Bill Putman’s resume includes being a law firm partner, in-house counsel, state prosecutor, and now, running his own firm.
It’s a career that would make plenty of lawyers jealous. But for many years, he didn’t discuss what was taking place behind the scenes: a battle with depression.
Born and raised in Arkansas, Putman began his career teaching communications at Purdue University in Illinois before opting to attend law school back in his home state. He landed a clerkship right after graduation in 1991 and then took a job at a local firm.
It was there that he was first diagnosed with depression.
Putman said he came into the profession with a family history and predisposition for depression. But the work—the sheer volume of it—was certainly a factor.
“I was handling a lot of really complex litigation … looking back on it, it was something I should not have had so much individual responsibility for,” Putman said. But he didn’t want his colleagues to know he was overwhelmed.
It’s “a feeling a lot of lawyers have … but you don’t want to show that kind of vulnerability. You don’t want to show any weakness.”
In the fall of 1994 it became too much, he said. He remembers days when he would stare out the window for long stretches, or sneak out of the office to a coffee shop or bookstore, unable to work any more. He called a psychiatrist he already knew and made an appointment.
“It was kind of a classic story. I realized after I got the diagnosis I had episodes throughout my life,” he said.
Getting the right medication was a challenge, Putman said, but he tried out a few and sought help from a therapist, and read “everything I could get my hands on” about depression.
And he continued to work at the firm, then called Mashburn & Taylor, becoming a partner in 1996.
Depression was becoming a bigger part of the national conversation, as new antidepressants entered the market in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But Putman was hesitant to share his experience.
“We weren’t at the point in the profession, definitely not at my firm, where it felt like something I could talk to anyone about,” he said.
He raised the issue just once with senior partners at his firm.
“They didn’t react negatively, but they didn’t really want to hear about it or talk about it,” Putman said. “It never came up again.”
Putman took a job in the state attorney general’s office after the senior partner he worked with most left to pursue a judgeship. After a year as a prosecutor, Putman took a job in Walmart’s legal department working on class actions and other litigation.
That brought new challenges. On his first day at Walmart, the longtime general counsel who had hired him resigned.
“It was a pretty chaotic time after that,” Putman said. In his three-and-a-half years at the company, he reported to nine different people. Morale was low, he said.
“They were different environments, public service and corporate legal work. But it was not something I felt comfortable talking to anyone about,” Putman said.
There were a few exceptions. While working at the AG’s office, he met a lawyer who resigned from the office soon after he arrived, who was also dealing with depression. They became friends and talked about their experiences, feeling unable to confide in their current colleagues.
And there was another lawyer he met in-house who told him about her own depression, and who also became a friend.
“We both felt that it was not something we wanted to share with our colleagues … it would be career-limiting,” Putman said.
His boss at Walmart never specifically discussed mental illness, he said, but often referred to certain choices or characteristics in people as “career-limiting.” And he would refer to “the optics of a situation” in many contexts.
“I thought the optics of being an attorney in that situation, dealing with depression, would not be good,” Putman said.
He left Walmart in 2006 and hung his own shingle for the first time.
“At this point I think of depression as something I manage,” Putman said. But “being a solo, starting a law practice has its stressful times … at that point I was feeling the depression creeping back.”
He wanted to head it off, so he did some research. He found Dan Lukasik’s website, Lawyers With Depression, and a book by Richard O’Connor, “Undoing Depression.” Putman reached out to Lukasik, saying he wanted to create a legal community for lawyers with depression, like he had done on his website.
“At that point I was more open about it. It wasn’t something I talked to a lot of people about, but it wasn’t something I felt like I had to hide,” Putman said.
He kept in touch with Lukasik and became more engaged in educational efforts on mental health in the law. Eventually he was speaking at CLEs and other events about his own experience. He even wrote a piece for Lawyers With Depression, which was published online in 2016, the same year he joined the committee of the Arkansas Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program.
“It was worth the risk that some people might view that as a negative in my career, if I could use my experience to help other people,” Putman said.
Putman returned to his former firm in 2008. By that point he felt like he could talk about depression openly, but he still felt a cultural mismatch with the firm, now called Taylor Law Partners, and he left in 2017.
Going back to solo practice has been “a net positive,” he said, also giving him more flexibility and autonomy over his work.
Looking back, Putman said he would advise younger lawyers to spend some time asking themselves what they want not just from their careers, but out of their lives.
“You get into the field, and you let the field in a way define what counts as success,” he said. “I’ve had a good career in private practice, public service, corporate law. For a lawyer from Fayetteville, Arkansas, who’s not with a Big Law firm, I’ve had some substantial accomplishments.”
But one of the things he’s most proud of is the article he wrote for Lukasik’s website.
“I want to be the guy standing in front of a group of lawyers and saying … ‘don’t fear if you’re struggling, that if you acknowledge that you have personal things to deal with that it will negatively affect your career,’” Putman said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
This story is part of a special report on mental health and the legal profession from Law.com: Minds over Matters.