A Wrenching Loss
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A Wrenching Loss

After my law school roommate's suicide, I'm grappling with what went wrong.

August 2014

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Lawrence Lee Carter was my comrade in law, my classmate, my roommate, and my foil. We never practiced law together, but we came to the profession at precisely the same moment. Both of us had earned a few grey hairs and survived some life scrapes before we arrived at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco in the fall of 1992 - Lee was 30; I was 42.

As 2Ls, we roomed together on Russian Hill for more than a year. We often argued and debated the law, life's perils, and love's challenges. Lee graciously gave up his bedroom so my daughters, then ages 6 and 8, could spend that summer with us in the city. He enjoyed having the kids around, and always seemed to appreciate life's simple joys. I had no idea that later he would suffer profound inner torment.

In 1995, Lee and I proudly accepted our diplomas and celebrated with our families and friends. We toasted, we hugged, we took the bar exam. We passed! We were lawyers.

Lee's first job was as deputy district attorney in Gold Beach, Oregon. For five years, I worked as a public defender in Del Norte County, California, below the Oregon border from Lee; now and then, we even worked on the same cross-border cases.

Lee went on to become the DA of Grant County in the plains of Eastern Oregon - winning the election by 295 votes as a write-in candidate against the incumbent. This was no surprise, since Lee was the consummate Southern gentleman and immediately liked by everyone who met him. His baritone voice was deeper and richer than Perry Mason's. His gaze penetrated every corner of a courtroom; he was a natural trial lawyer, a savvy politician, and the ultimate persuader.

He later moved to Portland and worked as a defense attorney. There, Lee fell in love and married a University of Oregon graduate. He wanted children in his life, but their marriage failed.

A few years ago, in what would be our last conversation, Lee and I mused about taking a trip to Mexico. The trip didn't happen, but he sounded upbeat, even happy. So I was shocked to get an email last spring from a mutual friend who discovered a newspaper story about a DA named Lee who had committed suicide. She asked if it could be "our" Lee. It was.

By then, Lee worked in the DA's office in Tillamook County, Oregon, a job he got when his closest friend, Brian Erickson, told him about the opening working on child sexual abuse and domestic violence cases.

On December 6, 2013, Lee didn't show up for his 10 a.m. court appearance on a serious felony. Brian tried to track him down, and finally requested the police check on him.

There was no farewell, not even a note. The bullet, fired from his grandfather's pistol, went through Lee and the house wall, and landed near his neighbor's home.

What drove Lee to do this? Was it the heartbreak of his failed marriage? Was it work stress? During Lee's 19 years in criminal law, he probably handled an average of 300 cases a year, impacting 5,700 victims. How did Lee handle all the societal ills a DA sees daily? Sometimes not well, said a colleague. Lee was a deliberate attorney who was deeply invested in his work. He spent hours preparing for every fight.

The number of trial attorney suicides across the country is rising. Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Margaret Johnson recently told a class of judge pro-tems that, "As attorneys, we are trained to squish down our emotions and never let them show." The pressure becomes constant and constraining.

Lee's brother, Clay Carter, has come to view his brother's suicide as the sad convergence of a "perfect storm" - the stress at work, his lingering law school debt, an IRS claim, divorce, and depression. But we will never know exactly what brought Lee to his end.

As trial lawyers, we live with these demons. As a profession, we must support each other, in hopes that we won't lose another Lawrence Lee Carter.

Steve Yarbrough is a co-founder of the Law Offices of Besson & Yarbrough in Los Altos, where he focuses exclusively on elder law.

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