As we count our Thanksgiving blessings, we should remember the many lawyers (and their friends and families) who are not feeling blessed, but rather tormented by the life they are leading in the law.
As most are aware by now, Gabe MacConaill, a young bankruptcy partner at Sidley Austin, died in October from self-inflicted gunshot wounds in the parking garage of the firm’s Los Angeles office. His wife has written a heart-wrenching tribute to her husband that points a finger not only at herself for not realizing the gravity of Gabe’s distress, but also at the law firm he worked for: “Big Law Killed My Husband.”
His workload, the expectation of perfection and the unrelenting pace in an environment that frowned on seeking help made him a prime candidate for a breakdown, if not suicide, she alleges.
She mentions that he suffered from a “deep, hereditary mental health disorder.” Many other lawyers have similar conditions and struggle with impairment and suicidal impulses. As reviewed in Beyond Smart, research makes it clear that lawyers suffer at a disproportionately high rate from mental illness, and it starts in law school, culminating in male lawyers committing suicide at twice the rate of non-lawyer males and huge swaths of both male and female lawyers drowning their misery in drugs and alcohol.
The firm’s public reaction to Gabe’s death has been compassionate, as expected, with apparent recognition of the tragedy of his death and the necessity of raising awareness. But the real question remains whether Sidley Austin– or the many other firms where lawyers are suffering from exhaustion and feelings of failure–are going to truly, systematically deal with a well-documented, industry-wide threat in a smart, compassionate way. Not just by signing pledges or discouraging drinking at firm events, although those kinds of steps are laudable, but by going beyond lip-service and band aids to instituting firm-wide programs based on sound principles of behavioral science that recognize and support those (unfortunately many) brilliant lawyers on their teams of whom so much is asked but who may not feel they can ask for help.
For that, we would all be thankful.