It was three consecutive nights without sleep trying to reach a settlement ahead of a court decision that made Quinn Emanuel partner Joseph Milowic III realize something had to change. He knew at this rate he wouldn’t be around for his wife and daughter.
He was so strung out, in fact, that he needed help maneuvering through an airport after his third sleepless night. Once he did manage to board the plane, he slept soundly. And when he awoke, he said everything was different. His priorities had shifted, his consciousness had altered and a new spirit had taken hold of him. He felt serene.
Milowic was first diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety more than a decade ago. He was warned that if he didn’t take care of himself, the illness would come back even worse. But fearful of being stigmatized in a culture where mental acumen meant everything, he kept it to himself and worked as hard as he could to prove his worth. He doesn’t know for sure what prompted his transformation that day on the plane. He describes it as a spiritual awakening.
From that moment forward, he knew with certainty that he no longer wanted to hide his depression from family, friends, colleagues and clients. Actually quite the opposite; he wanted to broadcast it to the entire legal community. Headlined “Quinn Emanuel Partner Suffers From Depression and He Wants Everyone to Know,” his story appeared in The New York Law Journal and other ALM publications a year ago and was widely shared on social media.
“ It was so brave of him to do it,” said California lawyer Meredith Siller, who contacted Milowic after his story became public. “Having worked in the industry I know how much stigma there is against it. The piece was so well-written. It was so eloquent and so moving.”
In the story he wrote for the New York Law Journal, Milowic said: “For a long time I did not feel comfortable admitting this to my colleagues for fear of being perceived as incapable or unproductive. But it is my truth. It is an illness like any other illness and it deserves to be recognized and treated as such without fear of stigmatization.”
The response to the article was overwhelming, he said.
“It was humbling because I received hundreds of emails from people who were dealing with a mental health issue and people reached out who have lost loved ones and friends,” he said.
Perhaps that’s no surprise. In the seminal 2016 study on lawyer well-being, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance found that 28 percent suffered from depression, 19 percent from anxiety and 23 percent from serious stress. More than 22 percent of the nearly 13,000 working lawyers reported that their alcohol or drug use had caused them problems at some point in their lives.
Just this week, Benjamin Schladenhauffen said his son, Cameron Schladenhauffen, a Dechert associate in New York who died last month from a lethal mix of heroin and other drugs, had been experiencing acute stress. Cameron Schladenhauffen told him once that he had to pull two all-nighters in a row to finish his work and that he found the competing deadlines given by different Dechert offices difficult to meet. He did not, however, say the firm was in any way responsible for Cameron Schladenhauffen’s death, which the city medical examiner ruled was accidental.
While Milowic didn’t know Schladenhauffen, it was with such lawyers in mind that he launched the Lawyers Depression Project to support attorneys experiencing mental health problems. The group is not a substitute for visiting a psychiatrist or meeting with a therapist but members find it comforting to speak to colleagues in similar situations during the regular Sunday and Thursday night phone calls and video chats.
The group has 170 members—including Siller—but fewer than a dozen join for any one conversation. A lot of the lawyers practice in New York but there are also group members from such far-flung places as California, Indiana and Brazil.
“In my experience in law firms, I’ve never seen people come together in this way,” Siller said. “These people are spending billable hours to get on the call and talk to one another as humans.”
Milowic is also heading up Quinn Emanuel’s program to combat substance abuse and depression. The firm signed the ABA’s lawyer well-being pledge in December. And he’s just completed a video for Lawdition, a website that is launching in April to provide TED-type talks for in-house counsel.
“I know the stress that comes with building up a reputation among colleagues and clients and trying to maintain that reputation as someone who always comes through, someone who is always on 24/7, willing to pull all-nighters and run through walls,” he says to the lawyers who will watch the video.
But that’s not all Milowic does to crusade against untreated depression. He’s making an appearance on an ABA panel in May in New York City tackling mental health issues. He sits on the committee of the New York City Bar Association’s lawyer assistance program, tells his story at law firms that invite him and serves as a one-on-one mentor/monitor for lawyers who need his help.
“If we can reach one person sitting in that audience who has a problem or knows someone who’s having a problem we feel like we have been successful,” said Eileen Travis, who is director of the lawyer assistance program for the city bar. “And Joe’s right there at the forefront. He’s a tremendous resource in so many ways.”