Legal Ethics

Ethics May Require Challenges to Alzheimer’s-Impaired Lawyers

Illustration by Stuart Bradford

Alzheimer’s disease is not an ailment that announces its presence. It sneaks up, dropping hints of its existence that only become obvious when it is already wreaking havoc in the lives of its victims and their loved ones.

The wife of a solo practitioner in Oklahoma knows that pattern all too well. Her husband, who is in his mid-50s, was recently diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. The effect has been devastating, she says.

“It’s surreal—it’s like you’re not really living; you’re watching your spouse become another person,” she says. “I can’t trust anything he says about things he’s known his whole life, like taxes and the law. It’s like every day you’re faced with something he can’t do or remember. It’s like I’ve got somebody else here, not the man I married.”

But looking back, the attorney’s wife realizes that the signs were apparent long before. (She requested that their names not be used to protect their privacy and to avoid compromising any possible legal matters.)

Going through his old e-mails, she says, “I found some from 2004 where he wrote to someone, ‘Call this person and get their phone number.’ It really clicked for me when we were at the dinner table and he said, ‘Pass the thingamajigs,’ instead of salad tongs. That’s a word-finding problem.”

The situation was bad enough at home, but red flags were going up in the husband’s law practice as well. At one point, a former employee of her husband’s firm reported that he was “buying things” with client funds. Finally, she confronted him with the fact that he was confusing their personal money with client funds.

What cut deepest, she says, was an apparent lack of compassion from other attorneys about her husband’s plight. Even after a successful 30-year legal career, other attorneys just didn’t seem to want to give him any breaks during court appearances or other work on cases, she says. Her husband no longer practices because of his medical issues.

This tragic scenario is likely to play out more frequently in the coming years for members of the legal profession. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates in its statistical report for 2010 that 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. While most of those people are 65 or older, some 500,000 Americans younger than 65 suffer from younger-onset Alzheimer’s or other dementias, the association says in its report. And with the first baby boomers due to reach age 65 in 2011, those numbers are bound to go up, the association predicts. The specter of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia may be a particular concern for the legal profession because trends suggest that growing numbers of lawyers will remain in practice as they get older.

Click here to continue reading “Rising Tide” online in the May ABA Journal.

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