GlaxoSmithKline headquaters.
GlaxoSmithKline headquaters. (Credit: Maxwell Hamilton via Wikimedia Commons)

Stewart Dolin, a 57-year-old former co-chair of Reed Smith’s corporate and securities practice, left the office nearly seven years ago and entered a Blue Line station for the Chicago Transit Authority. He then hurtled himself in front of a northbound “L” train.

Dolin’s death on July 15, 2010, was quickly ruled a suicide. But civil litigation grinds slowly, and now a federal jury in Chicago is being asked to rule on what led to Dolin’s demise.

Was it, as his widow claims, an adverse reaction to an antidepressant whose suicidal side effects were covered up by the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline plc? Or, as GSK’s defense team contends, was it Dolin’s depression and job security concerns that arose after Reed Smith absorbed his mid-sized law firm and his new colleagues criticized his leadership?

Wendy Dolin is seeking $12 million for her husband’s death in a trial that began last week in Chicago and will highlight the high-stress and often sharp-elbowed environment of the world’s largest law firms. A number of Reed Smith partners are expected to testify in the case about Dolin’s tenure at the firm, which began when Reed Smith acquired Sachnoff & Weaver in 2007.

The complex trial includes a longstanding accusation that GSK presented artificially rosy clinical trials in the 1990s to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration masking the risk of suicide associated with Paxil, the trade name of a generic drug that Dolin began taking less than a week before his death. In 2006, the FDA warned that Paxil’s ingredient, paroxetine, increased suicide risk for teenagers, something that Dolin’s experts claim is also true more broadly about adults.

The trial pitting lawyers from Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman in Los Angeles and Chicago’s Rapoport Law Offices against GSK’s counsel from King & Spalding and Dentons also shines a light on the persistently high rates of depression and unhappiness among legal practitioners.

A study co-founded by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs released last year found that 28 percent of lawyers struggle with some level of depression. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that less than 8 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 12 suffers from depression. An analysis of U.S. suicides by the CDC in 2012 found that the legal industry had the 11th-highest incidence of suicide per 100,000 people at 18.8, compared to the national average of 16.1.

Court records show that Dolin had long struggled with anxiety and depression, despite the success he achieved as a corporate lawyer.

A graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Dolin joined Sachnoff & Weaver in 1989. He went on to become chair of the business practice at the Chicago firm, which had about 140 lawyers and nearly $90 million in gross revenue at the time it officially merged with Reed Smith on March 1, 2007. After the union, Dolin was picked to head the combined firm’s U.S. corporate and securities group.

But lawyers for GSK are expected to argue at trial that Dolin’s leadership position at Reed Smith was in jeopardy, stirring in him a sense of inadequacy and fear for his ability to support his family, citing documents from the late partner’s therapist.

According to a log of notes his therapist made, Dolin was anxious about work at Reed Smith as early as February 2007. “He doesn’t feel qualified to work there since he hadn’t gone to Harvard or Yale Law School and he wasn’t an international lawyer. Very extreme negative thinking,” his therapist wrote.

Dolin’s grip on the reins of the corporate practice appeared to slip in May 2010, when Philadelphia-based partner Paul Jaskot, now an executive committee member at Reed Smith who may testify at trial, was named as co-chair of the corporate practice along with Dolin.

That came on the heels of a 2009 review period that included harsh critiques of the Chicago-based leader and resulted in a diminished salary for Dolin, according to GSK’s lawyers.

“Middle-market lawyer from middle-market firm (leading) global C & S group? Enough said,” one critique read, according to court documents. Another stated: “Plays favorites. Arrogant. Nonresponsive. Deceitful. That enough?”

Michael LoVallo, a former Sachnoff & Weaver partner who now serves as managing partner of Reed Smith’s Chicago office, issued a statement in response to Dolin’s suicide.

“Stu Dolin was a close personal friend, valued colleague and a great leader in our firm,” LoVallo said. “His energy and spirit benefited everyone around him. Stu’s death is a profound loss to all of us personally and to Reed Smith.”

LoVallo is likely to testify at the trial, according to GSK’s witness list. Lawyers for the London-based company will tell the Chicago jury that mounting stress from Dolin’s Big Law career led to his decision to take his own life. But lawyers for Dolin’s family will argue that he was just another victim of a drug whose clinical trials were manipulated by GSK to hide an increased risk for suicide.

Dolin (pictured right) began taking a generic version of Paxil about six days before his death. In 2014, U.S. District Judge James Zagel made a rare ruling that held GSK could face Dolin’s widow’s claim in place of generic manufacturer Mylan Inc., because, per FDA rules, the generic manufacturer must use the same drug labeling as the patented version.

The suit by Wendy Dolin, herself a therapist, claims that rather than easing his anxiety and depression, Paxil made those symptoms worse, causing difficulty sleeping and “extreme thoughts” in the days leading up to his suicide.

The jury in the case heard lengthy testimony Thursday from David Healy, a professor of psychiatry in Wales who first brought to light issues around Paxil’s alleged link to suicide in the early 2000s.

“Does Paxil increase adult suicidal behavior?” R. Brent Wisner, one of the Dolin family’s lawyers at Baum Hedlund, asked Healy last week.

“Yes it does,” Healy responded.

Healy testified that GSK’s clinical trials inflated the number of suicides and suicide attempts that occurred in a control group of patients who were given a placebo. Healy said the company counted suicides and attempts in the control group that occurred before the trial started and after it ended as if they happened during the trial.

That had the effect of making Paxil appear to lower the risk of suicide, even though Healy testified that it increases the risk, something GSK vigorously denies. Jurors will hear cross-examination of Healy when the trial continues Monday.

Although some Reed Smith lawyers will likely be called to testify in the case, the firm is not a party to the litigation. In the year after Dolin’s death, Reed Smith established an award in his name that is bestowed each year to a team of lawyers at the firm that demonstrate a dedication to client service.

The award states that Dolin’s “caring approach to collaboration and developing talent in others, along with an intense commitment to outstanding client service, set a standard for all Reed Smith lawyers to follow.”

Copyright The American Lawyer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.