Baker McKenzie attorneys around the world and members of the London legal community awoke Monday to news that global chairman Paul Rawlinson had died unexpectedly April 12.
Rawlinson, an intellectual property lawyer, achieved a number of triumphs in his professional career, including becoming the first British person to lead the global firm as chairman and overseeing a run of outstanding financial growth during his tenure.
But a key part of Rawlinson’s legacy is also his public decision to step down from the chairman’s role in October, citing “medical issues caused by exhaustion.” He and his firm’s relative openness about the reasons for taking leave helped stimulate a wider discussion about the mental and physical stresses of the profession.
“I applaud him for taking the time off and for acknowledging the reason why he’s taking the time off,” attorney and mental health advocate Patrick Krill said at the time. “It’s not surprising, given the demands of a role like that, that somebody’s well-being could be compromised.”
While leading any large law firm, particularly an international operation, is demanding by nature, Rawlinson’s purview was particularly expansive: 78 offices and nearly 5,000 lawyers around the globe. In October, other highly placed figures in the firm estimated that he had visited more than half of Baker McKenzie’s outposts, which span six continents, in the last two years.
In the wake of his announcement, several other law firm leaders also opened up about the demands of their jobs.
Womble Dickinson Bond chair and CEO Betty Temple, responsible for 1,000 lawyers from Los Angeles to London, acknowledged that the importance of seeing clients and attorneys in person made it sometimes feel that she was “living out of a suitcase.” Morgan, Lewis & Bockius chair Jami Wintz McKeon acknowledged that while lawyers often focus on having a tough outer shell, “no one is a superhero, and that includes leaders of large law firms.” Vinson & Elkins chair Mark Kelly, meanwhile, said that he was aided by his ability to get by on four or four-and-a-half hours of sleep every night without succumbing to exhaustion, although the National Sleep Foundation recommends against receiving less than six hours nightly.
While Rawlinson’s announcement was a bombshell for the legal industry, it came after several of his British peers atop large businesses put forth their own stories about mental health issues. Virgin Money CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia shared in April 2017 that she’d struggled with depression her whole life. Lloyds Bank CEO António Horta-Osório said later that year that stress nearly “broke” him.
And Baker McKenzie itself also may have created a lane for Rawlinson to step forward through its ongoing participation in This is Me, a program launched by Barclays and the Lord Mayor of London, aimed at promoting openness about mental health issues. London attorney Sarah Gregory, the firm’s inclusion and diversity partner, noted that in an earlier round of the program, 19 people in the firm wrote blog posts sharing their mental health experiences, and in 2017 a group of figures circulated a video of their stories, not just around the London office but globally across the firm.
“I would absolutely hope that anyone in our firm who was suffering from exhaustion or any health concern would be able to step forward,” Gregory said in November. “To see that from leadership is very important. It encourages others to think about being more honest as well.”
Baker McKenzie did not provide details on the cause of Rawlinson’s death. In a statement, the firm saluted him as “a visionary, a true leader and a good friend,” but representatives declined to comment specifically on his role in spotlighting the pressures faced by high-achieving professionals. The news of his death was simply too raw, they said.