Because so many lawyers are helped by mental health treatment, a woman’s recent account of how her husband’s legal work was intertwined with his suicide was particularly heartbreaking.
One of the most painful moments in the story by Joanna Litt, the widow of Sidley Austin partner Gabe MacConaill, occurs as she describes what happened after he’d worked at his law firm on a Sunday.
“When I finally called him that evening, it was clear he was in distress and had been working himself to exhaustion,” Litt wrote. “He told me his body was failing him. I picked him up and we decided he should go to the emergency room. He actually said to me on the way there, ‘You know, if we go, this is the end of my career.’”
MacConaill’s fear that receiving treatment would threaten his livelihood illustrates a problem that mental health advocates say particularly plagues attorneys. A 2016 study by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that “the most common barriers for attorneys to seek help were fear of others finding out and general concerns about confidentiality.”
That reluctance to seek help surely exacerbates alarming statistics within the legal profession. The same study reported that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression, and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.
Other studies have said attorneys are at far greater risk to die by suicide than other professionals.
Lawyers agree there is a stigma to admitting a need for mental health treatment, but they add that it’s often exaggerated. They say that getting mental health treatment is no different than a lawyer getting help or even missing work to deal with a broken leg, diabetes, cancer or heart problems.
Barely a week after MacConaill took his life, the global chairman of Baker & McKenzie, Paul Rawlinson, announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence to deal with “exhaustion.”
A spokesperson for the nearly-5,000-lawyer firm said, “The reaction to this news—both within the firm and from clients and colleagues outside it—has been overwhelmingly supportive and positive. Paul has received hundreds of messages of support from across the firm, clients and other stakeholders.”
The head of a firm with a large Atlanta office, who asked not to be named, said emphatically that a lawyer seeking mental health treatment “is not a sign of weakness or ineffectiveness.”
“It’s OK to reach out,” the lawyer said, adding that, with the renewed attention on the issue, he’d like to better educate lawyers on how to get help.
“That’s totally in the firm’s best interest,” he added.
Jeff Kuester of Taylor English, who heads the State Bar of Georgia’s Lawyer Assistance Committee, suggested the fear of seeking treatment may come from lawyers’ skills at looking for problems that could hurt their clients.
“We’re professional worriers,” said Kuester. “Sometimes all we see is what might go wrong.”
His committee has been spreading the word that every Georgia bar member has access to six free, confidential sessions with a counselor. Anyone seeking help can call a number that is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 800-327-9631. (One can also email Lisa Hardy of CorpCare Associates Inc., the provider of the bar’s assistance service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“Nobody in the bar knows you’re making that phone call,” Kuester emphasized.
Joe Milowic, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York, wrote an article in New York Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate, saying that he has depression and takes medication to manage it.
He said he understands what influences lawyers’ reluctance to seek help. “You’re trying to maintain a reputation … [as] someone who always comes through.”
But he added that the stigma on seeking treatment “is more of a perceived stigma.”
“Almost everyone is impacted by a mental health issue,” he noted, making colleagues and others more sensitive than one in the middle of a depressive episode might expect.
Milowic said that, after his article was published, he received more than 100 emails from attorneys around the country interested in the topic and learned about top trial lawyers who deal with mental health issues. That response led to the launch of knowtime.com, a nonprofit peer group through which lawyers can discuss mental health anonymously.
(Milowic stressed that his comments were not a response to Joanna Litt’s letter about her husband’s death. “I cannot imagine what they are going through,” he said of Litt and MacConaill’s family.)
A litigation partner at a big firm in Atlanta said lawyers receiving mental health treatment is not unusual: “I do know colleagues who regularly have mental health treatment, including medication.”
The partner said it’s unlikely a mental health problem would lead to a “long term black mark” for a lawyer’s career. The partner added that, under the law, “We can’t discriminate against someone with mental health issues.”
Another member of the Georgia bar’s Lawyer Assistance Committee, who asked not to be named, responded to the Daily Report’s question drawn from the widow’s letter: Should a lawyer fear that getting mental health treatment can hurt his career?
“The real answer to your question is that it doesn’t matter,” the lawyer wrote. “There is nothing to be gained and, sadly, as the wife so poignantly recounts in her open letter, everything to be lost” by not getting treatment.
“There is no deal, no contract, no transaction that comes first,” the lawyer wrote. “Indeed, a few years back, I asked to be taken off of a matter because I found myself crying and shaking in the car on the way to work. Not only was my employer at the time responsive, but two senior associates working on the deal went to the partner in charge on their own initiative to assure him that I had done a good job under a great deal of pressure and seen the project most of the way through. Once I left the project, stability returned fairly quickly, and life went on as usual.”