my chest. I have found if I turn my office light off, tell my staff I need some “do not disturb time,” shut my office door, turn off my cell phone and laptop and close my eyes for a few moments, I can come out of that drowning feeling. I’ll concentrate on my breathing – a deep breath in the nose, followed by releasing the breath, twice as slow as I drew it in, through the mouth. By concentrating on my breathing, my mind leaves all the issues I had going on when I first started. I come out of the practice rejuvenated. I have started practicing meditation. It does not come easy for me, but I’m getting better. I suggest doing a little research and trying meditation yourself. It really helps with stress, anger, anxiety and frustration. I will do this breathing exercise in court if I feel it necessary or simply shut my eyes and take my thoughts off whatever is bothering me. On occasion, I have had a judge think I was sleeping. A big “closed eye” smile and explanation I am meditating will usually bring a laugh. Do yourself a favor and try this the next time you feel overwhelmed at work.
Leisure Time/Date Night
I always have a trip planned. When I don’t have something to look forward to, I tend to burn out quicker, and my attitude can become problematic. My family and I take a beach vacation (COVID-19 did not help this) and a ski vacation every year. In between the two big trips, we do weekends of camping or riding dirt bikes, or we will rent a cabin at the river and go floating. My wife and I have date night each week. We get a sitter for the kids, and we go have dinner just her and me. She gets to dress up, and I get to dress casually. Those are the rules. Always having something to look forward to is a must for me and helps me get my mind off whatever may be bothering me in my professional life.
Emotional Support Animals
We have two dogs, a 14-year-old lab-heeler mix named Mac and an almost 2-year-old lapdog named Vinny. We have a large, shorthaired Russian Grey cat named Oscar, and my daughter has a guinea pig named Rosie. I have three sugar gliders named Gizmo, Buddy and Maggie. All the other pets are for the family as a whole, but the gliders are specifically meant for me to help with my stress and anxiety. Unlike Rosie, the guinea pig, the gliders have very apparent personalities. Gizmo, being a young boy, is rambunctious and does flips in his cage. Buddy is chubby and likes eating more than anything and Maggie, the mother, is docile and kind – just holding her and petting her will immediately lower my stress and anxiety. No matter how I feel that day, when I take them out of their cages, I feel almost immediate relief. I know what you are thinking: sugar gliders, that’s just weird. At first, I felt the same. Now, I realize what they are doesn’t really matter. It is well known animals have a demonstrable effect on the emotional well-being of their owners. Pet owners out there will most definitely agree. If you don’t already own a pet, you might want to look into one. Be picky. Pick the one that fits you and your life.
I stopped watching or listening to the news at all times of the day. I don’t know about you, but I like the news. I need to know what is going on in my city, state, country and around the world at all times. I used to never turn it off. It was the first thing I turned on in the morning and the last thing I watched before bed at night. Although doing this kept me very well informed, it caused more harm than good. I found I was getting upset all the time about issues barely even relevant to me. Now, I listen to NPR during my workday, but when work is over, the news is turned off. I treat my diet of news exactly like I treat my job. I am there during my 9 to 5, but before 9 a.m., it is my time at the gym and after work is for my family. I do not let the news interrupt my personal or family time. Yes, on occasion, I will not know of some issue the moment it becomes public, but my mental health is better off, and that is more important to me.
These items are just a few of the changes I have instituted in my professional and personal life that have helped me. Our society is quickly changing its views on mental health and starting to realize our mental health is just as important as our physical health. We are starting to realize they are one and the same. I am no expert. I know most of the points I have discussed above are obvious, and most of us are already doing these things and others in order to help ourselves feel better and be able to function properly in our professional and personal lives.
I was frightened to write this article. I have never shared my story in written format, and the fact I am doing so for the first time, and to the entire Oklahoma Bar, is beyond scary for me. I do so only in hopes there is a lawyer out there who can connect to my story. Someone who feels they are drowning in their life, and there is no way out. You are not alone. You are not so unique in your failings that you are destined to lose everything or die. There are those of us who have been there before you and not only survived but came out better than we ever were. Those of us who can honestly say we are better off for having fallen than we would’ve been if we had not ever fallen at all. If you have fallen, if you are embarrassed because of something you have gone or are going through and are too scared to admit it even in an attempt to get help, there is a quote by Teddy Roosevelt I think may have saved my life. For my 43rd birthday, my wife commissioned a local artist to create a piece of art based on this quote for my office wall, where it hangs today.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Bearskin Goode is the co-owner and managing partner at the Military Law Group PLLC in Tulsa. His areas of practice are criminal defense, divorce/paternity, and Native American law with an emphasis on active duty, reserve and veterans. He received his J.D. from the TU College of Law in 2005 with a certificate in Native American law and his bachelor’s degree from NSU in 2002. He is a proud husband and father.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 91 No. 10 (December 2020)