It was during the early Monday morning hours on September 26, 2016 that Nathan DeSai began to open fire on passing cars in the southwest region of Houston, TX. Witnesses said DeSai wore military-style clothing as he shot into random vehicles, injuring a total of nine people from either gunshot wounds or flying glass. De Sai was armed with a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun, a rifle, and more than 2,500 rounds of ammunition. This terrifying incident lasted for several hours before DeSai was eventually killed by police.
Some of us may have more in common with Nathan DeSai than we care to admit. The forty-six-year-old was an intellectual who graduated from the University of Houston in 1993 and went on to earn his law degree from the University of Tulsa in 1998. Yes, Nathan DeSai was a lawyer who devoted more than 12 years of his life to civil and criminal litigation, as well as to family and business law. DeSai was licensed to practice law not only in the state of Texas, but also in Oklahoma. His record was spotless as he was not cited with a single disciplinary complaint during his years of practice. DeSai reportedly drove a black, convertible Porsche, and from the outside looking in, life seemed to be going well for both him and his family.
One thing is for sure: lawyers are depressed and stressed at an exponentially higher rate than certain other professions.
So the question remains: Why would a seemingly happy, successful lawyer, do such a horrific thing? The answer to this question originates from many potential sources. Police have brought in investigators from the FBI and various other law enforcement agencies to try and determine the motive behind DeSai’s shooting rampage. While this may prove to be beneficial, one thing is for sure: lawyers are depressed and stressed at an exponentially higher rate than certain other professions.
The legal profession makes the list of top 11 professions with the highest suicide rates, and the odds of committing suicide sits at 1 in 33 for practicing attorneys. In addition to the staggering rate, a study that came out just this year by the American Bar Association (ABA) showed that lawyers have an alarmingly high rate of alcoholism compared to physicians and surgeons (36.4 percent of attorneys, compared to 15 percent of physicians and surgeons). Within these statistics, it is also important to note that nearly 40 percent of law school students have reported dealing with depression before officially entering the legal profession.
While lawyers may be well paid, they endure long hours and complex issues.
Like it or not, the facts are clear. Lawyers have to deal with unpleasant issues and people. In some situations, lawyers are expected to deliver a desired outcome, yet have very little control over the direction of a case. Lawyers are also exposed to trauma from their clients which can add an entire new level of stress to the practice of law. These factors, combined with a whole host of others, would inevitably take a toll on any individual – not to mention the stress that is felt from student loan debt, the pressure to succeed, and even to live a certain lifestyle.
While it is true that individuals in many professions are subject to these very same conditions, most other professions are more forgiving than the practice of law. While lawyers may be well paid, they endure long hours and complex issues. A recent study by the American Bar Foundation found that while the average lawyer works about 50 hours per week, lawyers in larger firms can work anywhere from 60-70, or even more, hours per week. In addition to this, the complex legal issues that lawyers face are unique to the profession. While some situations might be solved by a non-lawyer, the more complex legal issues require a lawyer’s expertise; and often with expertise, comes added stress.
So how do we combat these devastating statistics? Dan Lukasik, a managing partner at the law firm of Bernhardi Lukasik, PLLC in Buffalo, NY believes we should nip it in the bud. Rather than let law students go through law school depressed, and then carry that depression into their practice (which is even more stressful than law school), law schools should implement programs to address and stop depression. One such program would be organized in three steps. First, law schools should show the 30-minute documentary “A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession.” This documentary captures the history of depression and the law and outlines historical figures who have “suffered in silence” from depression. Second, someone who is currently in the legal profession and has suffered from depression should then speak to the students. This speaker will likely resonate with students and get their attention. Third, law students should show up, think long and hard about this topic, and strive to make changes.
Nathan DeSai is not the only lawyer who has seemingly fallen victim to the pressures of the practice of law.
In DeSai’s case, we can only speculate as to why he made the decision to open fire on innocent people. Some media organizations have inferred that DeSai was a “disgruntled lawyer” who was bitter after his partnership dissolved, however, his former law partner, Kenneth McDaniel characterized those explanations as being “the farthest thing from the truth.” McDaniel was adamant that his partnership with DeSai dissolved due to the increasing financial burden of running a law practice. “It was simply a matter of economics. We couldn’t afford to operate as a partnership anymore,” McDaniel stated. In fact, Kenneth McDaniel had only good things to say about his former law partner when interviewed by various news outlets. McDaniel described DeSai as a “good, competent lawyer” who always did his work and “was at work every day.”
Despite Kenneth McDaniel’s fond memories of De Sai, DeSai’s father, a retired geologist, told the Houston Chronicle that after the partnership dissolved, DeSai was “troubled” because he was having problems attracting clients. Further, DeSai’s property manager at the apartment complex where DeSai rented, told ABC 13 News that DeSai had been acting erratically in recent months, and had pulled a gun on a roofing crew he mistook for burglars.
Nathan DeSai is not the only lawyer who has seemingly fallen victim to the pressures of the practice of law. Just perusing the disciplinary orders for any given state will turn up countless lawyers who have been accused of stealing client funds, violating confidentiality, and a whole host of other ethical and legal violations. Lawyer reactions to these accusations range from ignorance to remorse to defiance; yet when asked why they did it, lawyers will often say that they did not know who to turn to, or the pressure of the job became too much.
North Carolina, along with other states, have programs in place to assist lawyers who may be dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, anger management, grief, and much more. Specifically, North Carolina’s program is called the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program (NCLAP). Judges, lawyers, law students, and even family members can use this resource if they are struggling, or know someone who is.
The legal profession has evolved over the years to a point where it is no longer frowned upon for lawyers to be open and candid about real-life struggles they face as members of the bar. Hopefully it will not take another Nathan DeSai to remind law students and practicing attorneys that help is available, no matter how dire the situation.