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Lawyer must do own job, not social worker's

Published Dec. 3, 2006

I am a lawyer. While a potential client and I were preparing her will, she asked how it would be affected if she committed suicide. A little flustered, I asked if she was seriously considering suicide. She said no, but did she mean it? I don't want to ignore a cry for help, but is it appropriate to try to be her social worker - she does see a psychiatrist - especially considering the rules governing attorney-client confidentiality? What should I do?

You should do your job. If your potential client has made a reasoned choice for suicide, your task is not to dissuade her (you are, as you suggest, not a trained therapist) but to provide legal advice, to help her get her affairs in order. You can speak to her with compassion. You can urge her to discuss this with her psychiatrist or her family. You can decline to take her on as a client (though you can't prevent her from finding a more pliant attorney). But you may not violate her autonomy and her confidentiality by reporting this to anyone.

If, however, she is clearly deranged and a danger to herself, then you must seek help for her. Of course, in such a case you are forbidden to prepare her will; as you know, she must be of sound mind for that.

The American Bar Association grants lawyers the discretion, but not the obligation, to break confidentiality to report a suicidal client, lucid or not. Some state bar associations - Connecticut, for example - go further and forbid a lawyer to prepare a will if doing so will assist a client's suicide. But the ambiguity of this proscription undercuts its helpfulness. Presumably such a client will find another estate lawyer and keep mum about her dark thoughts. And to whom would you report a suicidal but apparently rational client, anyway? The police? The client can simply smile and say: "I am fine. My lawyer is well-meaning but mistaken."

It should be noted that many psychiatrists discount the idea of rational suicide, except when a person is terminally ill and suffering intolerably. It is, however, beyond your purview to make such sophisticated judgments. If your client seems rational, and she does, you should help draft her will, but I don't envy you the moral burden of doing so.

Seek permission or forgiveness?

A friend went on a weeks-long trip and asked me to check on his cat and not to call except in an emergency. I discovered that the creature had an eye problem. My friend knew about the condition and said it didn't seem to bother the cat, but I think the cat is suffering and may be getting worse. Should I take it to the vet without my friend's permission?

You must seek care for the cat if it is suffering or if its condition is deteriorating, and both seem possible. Your friend's ownership of the cat is not sufficient reason for you to remain passive. Nor does his bland reassurance get you off the hook: It is wishful thinking, not a meaningful diagnosis.

This is not the kind of emergency he had in mind, so should you ask his permission before going to the vet or ask forgiveness after? The former step is preferable - this is, after all, your friend's cat - but it raises the stakes, potentially: What will you do if he says no? Because you are resolved to take the cat to the vet - I hope - and because you have your friend's general consent to care for it, you need not seek special authorization. When he deputized you, he knew you were not a cat-sitting robot. (Wouldn't that be cool, though? A cat-sitting robot! Ooh, and maybe it could have a plug-in slot for an iPod!) He meant for you to make wise choices about the cat's well- being.

UPDATE: The cat-sitter phoned a veterinarian friend. She had a pretty good idea about the cat's condition and sent medicine to stabilize it until the owner returned. The cat-sitter hasn't heard about the cat lately; he thinks it's okay.

This column originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Send questions and comments by e-mail to