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Disclose a Confidence or Watch a Man Die? : Client's Suicide Plan Puts Lawyer on Spot

December 20, 1987|JOHN NOLAN | Associated Press

CINCINNATI — A client walked into Janet Eaton's law office last summer and asked her to prepare his will, then calmly announced his intention to kill himself.

The lawyer listened in shock as the distraught man told her he had decided to commit suicide after being laid off from his job and going through a divorce.

"We talked for about an hour and I asked him to go get counseling," she recalled. "Then he said, 'Can we go ahead with what I came here to do?' "

Faced with a question her legal training had never addressed, Eaton tried to decide whether--and how--to disclose what a client had told her in confidence.

"I knew that his thinking was illogical and believed he was depressed but could not be sure how disturbed he was," she said.

She considered the lawyer's pledge to keep private what a client has divulged. But Eaton chose to do what she could to try to save a life.

'Responded as Human Being'

"I responded as a human being first," she said.

She contacted the Psychiatric Emergency Service at University of Cincinnati Hospital and spoke to a doctor; the man agreed to get help.

The lawyer described the experience in an article published in the November issue of the Cincinnati Bar Assn.'s journal called Report.

"I was able to persuade my client to go to the emergency room as a favor to me and to himself, impressing on him the sense of responsibility I felt after hearing of his intentions," Eaton wrote.

"The doctor later called to let me know that my client was being admitted to University Hospital, having reluctantly agreed to admission after the doctor told him that he would admit him involuntarily otherwise. And knowing that I had done all I could do made me feel immeasurably better," she wrote.

The man has made progress and recently was recalled to his job, although he is concerned that the recall might not be for long, Eaton said. She declined to give any other details about him.

Finds No Firm Rules

While researching the question of how to deal with a client's suicide threat, Eaton found some guidelines but no firm rules.

The American Bar Assn.'s Model Code of Professional Responsibility permits a lawyer to reveal a client's stated intention to commit a crime. But neither suicide nor attempted suicide is a crime in Ohio, Eaton said.

Ohio law does not address the subject of a lawyer's permission or duty to reveal a suicide threat, she said.

The city bar association helped Eaton find an ABA informal opinion that permits a lawyer, as a last resort, to reveal a client's communicated intention to commit suicide.

She said, however, that she would have divulged her client's suicide threat regardless of the opinion's existence.

"I had decided to do whatever I could to make sure he got counseling," she said.

She completed work on his will when she became convinced he did not intend to carry out his suicide threat, she said.

Reluctance to Interfere

Some lawyers are reluctant to interfere when a client threatens suicide, Eaton said. One of her colleagues limited his efforts to trying to talk a despondent client into getting counseling, she said. A year later, the client committed suicide.

Eaton, who began practice 12 years ago as a corporate lawyer, now specializes in family and mental-health law. She occasionally deals with families seeking advice on how to cope with a suicidal family member.

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