The Photoshop Lawyer

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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71 Responses

  1. KatherineMW says:

    In all of that, the most hilarious thing to me is that she thinks receiving spam emails from the Obama campaign is some kind of indication of merit or respectability. One would hope she doesn’t believe Obama writes those mass emails personally, but in this case I’m really not sure she’s aware of that.Report

  2. Badtux says:

    She sounds like Orly Taitz’s sister. These clearly mentally unstable people who are licensed to practice law in California are an embarrassment to the profession and an embarrassment to the state of California. I am baffled as to how these people managed to gain admission to the California bar in the first place given their clear lack of understanding of any legal concepts — perhaps there needs to be some scrutiny of test security for the bar exam? For that matter, how did this obviously deranged lunatic manage to graduate from Pepperdine University’s School of Law prior to taking the California bar exam?

    That’s not one, but *two* institutions that failed the profession. Pepperdine should be ashamed of themselves for granting this loon a law degree, and the State Bar clearly needs to clean up its admission procedures to insure that people wanting to practice law in California actually have some clue as to what the law is and how they are supposed to conduct themselves. But then, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir here…Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Badtux says:


      Why are you assuming that she was mentally ill when she was in law school and took the bar? Mental illness can strike at any time and for any reasons. Lawyers have high rates of substance abuse because of the high stakes nature of the profession and very long hours. She also could have had family issues which caused her mental illness to manifest.

      You and Burt seem to be assuming that she was always a few cards short of a mental deck. She could have been a perfectly decent lawyer for many years who recently suffered from mental illness and this caused her poor performance and complaint.

      Even if you and Burt are right, there is no reason to suspect that a mentally ill person cannot do well academically or mask/hide their mental illness for a long time. Plenty of people go through schooling and careers while dealing with mental health issues.Report

      • Badtux in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I would presume that a graduate of a prestigious law school does not exit from such without learning how to write a basic pleading, one that does not read like something from a mentally ill pro se defendant throwing anything on a page. Based on reviews going many years back, however, this seems to be a presumption on our part that has no supporting evidence in Svitlana Sangary’s case.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        You might be surprised, @badtux , at least at the level of specificity you describe. I attended a law school higher up on the second tier than Ms. Sangary, and it would have been possible to graduate from that law school having taken only one class that derived less than half of its overall grade from practical legal writing. And the more prestigious a law school gets (or presumes to be), the more airlily academic and less bluntly practical the emphasis on the students’ work product becomes.

        But I think you should take @saul-degraw ‘s point raised elsewhere to heart — it’s entirely possible Ms. Sangary matriculated from Pepperdine SOL with no outward sign of any sort of mental disorder and powerful cognitive and epistolary abilities, only to later fall victim to something to which any and all of us are vulnerable. After we’re done marveling at the confabulations she generated in her own defense of what could have been merely petty ethical issues, we ought to realize that in fact she needs help, not scorn.Report

      • Libertarian Advocate in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Hell, Obama proves the truth of that assertion.Report

    • dhex in reply to Badtux says:

      we are very quick to medicalize everything in this country – she may simply be an idiot. idiots can be good at one or two things, perhaps even great at them, but still generally be an idiot with everything else.

      “keep digging” is one of those things that people tend to do even when the obvious answer is to stop digging and shut the piehole.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to dhex says:

        Thing is, an idiot practicing a profession has a strong likelihood of hurting someone else, not just herself, by trotting that idiocy out to play. One of the reasons we have a bar association at all is to protect the public from people unfit to practice law. How many of Sangary’s clients endured stress, time, extra expense, and maybe even resolution contrary to the merits of their cases because their lawyer was busy filing pleadings about how important she was for giving three dollars to the Obama campaign? Whether that was the result of mental illness, substance abuse, or just plain idiocy as you suggest, the highly reactive system that regulates lawyers doesn’t catch it or step in until well after damage has been done, to lawyer, client, court, and the public alike.Report

      • dhex in reply to dhex says:

        no argument from me that jackassery can be dangerous, wasteful, etc etc and so on. but i worked too long in healthcare with surgeons to presume that everyone who acts insane is legitimately insane, rather than just a combination of fame, money, power, drugs, self-deception, monomania, and sexy sex sex creating what i’d call a “jerkass cyclone”.

        as an outsider it seems a little difficult to disbar people but cartels gotta cartelize, y’all. 🙂Report

      • Coke-Encrusted Hollywood Exec in reply to dhex says:

        Coming to theaters in 2016…the story I was put on this earth to tell!


        fame, money, power, drugs, self-deception, monomania, and sexy sex sex

        This will be my most personal work yet!Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to dhex says:


        What do you propose? Bi-annual mental health checks for lawyers?

        Lawyers are people and things can happen suddenly and randomly to anyone like a stroke, car accident, death of a loved one, etc. I was just working on a case that got delayed because counsel for the defense had a sudden family emergency and the trial is now delayed for a year. This is a case where the plaintiff and defense could just not agree to a settlement. What if a lawyer is in a car accident one week before a major deadline?

        I kind of disagree with your point #3 as well. Crazy people exist in all jobs and professions. The tech industry is seemingly filled with throwback sexists who keep on getting media attention for juvenile antics, finance has Bernie Madoff (arguably much worse than the woman here), there are teachers who get in trouble for sleeping with students (even at the university level where it is legal, it is still a scandal and I know some scandals).Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to dhex says:

        I don’t have a specific policy proposal in mind, @saul-degraw . It would be really easy to come up with a heavy-handed, intrusive, overbroad, and expensive sort of idea like mandatory periodic mental health checks (I assume that was a sarcastic proposal), but obviously that’s not going to happen for a variety of very good policy and fiscal reasons.

        But maybe there’s some sort of way a lawyer or a judge who has noted really erratic conduct could signal someone — through the bar, maybe, through the courts, or something else, I don’t know really, yet — that there may be a mental health issue interfering with the operation of the courts or the legal system.

        Like I say, I haven’t really thought it all through just yet. And I take the cautions @chris throws in to the mix seriously — a light touch is required here because it’s easy and consequential to make an incorrect invocation of mental illness. But it does seem to me that this sort of thing happens often enough that there ought to be some guidance and some ability to steer people towards help. After all, some mentally ill people cost their clients a lot of time and money and gum up the legal system, which is bad enough — and some get hold of weapons, or fire, or vehicles. Wouldn’t it be nice to catch something like that before it happens?Report

    • Mo in reply to Badtux says:

      @badtux It should be noted that the CA Bar is the hardest to get into, based on pass rate, in the country.Report

      • Badtux in reply to Mo says:

        Thus my tossed-off quip about ringers and test security. Orly Taitz and Svitlana Sangary both passed the California bar. Both are clearly incompetent to practice walking and chewing gum at the same time, much less practice law. So clearly either the California bar exam does not adequately measure ability to practice law (not an unheard-of case by any means, tests have a bad habit of measuring ability to pass tests, not ability to perform what they’re purporting to measure), or these two individuals (both of whom have filed pleadings that make me say “WTF?!”) somehow found a flaw in the testing procedures that allowed them to cheat.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Mo says:

        Badtux, the joke is that law school teaches you how to be a law school professor rather than a lawyer. After legal writing and research in your first year, very little in law relates to the actual practice of law even or maybe especially in elite law schools. Law schools have this sort allergy to teaching the practicalities of actual legal practice because it would imply that its basically a glorified vocational school rather than something more academic and intellectual.Report

      • Zane in reply to Mo says:

        Badtux, as people point out above and below, we have no evidence to indicate that Sangary was not a competent attorney after her graduation. We have evidence to suggest she is either foolish or, more likely, impaired at this time. If she is currently experiencing a mental illness, appropriate treatment may allow her to be a competent attorney again.Report

  3. Like you, I’m no psychiatrist. But unlike you, I’ll be foolish and speculate that maybe she really does suffer from a mental disorder and needs help (and along the way, probably ought not be allowed to practice law).Report

  4. Saul Degraw says:

    I think you are being a bit mean-spirited. She was admitted almost ten years ago and mental illness can strike at anytime. Yes she seems to be suffering from an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness but we don’t what was going on her personal life. You seem to make the assumption that she was always a few cards short of a full deck. Lawyers are people too and can have mental illness creep into their lives just like anyone else and from all sorts of sources.

    This is not saying she did anything great. She clearly messed up and her essay is a sign of needing some kind of mental health help. That being said, this is not the first time I have seen this particular mental health issue. There is a would be filmmaker (not the guy who did the Room) who tries to promote himself with implications that he knows David Lynch. The pictures on his website were clearly taken from a run of the mill book signing event.

    But I do agree that litigation with unsophisticated clients can often involve this kind of rambling and there are lots of people with undiagnosed mental illness who write all sorts of things for the court system. A friend of mine from law school had an externship with the DOJ and his job was to write all the motions to dismiss for the crazy complaints. Some of it is also because people probably have legal cases but are too poor to afford lawyers so they do the best they can with public records and cobbling stuff together. There is also probably a veen diagram between the two. I think undiagnosed and untreated mental illness is one of the really big and not discussed issues in American life. We have simply eviscerated treatment for mental illness in this country.

    I will admit that sometimes I wonder how much of crazy can be cut off from unscrupulous. There is a story I know about a convict that sued himself for not living up to his own moral standard. He then asked for the state to pay 50 million or so in damages. Is that a sign of mental illness or just being a perpetual con man? Albeit a potentially not that bright one.Report

    • @saul-degraw

      I pretty much agree with most of what you’ve said in this thread, especially the point that the mental illness might have had a later onset.

      I get that she probably really does need to be suspended from practicing. But as you probably agree, mental illness is no joke.

      The only way I find this situation “hilarious” is if the woman is of sound mind and is simply cynically trying to portray herself as crazy. And even then, there’s a certain sadness to someone being so cynical.Report

  5. Glyph says:

    Respondent ultimately concluded her response by writing:

    SVITLANA SANGARY did not have to deal with lemon law. She is dealing with other type [sic] of “lemons”, such as the ones revealed here. And a proverbial phrase comes to mind. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Wikipedia says that it is a proverbial phrase used to encourage optimism and a can-do attitude in the face of adversity or misfortune.

    Wikipedia describes it. SANGARY exemplifies it.

    And, such lemonade tastes great. It may have blood, sweat, and tears in it, but it is so enjoyable. The more challenges, the more lemons – the more lemonade!

    God bless America, the land of opportunity!

    Mental note: do *not* purchase lemonade from SANGARY’S Lemonade Stand. It tastes funky.Report

  6. Saul Degraw says:

    Re #1:

    What do you propose to make the barriers for entry higher and I pose the same questions I posed to Bad Tux. Why do you think the mental illness was present when she went to law school as opposed to manifesting later?Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      There is no reason to assume that whatever mental illness has rendered her unable to address reality manifested during school. She very well might have snapped after admission, with pressure and stress from practice playing a part.

      But we don’t screen or look out for this at all. After gaining admission to the profession, we wait until an attorney really screws up in a way that harms her clients before stepping in to say “maybe you ought to take a break.” There is no procedure in place for a judge who sees paperwork showing what I’ve perhaps uncharitably describes as an “epistolary psychotic break” to steer a lawyer towards getting some mental health care.

      Maybe we needn’t have waited until she flamed out like this to step in; indeed, the only indication here is that she’s being teed up for disbarment and not even the bar is suggesting that she get some professional help herself so that maybe her career can be salvaged.Report

      • But we don’t screen or look out for this at all. After gaining admission to the profession, we wait until an attorney really screws up in a way that harms her clients before stepping in to say “maybe you ought to take a break.”

        It seems to me that in most professions/jobs, we generally devise a way to assess basic competence (e.g., in this case, law school + bar exam + bar license) and then if a person loses touch, do the “maybe you ought to take a break” thing. I think Saul’s question is a good, what can you really do? Why don’t we screen lawyers for potential heart problems so they don’t have a heart attack during a trial and inconvenience their clients? Or cancer risk?Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      We could find a way to really reduce the number of law schools like the AMA did during the early 20th century. If there were fewer law schools, the number of people who could become lawyers would be lower, the requirements of admission higher, and hopefully the average quality of lawyering would rise.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:


        I suspect that the early 20th century had a more accepted classism that would be impossible to pull off now. A lot of people do think that every school that is not T14, T20, or T50 (depending on level of snobbiness) should shut down. Maybe save that every state should have a public university law school. I think shutting down places like your alma mater and mine would be seen as very snobby and elitist. They might not be well-ranked now but they are old and have established histories.Report

      • Badtux in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I don’t see how reducing the number of law schools would eliminate the Svitlana Sangary’s of the world, unless you are claiming that Pepperdine, a well rated law school with a huge waiting list of applicants, has to reduce its admissions requirements because of Joe’s Trucking School And Law Academy admitting anybody with a pulse.

        Regarding medical schools, note that graduating from medical school and passing an exam does not qualify you for licensing as a physician. You have to serve a rather grueling internship first. Perhaps the legal profession needs something like the physician internship process where a potential lawyer who passes the bar exam has to actually practice law under the direct supervision of an experienced lawyer prior to being allowed admission to the bar. An intensive internship process of this sort does weed out some (not all) of the incompetent physicians who were good at passing tests but in no way qualified to practice medicine. My guess is that it would have weeded out Taitz and Sangary long before they actually gained admission to the California bar and became an embarrassment to the profession, since neither has ever shown anything near adequate ability to practice law as versus pass exams.Report

      • Gaelen in reply to LeeEsq says:


        Or at the very least we could stop opening new ones. I’m looking at you Indiana Tech School of Law.Report

  7. Chris says:

    I wouldn’t pretend to be able to diagnose her, but if her speech is anything like her writing, I would not be surprised to learn that she has a disorder within a particular family of disorders that has its onset from late adolescence to 25 in women, but not infrequently shows its first symptoms in the early 30s. If she has a disorder from this family of disorders, its entirely possible that she made it through law school without any symptoms. (There are a bunch of other possibilities that would likely have earlier onsets.)Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

      Well, don’t tease, what kind of condition are you suspicious of? Are there other symptoms one might observe and, most importantly, what might I do about it if I see another lawyer exhibiting these symptoms?Report

      • Glyph in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Chris is often reluctant to speculate but I’m less circumspect, in many ways, so I will speculate that he is probably referring to schizophrenia, which often shows up in women around 25-30 years of age (earlier in men).Report

      • Glyph in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Sorry, sloppy writing there on my part – “often” doesn’t mean that its incidence is common in women; just that if it does manifest, that’s commonly the age range when it does.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Yeah, I’m always hesitant to be specific about these things, because I think it’s irresponsible even of the professionals (if you’ll recall, a regular commenter left in part because I took him to task for it), and I’m not a clinician, so it’d be even more irresponsible for me. I’ve seen that I’ve seen that sort of flight of ideas before in people with a couple different diagnoses, one of which can have later onsets, so my only real point is that it’s not impossible that this showed up after law school if it is in fact a case of mental illness.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        That’s what I understood you to mean — when schizophrenia manifests at all, it often does so in this age band.

        I’m at a loss as to what might be done, though. When I see opposing counsel behave in a fashion like this, it’s particularly dicey — I do, after all, need to advocate for my own client and get the best result for my own client that I can. An opposition lawyer exhibiting this sort of behavior is almost certain to flame out at some point, and I can rely on the judge spotting it sooner or later, too.

        What happens then is the judge often takes a more active look into the merits of the matter, knowing that the opposing attorney will probably be unable to do so in a coherent fashion. Granted that this is motivated nobly, by a desire to see justice done, the law fulfilled, and the dispute resolved on its merits notwithstanding a serious problem apparently manifesting in opposing counsel. My problem then is I’m litigating against an advocate on the the bench, with a (again, the poverty of the language) crazy lawyer at the other counsel table, so there’s going to be a whole lot of hoops to jump through I wouldn’t normally, and it costs my client time and money that wouldn’t ordinarily need to be invested in the project.

        Schizophrenics are most certainly not unintelligent; some can be fearsomely clever and some can summon up remarkable stores of knowledge. The chances of the knowledge summoned up being legally relevant are relatively low, but since they can actually hit the ball, but don’t seem to understand the concept of the foul line, they often think they’re hitting home runs when they’re really only hitting pop flies behind their own backs. Which means they don’t know when they’re losing, among other things. One such litigant cost a client of mine four years and a hundred thousand dollars in attorney’s fees because he was just clever enough to tread water, just random enough that we had to fashion entirely new maneuvers to deal with him, and was before a judge who signaled to me that he wanted to dispose of the litigant through procedural machinations that required me to file a series of motions over time, rather than addressing the merits of the litigant’s contentions or the style of his conduct (e.g., accusing the bench of corruption, me of harassment and dishonesty, and my client of witchcraft yes you read that last word correctly).

        Late last night when I wrote the OP, I recognized something harmonious with Sangary’s conduct and that of a handful of lawyers and litigants, like the one I described above, and vented some frustration. Now, imbued with the energy and promise of the morning, and a concrete enough suggestion of what might plausibly be the problem, I wonder what might be done to prevent or at least mitigate the damage that it does to the system.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I feel like I should reiterate why I think it’s irresponsible. First, many if not most psychological and psychiatric diagnoses are difficult, if not impossible, without a great deal of information about a person’s history, behavior and perhaps even brain activity and genetics that people rarely have unless they’re actually treating the person in question. (If you are seeking psychological treatment, and you’re dealing with a particularly difficult diagnosis — something more than depression or specific anxiety, say — you should definitely get a second opinion.)

        Second, mental illness, and certain illnesses in particular (of which schizophrenia is one) have strong stigmas attached, stigmas that, once invoked, can be difficult to reverse even if we later discover that a diagnosis is incorrect.

        Third, amateur diagnoses, or even armchair diagnoses by mental health professionals, can have undue influence on the help that people seek. While it’s unlikely that the woman in this post is going to stop by OT, read these comments, and decide that we might be correct and then present herself to a clinician with that diagnosis in mind, potentially influencing the clinician’s diagnosis, I’ve seen lay diagnoses affect people’s treatment-seeking behavior online too many times not to be extremely wary of it (I’ve seen it on this blog, in fact).

        Finally, when dealing with individuals who have committed criminal acts, or violated rules or professional standards, speculating on mental illness can have a great deal of influence on how we think about and respond to the case (e.g., in the form of subsequent laws or regulations), and again, misinformation, once it’s out there, can be difficult to counteract. So it’s best not to speculate. See above, where Saul is talking about screening processes based on his assumption that she is mentally ill enough that she should not have made it through law school/the bar admission process (which also hints at the sort of essentialism about mental illness that adds to my reluctance to even talk about possible diagnoses in a public setting).Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        some schizophrenics work better while crazy. I think it’s dubious professional ethics to induce (or prevent from removing) craziness in order to get better work output.

        Is it completely implausible that you could talk to the lawyer’s client? or that you could bring suit? (Because, it seems really clear, the lawyer you’re talking about is NOT HELPING his client. If he actually is helping, I withdraw this suggestion — say if all the client wants is a delay in eviction).Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “people rarely have unless they’re actually treating the person in question”
        … or unless they’re actively instigating it.
        Seriously, this is the internet. It may be a lot of trouble to get all that history remotely, but it’s definitely doable, and is a job that the government pays people good money for (generally, with respect to foreign politicians/leaders, for whom the ability to predict behavior is vitally important).Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Burt, I definitely don’t have a problem with anything you wrote, let me make that clear. I’m just trying to explain my own evasiveness.

        I’m not sure what you can do in cases like this. If the bar were something like a trade union, or if there were a corresponding trade union, it would likely be in the interest of both the mentally ill and the relatively mentally healthy (we’re talkin’ about lawyers, here… hiyo!) to have programs for attorneys who appear to be suffering from mental illness, so that the mentally ill have avenues for treatment and getting back to a point where they can be functional attorneys, and so that functional attorneys can work with other functional attorneys. Not sure how you do that without some sort of organization specifically looking out for the interests of attorneys, though, or even if such a thing already exists.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @chris -regarding irresponsibility of amateur diagnosis, thanks for the thorough explanation.

        I actually have some thoughts/questions on that but it may be a little while until I can gather them together, so I am bookmarking this and hope to come back to it.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I’m a big boy, @chris , and I can take criticism and pushback without it being a potentially fatal blow to my ego. And you and I have a long history of smart, lighthearted exchanges and I never for an instant contemplated that this was otherwise. So we’re all good.

        Sadly, the bar is not like a trade union, organized for the mutual advancement of its membership’s interests. It really is a lot more like a guild, which is why I sarcastically call it “The Guild” from time to time: it creates a barrier to entry into the profession so as to render supply of the profession’s service lower than unregulated market conditions would be. Which is one thing — but when it begs for and receives the sanction of law for doing so, I think it owes the public a benefit in return for that boon, and that bargain is written into its “charter.” That benefit is to protect the public from people who ought not to wield the power attorneys have, to make sure that power is not misused. That’s pretty abstract, but Ms. Sangary’s case illustrates a concrete example of the Guild fulfilling that function.

        @kim there is a specific rule of ethics that prohibits me from contacting an opposing party who is represented by counsel. Even if I suspect there is a real problem and with the best and most charitable of intentions want to get that opposing counsel steered towards some help, going around that lawyer to contact the client directly would get me into a whole lot of trouble, really fast. I can contact the court in a litigated matter, although that’s strongly discouraged and would make me unpopular with the bench. I can contact the bar, also, but my frustration here is that the bar lacks any mechanism to do anything in response to such a concern until and unless the lawyer I’m concerned with violates a rule of ethics. Here, the underlying ethical violation that started the investigation into Ms. Sangary was relatively modest — the photoshops of herself and all the famous people were colorful lies, but not the worst sort of lies an attorney might tell about herself.

        But exhibiting symptoms of some sort of mental illness is not a violation of the rules of ethics. I’d posit that it’s pretty rare that an attorney who was behaving in this fashion actually stumbles on to something clever enough to procure an advantage to her client, and for an attorney who actually was laboring under the burden of a mental illness to sustain that sort of thing over the course of protracted litigation would be well nigh impossible. If we had a system for weeding out the merely unconventional from the mentally ill, we’d protect hundreds of litigants for every one legally interesting argument that might result from the machinations of a brain working in, shall we say, an unorthodox fashion.Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        of course. Could the judge say something to the client? Perhaps the ethical responsibility is on him, not you…

        (and when I said that crazy people can sometimes be better at their job, I was speaking in terms of engineering. And high functioning paranoid schizophrenic)Report

      • Zane in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Kim: You said, “…some schizophrenics work better while crazy.” I think that’s an arguable statement, but my real problem with what you said is that people are not their illnesses.

        I teach psychopathology and one of the things I have to stress to my students is that the clients they assess are people, not disorders. This is important for a number of reasons, but one of the key ones is that we can lose sight of individuals’ humanity when they become “schizophrenics” or “borderlines”.Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        what I said was a testable statement. It was (apparently) actually tested. I’m certain you’ve heard how hard it is to get paranoid schizophrenics to continue taking their medicine.
        … and while people are certainly not their illnesses, sometimes mental illness can be kinda life-eating.Report

      • Zane in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Sorry Kim, I was unclear. I didn’t want to argue whether what you said was true. I was asking you not to call people “schizophrenics”.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I agree with @zane entirely. Labeling people by their illness leads to precisely the sort of essentialist thinking that I mentioned above.Report

      • What happens then is the judge often takes a more active look into the merits of the matter,….My problem then is I’m litigating against an advocate on the the bench, with a (again, the poverty of the language) crazy lawyer at the other counsel table, so there’s going to be a whole lot of hoops to jump through I wouldn’t normally, and it costs my client time and money that wouldn’t ordinarily need to be invested in the project.

        That seems more like a problem with the legal system and less of a problem with the “crazy” lawyer. I imagine there ought to be a procedure that’s somehow fair for suspending a case or whatever when an attorney manifests “crazy” behavior. Such a procedure, I assume, would have to account for false positives (such as when a desperate lawyer starts to act “crazy”).Report

      • Glyph in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @chris – sorry it took me so long to get back to this, but I’ve been pretty swamped. I don’t really disagree, exactly, with anything you’ve said; but still, some of it seems at least debatable in my mind. I will try to hit those points here:

        mental illness, and certain illnesses in particular (of which schizophrenia is one) have strong stigmas attached, stigmas that, once invoked, can be difficult to reverse even if we later discover that a diagnosis is incorrect.

        This is undoubtedly true – OTOH, one reason the stigmas continue to exist in the first place (as with similar stigmas for drug use/abuse, or non-mainstream sexual practices, not that these are all exactly the same but hopefully you get my drift) is a reluctance to discuss them openly in public.

        Now, there may be a useful analogy here, in that we shouldn’t “out” someone, given that the stigmas DO in fact exist; but there is tension there to me, in that the stigmas are in part reinforced by our reluctance to be open about the potential topic at hand (even if we are sometimes wrong!)

        Third, amateur diagnoses, or even armchair diagnoses by mental health professionals, can have undue influence on the help that people seek. While it’s unlikely that the woman in this post is going to stop by OT, read these comments, and decide that we might be correct and then present herself to a clinician with that diagnosis in mind, potentially influencing the clinician’s diagnosis, I’ve seen lay diagnoses affect people’s treatment-seeking behavior online too many times not to be extremely wary of it (I’ve seen it on this blog, in fact).

        Again, true – but again, OTOH, countless people have also been helped by amateur diagnoses (medical, emotional, psychological, economic, technological) – they say what problem they are experiencing, and a friend or family member or internet denizen says, “holy crap, that same thing happened to my uncle, have you considered that it could maybe be [X]?”

        And this sometimes occurs after they already HAVE consulted with multiple “experts” who were unable to pinpoint the issue.

        So as long as the commentary is clearly preceded by some variant of “IANAD”, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with speculating; refraining or withholding speculation in some cases might result in needless suffering.

        Finally, when dealing with individuals who have committed criminal acts, or violated rules or professional standards, speculating on mental illness can have a great deal of influence on how we think about and respond to the case (e.g., in the form of subsequent laws or regulations), and again, misinformation, once it’s out there, can be difficult to counteract. So it’s best not to speculate. See above, where Saul is talking about screening processes based on his assumption that she is mentally ill enough that she should not have made it through law school/the bar admission process (which also hints at the sort of essentialism about mental illness that adds to my reluctance to even talk about possible diagnoses in a public setting).

        Again, this cuts both ways. I think over the course of this discussion, Burt went from thinking “this woman is a terrible attorney and/or possibly criminal” (I saw some Yelp reviews for this attorney that called her exactly that, since her actions had cost her client so much money) to thinking “oh my gosh, this woman might be ill and need help, and what do I do in this case (or others) to help her and/or her clients and/or my profession”?

        Refraining from speculation might make it more likely that people will view her actions as criminal.

        Again, I don’t think you are wrong, per se, and I don’t really recall the particulars of your previous chastisement of that other commenter over the topic; just saying that it’s to me a bit more of a gray area than it is for you.Report

  8. LeeEsq says:

    At least in the Anglophone world, there has long been a tension between the professional aspects of lawyering and the business aspects of lawyering. A lot of the rules that regulate the business aspect of lawyering originated so the younger sons of British peers and gentry would have a respectable way of making a living without being in trade. Its why American lawyers couldn’t advertise until the 1980s and have lots of restritions on what can be in our advertisements.

    There lots of good reasons to restrict bar membership and strictly control the business aspects of lawyering. Such restrictions can also and have been misused to limit who could be a lawyer. In the early 20th century, WASP lawyers were aggressive in using ethical laws as a way of preventing Ethnic, particulalrly Jewish, Americans from becoming lawyers. They argued that things like price listings of services were unethical. The result of this was to make it harder for working people and the poor to get legal help when they needed it. I think we can agree that is something we want to avoid.Report

  9. zic says:

    I do not like this post at all.

    As a reporter, one of the most important things I learned is that most public proceedings are public. When you become engaged in the judicial system, there is not a lot of privacy; and this is particularly true of lawyers; their livelyhood is stems from that public process, and one measure of how intrusive it is stems from the efforts to resolve issues before the very-public part begins; tremendous amount of pressure there; it’s not only the cost of litigation that people consider, it’s the loss of privacy.

    As a reporter, the most gut-clenching stories I wrote were of revealing people’s private actions to the public because they had gotten involved. The people you write about are often humiliated by the press attention; and often unfairly so; their involvement might be provoked by someone else. Think of a woman, raped, who’s sexually history is put on public display. A man falsely accused of child molestation in an acrid divorce from a mother who’s mentally ill.

    I also have family members and friends who deal with mental illness; I struggle with my own mental health because I’m constantly suffering brain inflammation.

    And like all medical conditions, we are due some amount of privacy. Like sexual assault, this is very difficult to talk about because there is so much stigma there — both enjoin the snicker, snicker, tee hee response over cocktails. That this woman may or may not be mentally ill, it’s concerning that her breakdown is so public, she’s already got a lot to deal with.

    If there is a real opportunity for Lemonade here, it’s that we will all likely encounter someone with mental illness, it’s nearly impossible for mentally ill people to get help if they don’t choose to get help, we too often turn to the penal system to help mentally ill people, and the people in the orbit of the mentally ill person suffer all sorts of bizarre consequences, be they professional, familial, social, or random. When you’re presented with behavior that seem inexplicable — say you’re the client here, a husband or co-worker — there’s very little you can do until either the ill person seeks help or the judge orders it. So what do you do, then? How do you help yourself without harming the ill person?

    I do think the word ‘crazy’ here is useful; but only when narrowly construed to mean one person’s observation of another; it identifies that they are experiencing inexplicable behavior from the other person. It does not mean the person in question actually is mentally ill; just that the observer so believes, and does not know how to respond.Report

    • Kim in reply to zic says:

      So long as the expectation of privacy does not extend to those one might come across in normal life. People have died from people suffering undiagnosed mental illness.Report

      • zic in reply to Kim says:

        Yes, Kim. People suffer greatly when they have to deal with others who suffer undiagnosed mental illness. It can cause mental illness, often in the form of depression.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to zic says:

      As I wrote above, @zic , my first reaction upon seeing the news story and digging into it a bit last night was to recognize something harmonious in Ms. Sangary’s conduct with behavior I’d noted in other litigants, and indeed in other lawyers. It’s an immensely frustrating experience to deal with that sort of thing in litigation, and I gave vent to that frustration.

      Thanks to some polite but firm comments from others above like @chris and @saul-degraw , to which your voice is added in chorus, I came to the realization that indeed, there is a good chance that mental illness at play here, and what is needed is a system for steering people towards getting help rather than pointing and laughing. Now I’m wondering what such a system might look like and confronting the complexities and dangers inherent in the issue.

      One thing that’s clear to me is that such systems as are in place now do not work very well at all.Report

      • zic in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @burt-likko to be very clear, I’ve also had to write pieces like this; it’s important to write these pieces to help people understand the threads and intricacies, because it really can disrupt life and trigger all sorts of issues, no matter if you, yourself, are mentally ill or you are having to navigate the shoals of someone else’s illness. Talking about it matters.

        The tone of that conversation also matters. It matters tremendously, because one of the answers here is violating someone’s civil rights — forcing them into treatment against their wishes.

        One of the most disturbing developments here is laws, such as NY put on the books, that mental health professionals have to report to law enforcement for some of their patients, for instance. There’s a very essential balance there between privacy and public interest, and we will never get it 100% right. Never.Report

  10. Zane says:

    Thanks for discussing this, Burt. I have a couple of questions.

    1) Does the Bar require attorneys who suspect impaired practice of another attorney to inform the Bar?

    2) From my cursory read, it doesn’t look like the sanction requires Sangary to have a mental health evaluation. Could a mental health evaluation been part of the sanction handed down by the Bar?

    I ask this because I know that my state’s licensing board for social workers certainly does require social workers to report impaired practitioners. There is a risk of harm to clients and the profession has a responsibility to address that risk.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Zane says:

      Briefly, the answers to your questions are 1) no and 2) I doubt it, at least at this phase or in this case.

      The bar judge who heard the case and found Ms. Sangary’s conduct culpable is no more qualified than I am to diagnose mental illness, whatever his suspicions may be. As structured, the system requires him to take evidence of the alleged ethical violations — did she use deceptive advertisements to attract clients, did she fail to return a client’s file upon reasonable request, did she fail to cooperate with the bar’s investigation of her — and determine the veracity of the facts underlying those allegations and then apply the rules of ethics to those facts, producing a finding of “culpable” or “not culpable” for each one. He can recommend a form of discipline, which another unit of the bar discipline system will consider next, usually rubber-stamping his recommendations but Ms. Sangary has the opportunity present additional evidence “in mitigation” to request lighter or different discipline.

      One thing she could do at this point is say, “I have a mental illness and I’m seeking treatment for it.” That would be a mitigating factor. Then, the bar would have good reason to say “Okay, as long as you are making progress on that or keeping it under control, we’ll reinstate your license, and here’s how we’re going to make sure that happens.” But I doubt that the bar has authority on its own to suggest (much less order) that she seek evaluation and assistance unless she raises the issue herself.

      What I’ve come to wonder, after getting over my own negativity at first touch of fingers to keyboard, is whether a system that relies so heavily on self-identification of a potential problem as the only way to steer someone towards help is the best way to go — and if not, how to balance that against legitimate concerns of privacy and liberty.Report

      • Zane in reply to Burt Likko says:

        This is pretty interesting to me. Licensing boards that license physicians, nurses, and mental health practitioners are typically tasked with not only insuring that practitioners are adequately trained and that practitioners adhere to ethical practices, but also that these professionals are competent to practice. If a board finds that someone is too impaired to practice and that patients’ or clients’ may be endangered, then boards can typically suspend a license to practice and place conditions that must be met before the person’s license can be reinstated.

        It kind of blows my mind that the Bar wouldn’t have similar procedures.

        Well, I guess it does, but it doesn’t seem to incorporate that impairment could be not due just to incompetence or malfeasance, but could be due to medical or psychiatric problems.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        There is also the fact that things like tumors can lay dormant for years and years. My mom had very bad short-term memory when I was growing up. This annoyed me a lot during my teenager years (“I answered that question 5 minutes ago!). When I was 22, she had a seizure in an airport in Italy and it turned out she had a non-malignant tumor. IIRC the doctors said her tumor was growing for years, potentially decades. This probably hurt her short-term memory.

        So the same thing can be true here and there will be no way to know it.Report

      • Zane in reply to Burt Likko says:

        One problem with this: One thing she could do at this point is say, “I have a mental illness and I’m seeking treatment for it.” That would be a mitigating factor. Then, the bar would have good reason to say “Okay, as long as you are making progress on that or keeping it under control, we’ll reinstate your license, and here’s how we’re going to make sure that happens.”

        Someone experiencing mania and/or psychosis is pretty unlikely to say such a thing, though.Report

      • Zane in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Okay, I did a little Google searching. I found this:

        It discusses what an attorney’s responsibilities are when suspecting impaired practice. However, it does so in the framework of the ABA’s Model Rules. Unfortunately, “All 50 states have adopted the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, in whole or in part, with the exception of California.”

        Maybe it’s time for some advocacy?Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Zane says:

      I don’t think lawyers are supposed to report on impairment of others because it can lead to abuse. “Your honor, I think my opposing counsel has a drinking problem. No it is completely irrelevant that they beat me 5 previous times.”

      That being said, lawyers are supposed to say if and when they feel unable to adequately represent a client and why but judges also need to balance the needs of a client. You are probably not going to be able to get out of a trial starting tomorrow unless you have a really, really pressing reason and potentially not even then. By pressing reason, I mean a sudden heart attack or being in a coma.Report

      • Zane in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Well, to be fair, I would expect that such reports would go to the Bar, not to a judge in a current case. 😉Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I recall I had a repeat adversary who pretty clearly had slipped. He had been candid with me in a previous matter about being in a twelve-step program, and how his drinking and drug use had cost him his family, a high-powered career trajectory, and nearly his license to practice. Then he started showing up to court late, often. Then he discussed going to a nearby casino and gambling.

        What I did was to confront him directly. “[Dude], a guy with your background, going to a casino? You know gambling is every bit as addictive as booze.” His response was denial: he only played in this or that kind of poker tournament and only drank club soda. And still he showed up an hour and a half late for trials, having left his exhibit books at home.

        I didn’t press the issue any further. I didn’t report him to any judge or the bar or the other lawyers at his firm. Eventually, he stopped coming to court altogether and no one, not even the lawyers at his former firm, knows where he is today.

        This was addiction, which isn’t quite the same thing as the mental illness at issue in the OP, but there are similarities, too. Should I have done more? Could I have done more?Report

      • Zane in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I don’t know if you could have legally done more, you’d have to ask the Bar that.

        Ethically? If his practice was impaired enough to jeopardize his clients’ ability to obtain competent legal representation, there should be procedures in place to address it.

        (BTW: psychiatric practice today considers addictions to be mental illnesses, so I’d argue it is the same thing as what you describe in the OP. The relative level of impairment may differ in the two examples, though.)Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I don’t know what else you could have done without personally staging an intervention.

        Sometimes it is just old age that stumbles lawyers. I feel like a lot of lawyers are simply not the type of people who want to retire. Every jurisdiction seems to have a story about an old lawyer in his or her 70s or 80s (sometimes older) who still goes to work 5 days a week or works on a limited basis. I also feel like every jurisdiction has a story about a former titan of the bar who ended up getting disbarred because they refused to retire but senility and old age ended up making them act just like the addict you discussed below. This is not intentional, just pride getting in the way.Report

      • zic in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        With addiction, particularly alcoholism, there is cumulative damage that trends showing up in women earlier, men later; presuming they’re seemingly functional heavy drinkers; but 40ish for women, 50ish for men, signs show clearly, and as the drinker ages, they grow more pronounced. This is only my observation of those trends, there is probably hard science laying them out; and my numbers are just estimates from what I’ve witnessed, subject to change.

        But this is a whole different ball of wax from various mental illnesses, though it may well co-found, people have this enormous capacity to self-medicate.Report

  11. Tod Kelly says:

    I’m not particularly proud of this, but can I just say I’m a little disappointed that the the document from the State Bar office doesn’t include the 16-page soliloquy? Because i really did enjoy the parts that were quoted.Report

  12. Tod Kelly says:

    After looking over the comments…

    Am I still allowed to find Branson, MO funny, or are we down to just Fox News, David Brooks, and evangelicals now?Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Like a Roberto Benigni movie, cases like Sangary’s are funny and saddening at the same time.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I also wanted to point out that she is an immigrant (not sure how long, but the quotes have certain idiosyncrasies that make me think that English was not her first language).

        This is not to say that she may not be mentally ill or just deeply silly, but imagine, for example, some of Johnnie Cochran’s more…theatrical arguments and idiomatic phrases, rendered in a language other than English.

        They’d probably sound even more out there than normal.

        So that could be exacerbating the problem, perception-wise.Report

      • dhex in reply to Burt Likko says:

        glyph is attempting to use the seldom seen “cousin balki defense”.

        it’s usually reserved for deployment by the friends of guys who grab someone’s ass in a crowded bar and realize that much like an std, when grab the ass of someone with a crew, you’re grabbing the ass of everyone that person has ever rolled with.Report

  13. Nob Akimoto says:

    3. For the prospective law students and would-be future lawyers out there: this is part of the world you’re competing to step into, and not a negligibly small one at that. Do you really want a piece of this? It can be yours, sooner and oftener than you think!

    This is true of American law students, but not so much for international ones…Report