Big Law has a mental health problem. Why lawyers are now opening up about depression and suicide.
Casey Sullivan and Sindhu Sundar, Business Insider
- Working at a big firm can put mental and emotional health at risk.
- More lawyers are working to spread awareness of mental health issues.
- Big Law attorneys told Insider about their struggles with depression and feeling pushed to the brink.
Alejandro Guadarrama couldn’t get out of the car.
His wife had driven him to Skadden’s Washington, D.C. office, where he worked as a lawyer, but looking at the swinging glass doors paralyzed him. “I said, ‘I cannot go in,'” Guadarrama recalled.
“That was when I realized that this was much more than I ever expected.”
Guadarrama is 47 and a Venezuelan immigrant who has worked at Skadden since 2006. He had been grappling with depression. And although his colleagues didn’t know it, he had also been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis earlier that year.
Guadarrama had seen a neurologist, who told him to take some time off. But informing the Skadden partners he worked with was the last thing he wanted to do. He was convinced that the disclosure would alienate him from colleagues, creating a stigma about his capacity to work. And he didn’t want partners to stop giving him assignments.
Instead of showing up that day in January 2018, Guadarrama drove to the doctor’s office, and then back home to Bethesda, Maryland. He later informed his colleagues that he needed to extend his week-long leave for unspecified medical issues. His doctor had prescribed him antidepressants, but he was starting to realize that his mental health issues needed additional care.
“I let myself go,” he said.
“I was having difficulty walking. I was tripping. I got up and stuffed all my papers back in my briefcase. I kept on going like nothing happened.”
It wasn’t until Guadarrama checked himself into a seven-week medical program at a nearby hospital that he acquired the tools to and medication to put himself on a path to recovery, later enabling him to get back in the office without a severe anxiety attack at the sight of the front entrance.
Legal experts say that Big Law is a high-risk profession when it comes to mental and emotional health. Much of that has to do with the industry’s business model. More hours means more revenue, so attorneys are constantly tempted -even incentivized- to overwork themselves.
Today, Guadarrama considers himself lucky that he found a way to treat his ailment. He and others are now working together to spread awareness of the issue, so that lawyers don’t feel like they need to keep their problems to themselves, a mindset they say can push someone into the danger zone.
Insider spoke with more than a dozen lawyers, psychiatrists and therapists, to document the psychological perils of working as a big-firm attorney, and to offer a path forward for those who need help, highlighting how some lawyers found resources to guide them through a difficult time.
“I felt like someone cut a big hole in the plastic bag.”
The dangers of the profession could be seen as far back as the 1990s, when a young Cleary Gottlieb associate leapt to his death off a rooftop, leaving the family and friends of Yale-educated Charles Ford McKenzie searching for answers.
In recent memory, Stewart Dolin, the co-head of Reed Smith’s securities and corporate group, was another Big Law attorney who ended his own life, jumping in front of a train in Chicago in 2010. And in 2018, Sidley Austin partner Gabe MacConaill shot himself in the parking lot of his law firm, his wife later writing an op-ed about how his workload contributed to his passing.
“I saw myself in what she wrote,” said Guadarrama, of the widow’s article, which detailed how MacConaill felt increasingly overwhelmed by work responsibilities on a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case following the departure of some of his colleagues.
“My wife could have written that letter if I told her what I was going through and actually had the creativity to find a way to end my life,” he said.
“I’m fortunate that I didn’t have the creativity.”
Other attorneys expressed feeling fortunate as well, though they believed they now have an obligation to share their experiences. They said that doing so could alleviate the struggles of others, and that it’s important for law firm attorneys to understand they aren’t alone.
Regina Colantonio, who previously worked at Cozen O’Connor, said she personally reached a breaking point early in the pandemic, when she was largely stuck at home, working while taking care of her two young sons. “I felt like I was being choked, and I had a plastic bag over my head, and I was about to throw up all day, every day,” she told Insider.
Realizing her anxiety was becoming problematic, Colantonio took 12 weeks off. And she discussed her predicament with other female attorneys who were going through similar career crises. Soon, she realized that recovery meant stepping away from Big Law altogether.
“As soon as the leave started, I felt like an entirely different person,” she said. “I felt like someone cut a big hole in the plastic bag.”
A Cozen O’Connor representative said that the firm supports its employees’ mental health needs, noting it wasn’t unusual for the firm to offer work adjustments, as it did in Colantonio’s case. Colantonio said that she mutually parted ways with the firm and acknowledged the firm’s support.
Lawyers say it’s important to share their experiences
Not all lawyers must leave Big Law to find peace, however. Joseph Milowic, a partner at Quinn Emanuel who has become the firm’s director of wellbeing since going public about his own struggles with depression, said he personally found relief by reframing his work, practicing meditation, and taking the antidepressant, Lexapro.
“The depression that I experience is typically of an existential nature,” he said. “The idea of going to an office for 10 to 12 hours a day to try to help one company get some money from another company over a dispute — it felt not very fulfilling.”
So for him, part of adjusting after a major-depression diagnosis has been a matter of perspective-shifting, he said. For instance, he now views his litigation work as serving a broader dispute resolution system that can “bring peace to parties.” He also co-founded the Lawyers Depression Project, a support network of some 900 legal professionals around the world, an endeavor he has found meaningful.
“We can speak openly about experiences with mental health issues, and let people know they’re not alone,” he said.
Gavin Alexander, a former Ropes & Gray lawyer who has struggled with depression, said that it’s important for lawyers to share their experiences, noting that he personally would have sought help sooner if he had seen others talk openly about their own woes.
Alexander worked at Ropes & Gray between 2013 and 2020 as a corporate associate, advising hedge fund and private equity clients. His own problems reached a crescendo in 2016, when he said that his “maladaptive perfectionism,” mixed with the high standards of the job, fueled his unhappiness.
Alexander liked Ropes & Gray overall. But two of his supervisors made life difficult.
One of them laid into Alexander for using the word “that” instead of “which” in sentences, he said. Another came down on him over a formatting issue in Excel, after he produced a spreadsheet with hundreds of thousands of cells. The issue was that the border on one cell didn’t have a thick black line, as opposed to a thin black line, he said.
“I didn’t feel like I could keep surviving in an environment that played into the worst aspects of my own mental health,” Alexander said.
He later worked out a reduced-hours work arrangement with Ropes & Gray. And he noted that the two supervisors he encountered have since left the firm. But at the time of his stress, Alexander interviewed for jobs.
“A lot of people end up feeling trapped.”
One was for an in-house role with a hedge fund. And after the interview didn’t go well in the fall of 2016, Alexander considered ending his life. While waiting for a train, Alexander walked to the edge of the tracks and began to lean in, considering whether to let himself fall. Suddenly, a stranger grabbed his arm and pulled him away, effectively saving his life, Alexander said.
“A lot of people end up feeling trapped,” said Alexander, who has since dedicated his career to helping lawyers with depression. “They feel that this firm is the only firm where they can succeed. And if they don’t succeed, they won’t succeed at any firm.
Jonathan Moult, a lawyer-turned psychiatrist based in London, said that the class structure within large law firms can exacerbate that feeling. Associates are paid on a scale, by seniority, until they become a partner and can earn a slice of the firm’s profits.
The track, which comes with annual checkpoints, is an easy way to keep score of how you’re doing, said Moult. But it can also feel like there’s no way out, in part because of the money and status lawyers accumulate.
“It’s how they perceive progress,” said Moult.
“Once you get into a groove, it is very difficult to get out of that groove, even if we aren’t enjoying it.”
Part of Moult’s job is working with law firms to offer resources to attorneys and help them maintain their mental health. But Moult finds the job challenging because lawyers often look for a quick fix, he said. And the firms themselves are commercial enterprises, seeking to maximize profit, and won’t hire more lawyers than needed to spread out the work.
“They would like people to feel better, but they would like them to carry on doing what they are doing because that’s how they make money,” said Moult.
Over the past two years, however, a looming threat to law firms’ businesses has brought mental health issues to the fore. As the global pandemic segregated employees into remote work stations, attorneys fielded a deluge of transactional and litigation work, upping the value of associates and leading to churn in the junior ranks. Firms poached from each other, offering special hiring bonuses. And associate pay skyrocketed, with base salaries for first-years rising to $215,000 in New York City.
In January, the Thomson Reuters Institute released a survey of 170 law firms. It said that 23 percent of their associates had departed over a year’s time, between Nov. 2020 and Nov. 2021.
“What lawyers tend not to pay attention to is the cost of attrition,” said Ellen Ostrow, a psychologist who often works with law firm attorneys.
“They are paying attention to revenue,” she said. “Meanwhile, they are having to replace people constantly.”
Many corporations have figured out that keeping employees satisfied leads to greater profitability, she said. But lawyers can’t seem to get out of their own way, with incivility rampant in the workplace, stemming from a high-stress work environment.
“I was recently talking to someone at a firm who was saying that there was a partner who had a very revenue-intense practice,” she said. “But every associate working in his practice left. So when she looks at the numbers, she sees, even though he is generating enormous amounts of revenue in billable hours, the costs of replacing people to keep up with him are greater than the revenue he’s bringing in.”
Ostrow said the firm won’t do anything about it.
Lack of sleep can be a warning sign
Still, many firms have begun to roll out wellness programs. In late 2018, law firm Seyfarth Shaw launched an initiative called the Inspiration Project to offer attorneys a chance to participate in a mini sabbatical, such as volunteering or tracking their family roots. And in the fall of 2021, O’Melveny & Myers offered employees free access to Peloton’s digital platform for workouts.
Alexander, the former Ropes & Gray lawyer, believes that law firms will either make accommodations for their attorneys or lose them.
“We need folks to feel they are empowered and enabled by firms to get help and have their back when they need it,” said Alexander, who recently took on the job as director of wellness at Jackson Lewis.
He believes he would have personally benefited from having role models who spoke out about mental health issues — one of the primary reasons he has become vocal about his past. But he also believes that firms can be doing more to create a healthier work atmosphere, like incentivizing partners to be good citizens.
“When you evaluate partners, what do you ask?” he said. “Do you ask them about the efforts they’ve taken to mentor lawyers? Do you ask them what they’ve done to improve the wellbeing of associates and attorneys they’ve worked with? Do you ask them what they’ve done to mitigate risk and attrition, and not just increase business?”
Guadarrama, the Skadden attorney, said that he has been trying to galvanize support for a disabilities affinity group at Skadden, but has so far been unsuccessful in organizing one. Conversations with one partner fizzled, he said. And the firm’s diversity, equity and inclusion program has expressed support for Guadarrama’s efforts, but nothing has materialized over the past year and a half.
Often times, it can be difficult to grab the attention of attorneys who are focused on the urgency of their important client work. But Guadarrama still tries.
“Every time that I hear people say, ‘I only slept four hours,’ I’m like, ‘That is a warning sign,'” said Guadarrama. “I do not hold back from pulling someone aside and talking to them about that. I make them aware of what happened to me when I lost sleep.”