DEADLY SERIOUS

For some reader out there, this may be the most important article I’ve written — and there’s no room for levity. Yet another biglaw attorney ended his own life.

On July 15, a Chicago subway train struck and killed a Reed Smith partner. Late last week, the Cook County medical examiner confirmed that the 57-year-old father of two intentionally placed himself in harm’s way. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202463774221&rss=newswire)

It’s difficult to determine what leads anyone to take such an irrevocable step. The lines that tether each of us to this earth are thin and fragile. But the relative frequency with which lawyers in large firms have become the subject of such recent reports is disconcerting.

In April 2009, a 59-year-old Yale Law School graduate who headed Kilpatrick Stockton’s Supreme Court and appellate advocacy group took his own life. http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/a_death_in_the_office/

A month later, two more attorney suicides made the news — an associate and a partner in two different large firms. http://abajournal.com/news/disappointments_preceded_suicides_by_lawyers_at_three_major_law_firms In

January 2010, a 45-year-old partner in Baker & Hostetler’s Houston office apparently shot himself on a Galveston beach. http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/01/tragedy.html

Are these events more frequent? Or just more frequently reported? I fear it’s the former.

We’ve all encountered unhappy attorneys, but during my first 25 years in a big firm, I’d never heard of a lawyer anywhere who’d taken his or her own life. When I attended such a funeral for a young partner in 2005, eulogies confirmed that he’d battled internal demons since childhood.

That insight offered comfort. Survivors can move forward more easily when viewing themselves as dramatically different from the deceased. It requires a skill that lawyers hone: distinguishing otherwise relevant precedent.

Then came the unavoidable wave that began in early 2009.

Only those closest to the victim can even begin to describe the special circumstances surrounding his or her plight. The causes of such fatalities are as unique as the individuals involved. The choice to continue living becomes a frighteningly close call for some. Severe depression, other mental illness, and unrelenting physical pain can wreak incomprehensible havoc. None makes suicide a correct decision for the afflicted – just understandable. But if any such factors contributed to the recent spate of biglaw victims, the public reports didn’t disclose them.

Maybe government lawyers, attorneys in small- or mid-size firms, or those in other positions are committing suicide, too, but receiving less media attention. For example, when a 64-year-old Connecticut solo real estate practitioner hanged himself in November 2009, press coverage was minimal. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202435932676) But  such an argument loses its appeal when you consider that attorneys in the 250 largest firms comprise fewer than 15% of those practicing.

Does the interaction between the dominant large firm business model and the economic downturn provide a partial explanation? After all, most of the recently reported attorney suicides involved accomplished biglaw partners in their 40s and 50s.

No single set of shoulders bears the blame, and only the respective firms know whether or to what extent their actions might have contributed specifically to these final acts. I make no accusations in that regard.

But as a general matter, firms adhering religiously to an MBA-mentality of misguided metrics — billings, billable hours, and associate-partner leverage — as fundamental criteria for lawyer evaluation have become less collegial and more unforgiving. Even in good times, justifying your own economic existence anew during every review cycle can be unsettling or worse. For some, the feared loss of income or status can be powerfully unpleasant.

Assuming that they might have contributed even minimally to these tragedies, the pressures of the dominant biglaw model aren’t disappearing any time soon. So what’s my point? Simply this: The regime doesn’t have to victimize the most vulnerable.

Everyone — especially lawyers — should periodically assess whether the fit of a chosen job is right. Even if it’s not, the work may still be an acceptable way to make a living. No job is perfect; that’s why they call it work. But for some, the psychological toll can mount in dangerous ways. In such cases, only individual action can arrest a downward slide.

That might mean counseling, viewing your employment differently, finding a new legal job, or leaving the profession altogether. One thing is certain: For the chronically distressed, inaction can become a lethal decision.

In my Convocation Address to the Northwestern University Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences graduating class of 2010 last month, the line that interrupted my remarks with the longest and loudest applause from the 10,000 students and parents in attendance was also the most important:

“Seeking help when you need it is never a sign of weakness; it’s proof of strength.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP3Uhiol6Vs)

I promise a lighter article next time.