Friday, November 19, 2010

Another Look at Lawyer Suicide

Over a year ago, my first LCL blog of any substance dealt with the issue of lawyer suicide, at a time when 3 prominent lawyers had recently ended their lives, leaving many others not only saddened but also perplexed in a “Richard Cory” way. (For anyone unfamiliar with this reference, click here and also click here.)

Today, in the usually futile effort to reduce the pile on my desk, I came across Richard Schmitt’s article, “A Death in the Office” in the November 2009 issue of the ABA Journal that comes to the LCL office. Schmitt details the abruptly self-terminated life of Mark Levy, an ultra-capable, widely admired attorney with a seemingly perfect academic and professional background specializing in appellate practice.

This is a case that feels closer to me because, though I never knew him, I discovered that Mr. Levy was my classmate at Yale College (where, while I got by and spent most of my time on a cappella singing groups, he graduated summa cum laude). He went on to excel at Yale Law, then to clerk for the judge involved in both Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, and subsequently worked for a series of prestigious law firms as well as spending some years at the Justice Department.

Despite all of his accomplishments and a record of both successful cases and professional generosity, he was not adept at marketing or drumming up business. Like so many others in my generation, his values and grooming were oriented toward being a professional, valued for intellectual achievement and service to his society, not so much a businessman, valued for talent at making money or enhancing corporate growth. My own health-related field, too, has become a big business, with mega-hospital conglomerates competing for a piece of the insurance pie even as insurance companies vie to maximize shareholder profit -- and business sense tends to trump clinical savvy for those who flourish nowadays. This shift has come over our society as a whole, and there seems to be no way to turn it around (any more than to decide that the world was better off without Twitter and Blackberries), but it’s a shame.

One of my first clients at LCL, back around 1998, was a 50-ish man who had graduated Harvard Law. When he graduated, in the mid 1970’s, just doing a good job led to word-of-mouth referrals, and he made a fine living in a suburban solo practice. By the time he saw me, never having fancied himself a self-promoter and responding too late to the new realities, he was unable to keep up with the monthly obligations of supporting his family. And this was long before the economic meltdown.

At a much more elevated level, Mark Levy found that, distinguished career or not, he had become a commodity of decreasing value, having moved from one law firm to another in recent years. Taking his life in the very office from which he was being evicted (not even permitted, given his firm’s mentality, to remain there unpaid for a transitional period ) may have served partly to make a statement about today’s professionals –- disposable.

On an individual level, however, one wishes that no one would absorb that notion. So many lawyers have come into my office in a state of disappointment with their careers, alienated from their profession, unable to make enough of a living, etc., understandably exhibiting a depressed mood and perspective. Embedded in their reactions, to some extent, is an acceptance of the prevailing notion that financial success is the measure of personal and professional success. They are naturally hoping that someone will offer a straightforward solution, a way to switch career tracks and be redirected toward success (money, position). The reality for many of them is that they will need to cut back on lifestyle, make adjustments in their practices, maybe sell the house before it is foreclosed upon, and walk through a kind of grief process, mourning their former expectations, before turning the page to what can be a satisfying new chapter.

To psychologically survive such changes, it is important not to equate the vicissitudes of the professional market with any valid measure of one’s own worth. Rather, lawyers who face unanticipated setbacks must connect with the values and missions that originally inspired them to enter the profession, and continue to respect their own qualities and talents, even as they remain active in taking practical steps to readjust and reconfigure so as to make a living. Though there may be a reflexive or shame-based impulse to pull away from friends, family, and colleagues, these are the times when it matters most to connect with others, engage in new learning, find new ways to make an impact (even through endeavors that may produce no financial reward), and maintain hope for ultimately finding a new path that may even be more gratifying than what came before. In order to be at least partially immunized from the ever-changing environment, it helps if a healthy portion of the reward for one’s work comes from within.

When we, at LCL, seek to connect disheartened lawyers with therapists (especially those lawyers who are loathe to burden friends with the wounds to their self-esteem) or with career coaches or our comrades at the Law Office Management Assistance Program, or to our own recurrent Layoff Group series, it is because we see the potential for finding such a new path. Equally important is the recognition that to focus one’s sense of identity and value too much on career status (and too little on family, community, the arts, nature, reflection, charity, fun, etc.) is to accept the faulty notion that personal worth is a function of supply and demand.