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.

3 thoughts on “DEADLY SERIOUS

  1. As a former BigLaw litigation partner in my 40s (now a partner at a mid-size firm), I have what I think is a pertinent perspective on what has been driving at least some of us to consider or, tragically, actually take such a desperate action.

    For starters, we have to recognize that the personalities of most of us who make the cut and are hired as associates at BigLaw firms are, by nature, extremely competitive and accustomed to success. Whether driven internally or pushed by some external motivation, we pour everything we have into succeeding in law school, landing the best job we can find at a top firm, and then accepting as much responsibility as anyone is willing to give us. We push ourselves to excel in our legal work and be admired in our workplaces, and so much of our identity and our feeling of acceptance is pegged to our law firms and pleasing our senior partners and the firm management. Although most of us would swear as new associates that we would never permit that to happen, it does happen so gradually over time that by the time we are in our 10th or 15th or 20th years of practice, we are trapped in a situation of our own making. And so I think that we need to recognize that we tend to have personalities that make us particularly susceptible to the kinds of excesses that occur at BigLaw firms when there are not other mechanisms in place, either in our personal lives or at the firms themselves, that can help us to draw back and retain a proper perspective on our professional lives.

    Second, I agree that the overriding profit motive of nearly all law firms, not just BigLaw, is driving lawyers to desperation. Having to generate $2 million or $3 million in revenue every year just to keep an equity stake, or having to bill 2,000+ hours (plus administrative, client development, pro bono and other time), places demands on lawyers that makes work at BigLaw firms all consuming. As our pay increases from the salaries that we receive as young associates to senior associates and then partners, and as our lives progress perhaps by getting married, buying a house, and having children, we naturally tend to ramp-up our standard of living. Even if you are not living an exorbitant lifestyle, those of us who have lived in even moderately sized cities know that supporting a household, saving for retirement, and saving for kids’ college requires a significant amount of money and puts a very large burden on our shoulders. (Of course, this is a burden not limited to lawyers.) When you are in your 40s or 50s, with mortgage payments and kids either in college or about to enter college, and you are suddenly either fired or de-equitized, there is a real and serious impact on your life. And if the market is so tight that there is no realistic hope of landing another position, that is when panic and desperation really set in that (in conjunction with some of the other factors I mention) can cause lawyers to consider action as drastic as taking their own lives. Another side-effect of the profit motive is the work demands that it places on lawyers. BigLaw partners are working and traveling constantly, taking them away from their spouses, partners, and children for extended periods of time. Simply put, it is very bad for our mental well-being and for our families, too, to be separated from our loved ones for so much of our time every day. No wonder that alcoholism, drug abuse, infidelity, and other ills are so rampant among our profession. If partners were willing to earn less in profits, say, only (!) $750,000 instead of $2 million, it would remove a lot of the pressures that are placed on BigLaw lawyers and would have a significant positive effect on how they treat one another. That is one of the reasons that I stress to candidates that I interview that law firm culture, particularly as it relates to compensation, is the single most important factor (in my opinion, at least), in selecting a law firm. Without question, I believe that it is the motive not just to make a comfortable living, but to be wealthy, that is robbing our profession of its soul.

    Third, I place a significant amount of blame at the feet of the law schools, which have found a huge source of profit in law students. The law schools know that there will not be job offers for all of the graduating law students, many of whom will be saddled with tremendous debt when they graduate, but nevertheless, the schools gladly take incoming students’ tuition money. Many of those students have so much debt that, if they are lucky enough to get a job (because of the glut of lawyers churned out by the law schools), they have little choice but to remain in that job as long as they can to pay down their loans, which causes many to be trapped in situations where they are unhappy. I appreciate and applaud your efforts through your seminar to educate college students about the realities of the legal profession and, hopefully, open their eyes but I don’t think that we can rely on the collective judgment of college graduates alone to pare down the number of law school applicants. The schools themselves need to take some responsibility to reduce the number of law school graduates and, therefore, forgo some of the tuition dollars they would have earned otherwise.

    Finally, I think that society has changed in ways that have removed many of the safety nets that might have, at an earlier time, prevented some of us from reaching such depths of despair over our jobs. Fewer people belong to religious institutions than they used to, which takes away a supportive community that places value on something other than simply working, making money, and having material wealth. Families are more spread out than ever, with generations disconnected from one another, which, again, removes or at least makes less available a network of support. And I also think that there is a general air of cynicism and pessimism that abounds in the U.S. at the present. The political dialogue has become nasty and it seems like our elected officials are working more for partisan political interests than for the common good (fine, call me Polyanna). In other words, our shared political or civic community has eroded to a substantial degree and, I think, exacerbates the sense of alienation and depression that we sometimes can feel.

    I went through a very difficult time as I rose through the ranks of a BigLaw firm and struggled with many of these tensions. I am convinced now that all of the time I spent away from my spouse and children caused me to become clinically depressed, to the point where the possibility of simply disappearing entered my mind. If not for the support and perspective offered by my family and the reassurance and meaningful community that I found at my church, I am not sure that I would have seen the options available to me. I was lucky to have moved to a different situation at the time that I did, when there were such opportunities. Unfortunately, many of those don’t exist given the current state of the economy and glut of lawyers.

    And that is the real crux of the matter with attorney suicides, as I see it: It is when people see no alternatives and have given up any hope that they take such a drastic and tragic action. I hope that structural changes in law firms and law schools can be made that will give lawyers real alternatives. In the meantime, I think that all we can do is what you are doing in your college seminar and here: bringing these issues into the light and trying to raise the consciousness of current and prospective lawyers to these dangers.

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