In June 2011, Ryan Farley claimed a status he had ached for since graduating from law school 13 years earlier: partner at a large law firm.

The achievement, however, didn’t come as Farley once expected it would, through a singular devotion to the first firm that hired him. Like many attorneys struggling to advance in an increasingly competitive law firm environment, he wound up making a few unanticipated stops that slowed his progress.

In Farley’s case, that meant spending the first nine years of his career as a litigation associate at Mayer Brown before being told he had no future at the firm. Next came counsel positions at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and Baker & Hostetler. Eventually, Richmond-based LeClairRyan recruited him to join its New York office as a shareholder in 2011.

Though Farley finally had the title he had long aspired to, an addiction to alcohol made it difficult for him to stay focused on the work that went with it. Less than a year after he joined LeClair, the firm fired him. Then, on a Saturday morning in late September, police in Montclair, New Jersey, were called to Farley’s apartment, where they found him dead on the floor. He was 39 years old.

Farley’s death shook family members, friends, and former colleagues who had watched him work hard to carve out a niche at some of the country’s top law firms while struggling with the accompanying pressures.

“As an associate, he was not always in control of his career,” says Anthony Diana, a Mayer Brown partner who was five years ahead of Farley and became close to him over time. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.” Still, despite leaving Mayer Brown under a cloud of disappointment, Diana adds, Farley never stopped thinking of himself as a Mayer Brown attorney: “That’s what made Ryan the epitome of a good friend. He was intensely loyal.”

Although Farley’s personal and professional setbacks were the product of his own particular circumstances, they reflect the kinds of anxieties that exist throughout the associate ranks of the nation’s largest law firms. Not every first-year associate yearns to make partner, but those who do face long odds: A third of each first-year class typically leaves by the end of the third-year; two-thirds are gone by the end of the sixth. Those who remain must compete for an ever-shrinking number of partner positions.

“These days, the pressure that comes with having to be a technical expert as well as someone who has the potential to build business is far too much for most people,” says Joi Bourgeois, a consultant who works with associates making the transition out of law firms. “I believe many people on the path to partnership have no chance. They just don’t know they have no chance.”

AIMING HIGH FROM THE START

Ryan Patrick Farley was born June 9, 1973, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the only child of Boris and Evelyn Farley. The family moved frequently as Boris Farley changed jobs during his career with the Coca-Cola Company. They had lived in Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas by the time Ryan was 9, according to Evelyn Farley. From there, it was on to Hong Kong and Bangkok, and then back to the United States, with the Farleys spending the latter part of Ryan’s high school years in Georgia.

“He was an inquisitive, happy child, and always had to be doing something,” Evelyn Farley told The Am Law Daily via email, recalling her son exploring China’s seas during summer camp and speaking French to waiters and patrons in Parisian cafes. “He soaked in everything and wanted to do everything.”

He was just 6 years old, she says, when he announced that he planned to become a lawyer. “He never changed his mind throughout his young life. He loved the law and had the ability to understand the safeguards that were put in place to [protect] one’s rights.”

Farley earned his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1995. While living in Washington, D.C., he met his future wife, Joyce Brewer, whom he married in the summer of 1998 after graduating from Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. The couple moved to New York that September so that Farley could begin his job as a litigation associate at Mayer Brown, the international law firm with roots in Chicago then called Mayer, Brown & Platt. He had worked there as a summer associate in 1997.

Dennis Orr, a former Mayer Brown partner now with Morrison & Foerster, says Farley was aiming high from the start. “The day I met him was at a cocktail party for returning summer associates,” Orr says. “He was absolutely convinced he was going to be a big rainmaker and was going to have a lot of clients.” Adds Orr: “You don’t hear that kind of chatter from most third-year law students.”
 
Richard Spehr, a Mayer Brown partner who oversaw Farley’s work and now serves as head of the 1,523-lawyer firm’s New York office, says he had the skills to back up the chatter: “He was tenacious, an aggressive litigator who was also a relentless worker and one of our hardest-working lawyers.”

As part of his push to make a name for himself, Farley cultivated relationships with Orr, Spehr, and other Mayer Brown litigators he believed could help him gain trial experience. Says Spehr: “We worked together on many matters that were pretty high level, complex litigation. He really thrived in that environment.” Most of those matters—including a major derivatives case on behalf of client Lehman Brothers—involved the financial services industry, Spehr says.

In addition to throwing himself into billable work, Farley displayed an idealistic bent by dedicating himself to a pair of pro bono cases. In one, he was part of a Mayer Brown team honored in 2007 by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association for its work on behalf of Guantánamo Bay detainees.

Also notable was his work as a sixth-year associate with Diana and senior counsel Philip Lacovara—best known for serving as counsel to Watergate special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski—representing Iranian judge and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi in her bid to overcome a trade embargo against Iran so that she could publish her memoir in the United States.

Diana says Farley’s involvement in the Ebadi case was a reflection of how highly his Mayer Brown superiors thought of him: “Philip wanted Ryan on the team. He knew that we’d need a lot of brainpower.”

A lawsuit filed in 2004 by the Mayer Brown team on Ebadi’s behalf prompted the U.S. Department of the Treasury to lift its ban on the publication of works by Iranian authors, which allowed Ebadi and other Iranian authors to release books in the U.S. “For his efforts in this important achievement, Mr. Farley is held in great esteem by myself and a great many Iranians,” Ebadi told The Am Law Daily in an email upon learning of his death.

By immersing himself in the two assignments, Spehr says, Farley showed that he was interested in more than simply advancing his career: “He was an aggressive guy, but had a very powerfully compassionate side that was reflected in a lot of the pro bono work that he did.”

AN ASSOCIATE LEFT BEHIND

Even Farley’s friends acknowledge, though, that his aggressive side was hard to ignore. “He had a vision and ambition, and sometimes he would trample people,” says Orr, adding that Farley could be particularly hard on younger associates. “Sometimes Ryan was his own worst enemy.”

Rough edges aside, former colleagues say Farley’s legal work was excellent, that clients asked specifically for him to be assigned to their matters, and that he had a keen ability to think several steps ahead to see where a case needed to go. “Ryan was an old-time litigator in that he didn’t specialize but became an expert in whatever issues he confronted,” Diana says. “He would learn every fact and legal issue. He wanted to be the most knowledgeable guy in the room.”

Things began to sour for Farley, however, in the fall of 2006 as he began his eighth year at Mayer Brown. Orr defected to MoFo with three other partners and two associates. Farley did not make the move. Asked why, Orr says it was a combination of Farley continuing to sense opportunity at Mayer Brown and personality clashes between him and some of those who jumped to MoFo.  

As it turned out, losing a champion like Orr was a serious setback for Farley. As The American Lawyer reported at the time, Mayer Brown’s New York team was still struggling to establish itself within a firm whose eat-what-you-kill business model encouraged offices to hoard work and compete against one another. The 210-lawyer New York office— which Mayer Brown had been trying to expand for years—suffered at least eight significant partner losses in 2006, including those of Orr and his fellow defectors to MoFo. With the office in flux and no strong advocate left to vouch for him, Farley was passed over for partner, says Joyce Farley, whose divorce from her husband became final in August.

It was, according to Diana, a devastating turn of events for Farley: “He was so well-respected and had done so well here—it was a big hit.”

AN ALCOHOL-FUELED FALL

Even in his early days at Mayer Brown, colleagues say Farley was known to down several martinis at a typical work outing. “We tried to do what we could to help him,” says Orr, including scheduling meet-ups at places other than bars to avoid potential problems. “It would be a lie for anyone to say they didn’t see issues there.”

Those issues were compounded by Farley’s unhappiness over how his Mayer Brown tenure ended. “I don’t think the drinking had affected him up to that point,” says Joyce Farley. “But after the blow of not making partner, that’s when things started cascading.” 

Nonetheless, Farley pressed on. After leaving Mayer Brown, he joined 561-lawyer Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney’s modest New York office in a counsel role. “He was a very smart guy,” says Constance Huttner, a Vinson & Elkins partner who struck up a friendship with Farley at Buchanan. “He wrote well, spoke well.”  At the same time, Huttner says, his personality quirks were easy to spot. “He was not the world’s most patient guy.”

Joyce Farley says her ex-husband wasn’t happy at Buchanan, in part, because “he wasn’t sure he’d make partner.” About two years after joining the firm, he lateraled again, this time joining the New York office of 610-lawyer Baker & Hostetler. It was a move Joyce Farley says he was excited to make. He was assigned to the team representing Baker & Hostetler partner Irving Picard in his role as the trustee liquidating the bankrupt estate of convicted Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff’s investment firm. Court records show that between February 2010 and January 2011, Farley racked up 1,400 hours in Madoff-related work at an hourly rate of $650.

But whatever professional success Farley was having only seemed to fuel his personal demons. “He was riding high on cloud nine,” Joyce Farley says, “but that made him drink even more.” His problems came to a head in early 2011, when Baker & Hostetler terminated him for reasons Joyce Farley describes as behavior-related. The firm declined to comment except to say through a spokeswoman that Baker & Hostetler was saddened to hear of Ryan’s death. “Our thoughts are with his family at this time,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

ONE STRIKE AND OUT

Farley made his first attempt at rehabilitation after being fired. “I pushed him into the first treatment,” Joyce Farley says. After leaving rehab, things began to look up when 340-lawyer LeClairRyan hired him as a shareholder in New York amid the firm’s efforts to expand its presence there. LeClair was effusive in its June 27, 2011, press release heralding Farley’s arrival, touting his “client-focused mindset and can-do attitude,” his “varied yet deep” range of litigation experience, and his “extensive knowledge of administrative bodies and how to navigate their nuances.”

The good feelings didn’t last long. “That’s when he really fell off the cliff,” says Joyce Farley. “I think he’d beaten himself down enough that he wasn’t feeling so optimistic about his future anymore and the drinking was just interfering more and more.” (Huttner recalls reaching Farley in his office and sensing he was drunk.)

LeClair gave him an ultimatum: Seek treatment again or leave the firm. He opted for treatment, but broke the firm’s “one strike and you’re out” rule almost as soon as he was back at work. Less than a year after hiring him, the firm fired Farley on May 1, 2012, about five days after he returned from rehab, his ex-wife says. (Repeated attempts to reach several LeClair partners for comment on Farley’s tenure at the firm yielded only a response from the firm’s chief legal officer, Bruce Matson, who said in an email, “I would hope that you appreciate that, like most employers, the Firm does not comment on any personnel matters.”)

Then, early on September 29, a bit less than five months after Farley left LeClair, the Montclair police got a call from the apartment near the town’s train tracks where Farley lived alone. According to a police report, a man identifying himself as a rehab roommate of Farley’s found him dead on the floor, lying under a blanket with his head on a pillow. (As of late November, police were still awaiting the final autopsy results and had not yet identified a cause of death.)

A week later, on a blustery Sunday morning, a crowd of friends, family members, and former colleagues packed into Martin’s Home For Service in Montclair to pay their final respects to Farley. Those in attendance ranged from his ex-wife and the couple’s children, 11-year-old Clare and 10-year-old Oliver, to lawyers Huttner and Diana to a man Farley once hired as an expert witness. Expressing shock at his death, several mourners shared memories of Farley that touched on his interest in music and playing the guitar, gently poked fun at what they said was his notoriously bad golf game, and highlighted how much he loved his son and daughter. Those who worked with him at Mayer Brown recalled his aggressive work ethic, eagerness to help others, and overall passion for the legal profession.

Farley’s parents, who did not attend the service, told The Am Law Daily in a separate email that they were “consumed with overwhelming grief” by their son’s death. “We miss him so very much.”

Memories also poured in through an online guest book linked to a New York Times death notice. One tribute came from Martin Weisberg, a former Baker & McKenzie partner accused of stealing from a client’s escrow account whom Farley had represented during his stint at Baker & Hostetler. “His tenacity and caring, the latter being a quality not found in most lawyers, helped give me the courage to fight on,” wrote Weisberg, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in May to money laundering and conspiracy to commit securities fraud. “I did my best to be supportive of Ryan as he confronted his own difficulties. I only wish I could have done more.”

Looking back, Orr, too, wonders what else he could have done, or if he should have detected pleas for help embedded in the men’s communications over the years, including emails they exchanged as recently as August. 

Others say it wasn’t in Farley’s nature to ask for assistance. “He was a well-defended guy,” says Huttner. “He wouldn’t talk about his feelings and was steadfast in denying there was a problem.”

Even in his last days, Farley put up a resilient front. According to his ex-wife, he was doing some legal work for a former client, and Diana says he was taking steps to find a new firm. “He was looking for recommendations,” Diana says. “He was interviewing.”

Five months removed from his last law firm position and just days away from dying, Ryan Farley was still reaching for his career’s next rung.