Everyone who cares about the legal profession and mental health issues should read Joanna Litt’s heartbreaking essay in The American Lawyer about her husband’s suicide.
In “Big Law Killed My Husband,” Joanna recounts how the stress that her husband, Gabe MacConaill, was going through at work became too much for him given the mental health issues he was grappling with.
“I know ‘Big Law’ didn’t directly kill my husband,” Joanna acknowledges, “because he had a deep, hereditary mental health disorder and lacked essential coping mechanisms. But these influences, coupled with a high-pressure job and a culture where it’s shameful to ask for help, shameful to be vulnerable, and shameful not to be perfect, created a perfect storm.”
There’s a lot to reflect on in this passage. First, let’s stipulate that the legal profession is uniquely stressful. As Yvette Hourigan, the director of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program, has said, “when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don’t send another physician in to try and kill the patient … In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game.”
According to the Dave Nee Foundation, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers and are the most frequently depressed occupational group in America. Fifteen percent of people with clinical depression commit suicide. According to a much-cited report by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, about one-fifth of lawyers have high levels of anxiety, and a similar percentage have serious drinking problems. Joanna says that Gabe struggled with alcohol abuse as well.
So it would seem that the legal system by its nature will always be stressful. But what about the culture Joanna alludes to, where it’s often shameful not to be perfect and shameful to ask for help?
Just as stress may be an unavoidable side effect of working in the legal profession, perfectionism may be an unavoidable characteristic of lawyers. It’s not surprising that the legal profession has a high proportion of perfectionists. There aren’t too many other professions in which dotting the Is and crossing the Ts can be a matter of success or failure, and in some cases even life and death. Joanna writes of discovering the condition of “maladaptive perfectionism,” which she describes as “unrealistic standards of achievement with hypercriticism of failing to meet them.” She realizes that Gabe “would rather die than live with the consequences of people thinking he was a failure.” She says that toward the end, Gabe “felt like a phony who had everyone fooled about his abilities as a lawyer, and thought after this case was over, he was going to be fired—despite having won honors for his work.”
Who among us doesn’t have at least a bit of the inner perfectionist if we’re serious about our jobs? And who hasn’t felt that sense of “impostor syndrome” when starting a challenging new job or project? These are universal human conditions that exist on a continuum, and all humans have limits beyond which they can’t cope.
What we can do is acknowledge that there has long been stigma attached to these issues in the legal profession, and commit ourselves to finding ways to reduce that stigma and create systems that encourage people in Gabe’s shoes to get help.
And we can be on the lookout for signs so that we can help the next Gabe before it’s too late. Joanna writes of asking Gabe’s closest colleague if she had noticed anything unusual about his behavior toward the end, and “she said something I’ll never forget: She said his sense of humor had been gone for a while.”
The ABA recently launched a campaign to address mental health and substance use disorders among lawyers by asking legal employers to sign a pledge to improve the health and well-being of lawyers. Twenty-four firms across the country have signed on, agreeing to give these issues the attention they deserve by raising awareness, creating a healthy work environment, and making help available to lawyers in need.
Joanna’s willingness to tell her story is a great service to the legal community and to all affected by issues of mental health, and it will help break the stigma that often prevents lawyers from getting the help they need.
“I’ll live the rest of my life trying to … help anyone from having to go through this horrendous, needless experience,” Joanna writes. I hope she can take some solace in knowing that with her wise and heartfelt essay, she surely will.
Eileen Travis is director of the New York City Bar Association’s Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP). LAPs across the country provide free, confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students and their families who are struggling with mental health, alcohol and substance abuse problems. For 24/7 help in New York, call 212.302.5787.