My name is Joe Milowic. I am a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. And I suffer from depression.
A prominent Johns Hopkins study found that lawyers are more likely to suffer from depression than any other profession. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that lawyers have higher rates of suicide than all but three professions (dentists, pharmacists and doctors).
So, naturally, the legal profession is buzzing about what to do about this serious problem; well, not quite. To say there is a “stigma” associated with discussing mental illness in the legal profession, where mental acumen directly correlates with your livelihood, is an understatement.
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.
I had my initial diagnosis of major depression over a decade ago. I went to my primary care physician complaining of exhaustion and lack of energy. I had no idea what was wrong with me, and neither did my doctor. She diagnosed me with prehypertension, put me on a low-carb diet, and referred me to a diabetes specialist.
I monitored my blood glucose levels strictly but the lethargy and lack of energy and motivation only seemed to get worse. I was dwelling on my thoughts, consumed by an endless loop of anxiety and negativity. I was losing weight and losing interest in everything. I questioned the purpose of my work and even life. What was the point of it all? Why spend so many hours working at a job that seems so pointless?
I remember suffering from terrible anxiety (I didn’t know what it was called at the time) and I would go out running to try to shake it. One night while running around a track outside my apartment, I was so besieged by thoughts that everything was meaningless that I fell to my knees and screamed to make the thoughts stop.
I was convinced there was no point to my job and that it was contributing to my illness. It actually made a lot of sense. So, I decided that I would quit my job and find something else. I didn’t know what but I knew I could not do this job anymore because it was making me sick.
I sent an email to the diabetes specialist telling him that I’d decided to leave my job because it lacked meaning for me and was making me sick (though I noted that everything seemed to lack meaning for me). It was a cry for help. I was lost. Fortunately, he recognized the symptoms and referred me to a psychiatrist who quickly diagnosed me with major depression. I was enrolled in an experimental study for a new drug called Lexapro. After a few weeks I began to feel better.
I found meaning in things again—the beauty in a smile, a butterfly or a bird flying by, a good book, a job well done. It was obvious from outside depression that I had been ill. I realized too why depression is so dangerous—when your mind is ill, you can actually believe there is no point to anything, including living. And unfortunately, sometimes, when you don’t realize you’re sick the results can be tragic, particularly for those we leave behind.
My first bout of depression was over 10 years ago. The doctor warned that depression often comes back later in life and can be even worse the next time. Over the years, I’ve battled it off and on, in what I would describe as cycles of high productivity and occasional ruts that I just need to work through. During the ruts, I lose motivation, and need to remind myself that it is only temporary—it is an illness and that life is not in fact pointless.
Until recently, I never mentioned my struggles with mental illness to anyone outside of my family and close friends. As a young associate, I was worried people would be less likely to entrust me with important matters if they knew that I sometimes go through periods where I lose motivation and focus. So, I said nothing.
I put financial security above the possibility that speaking up could alert a young attorney unknowingly suffering from depression that what he is suffering through is an illness that is treatable. I feel badly for staying quiet for so long—but I also believe that speaking out now as a partner at Quinn Emanuel could be more impactful. The fact is we should be talking about this, because you can succeed in Big Law, and at a top law firm, even if you suffer from depression. I’m writing this in hopes that someone who is unknowingly suffering from depression, like I was, will read this and get help.
To associates: please remember that while our cases are extremely important to us, you need to prioritize your health. Be efficient, avoid all-nighters, exercise regularly (meditation and yoga can be helpful), learn to say no when you have too much on your plate, and take care of yourself.
I want to thank John Quinn and my colleagues at Quinn Emanuel for supporting me in speaking out about mental illness. Please contact me in confidence (email@example.com or 212-849-7225) if you have any questions or would be interested in joining an online support group for attorneys who suffer from depression.