A Lawyer’s Tough Tale: Depression at a BigLaw Firm

This a guest blog by a lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, and his difficult journey with bipolar depression and his BigLaw firm.  

Once upon a time, I was a trial attorney at a personal injury defense firm. I was good at it.  I always pushed hard; always did the best job possible.  I won a good share of cases, and, of course, lost a few as well.  I was valued highly enough to be made a partner shortly after joining the firm.

But I had a dirty little secret.  I had bipolar disorder, which was well-controlled through a close partnership with a good psychiatrist.  Still, in my mind, if word ever got out, my employers would see me as weak, a liability.  To a degree, I understood.  If the insurance companies that paid the bills learned that one of the firm’s trial attorneys had such a condition, their mandate would be clear: if you want our business, get rid of him. That is what I assumed.

Throughout my career, colleagues would make offhanded remarks about someone “not taking his medication.” I would grit my teeth and ignore it.

Instead, I was able to construct an alter-ego, the “happy warrior.”  I had a smile on my face and a sardonic remark ready on cue. But I went about my daily business feeling like a secret agent in a Cold War spy movie.  If my cover was ever blown, I was certain that my career would be at an end.

Too Much Depression, Too Little Sleep: 3 Things You Can Do to Get a Better Night’s Slumber

The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

When first diagnosed with depression, my sleep became fragmented in a way I had never experienced before.

Before this time, I, like most frenzied lawyers, had periods of restless sleep tinged by stress and anxiety. But my sleep would return to normal after a lengthy trial or round of contentious depositions.

But this was different.

Lots of Depression, Little Sleep

I was always tired, but couldn’t sleep through the night. I went to bed early, exhausted from trying to make it through another day with depression. Trouble sleeping is a symptom of major depression.  Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., a psychiatrist, writes:

The body is bone-weary; there is no will; nothing is that is not an effort, and nothing at all seems worth it. Sleep is fragmented, elusive, or all-consuming. Like an unstable, gas, an irritable exhaustion seeps into every crevice of thought and action.”

Depression Undercover: A Trial Lawyer’s Secret

Once upon a time, I was a trial attorney at a personal injury defense firm. I was good at it.  I always pushed hard; always did the best job possible.  I won a good share of cases, and, of course, lost a few as well.  I was valued highly enough to be made a partner shortly after joining the firm.

But I had a dirty little secret.  I had bipolar disorder, which was well-controlled through a close partnership with a good psychiatrist.  Still, in my mind, if word ever got out, my employers would see me as weak, a liability.  To a degree, I understood.  If the insurance companies that paid the bills learned that one of the firm’s trial attorneys had such a condition, their mandate would be clear: if you want our business, get rid of him. That is what I assumed.

Throughout my career, colleagues would make offhanded remarks about someone “not taking his medication.” I would grit my teeth and ignore it.

Instead, I was able to construct an alter-ego, the “happy warrior.”  I had a smile on my face and a sardonic remark ready on cue. But I went about my daily business feeling like a secret agent in a Cold War spy movie.  If my cover was ever blown, I was certain that my career would be at an end.

Over time, maintaining this secret identity while dealing with the usual strains of trial practice gave rise to a growing depression.  Yet I still performed at a high level and still got results.

Although I had a close friend at the firm, another partner, he would deflect when I tried to talk to him about my depression, so I stopped.  I began to worry that others at the firm might know about me.

Fear and the sense of isolation only fed upon themselves in a continuous cycle.  I finally experienced a severe episode of depression that led to a period of disability.  When I told my boss what was going on, he expressed genuine surprise that I was suffering from depression at all.

When I returned to work, I felt better, but I remained wary.  Instead of engaging in a conversation about what had happened, we all acted as though nothing had occurred.  The computer was rebooted, and business continued on as usual.  I went back undercover, and no one seemed to mind.

Simply due to scheduling conflicts and adjournments, it was some time before I tried another case.  I admit that I was a little nervous, but I was having no trouble handling my case load.  I was puzzled when my boss came into my office one afternoon as I was preparing for the trial.  He asked me if I felt good to go.  He had never done that before.  I said, “yes,” because I felt perfectly up to the task.  I never asked myself, “If he is worried about my performance, why is he even letting me try the case?”

At trial, the insurance company sent an adjuster to audit the proceedings, a routine procedure.  I knew him well, and he had an excellent grasp of the case, even though he had not been involved before trial.  We had constant discussions about what was going on, and we seemed to be in sync.  Suddenly, the insurance company pulled my old friend off the case and replaced him with a mid-level manager who consistently praised my performance.

The case went to verdict, and the jury awarded somewhat less than what the insurance company had offered settle for.  To preclude the possibility of an appeal, the insurance company threw in a few more dollars.  Case closed, on to the next one.  To me, that was a pretty good result.

Was I in for a big surprise.

Shortly after the trial, year-end reviews were scheduled.  I was getting ready for another trial, and I was very excited about it, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on in the office.  Other attorneys were getting their reviews – important because raises would be discussed – but I was never called in.

Ultimately, my case settled after much hard work on all sides, and the usual time for reviews was long past.  I did start to worry then.  I even made a remark to my secretary about it.

The call finally came.  When I stepped into the conference room and saw every equity partner in the firm waiting for me, I knew.  The spy had been caught, but what would happen?

My boss said that they waited to speak with me because they did not want to put pressure on me while I was preparing for another trial.  He asked me if I felt capable of trying cases.  I paused and then broke under the years of strain.  I wept, and answered, “No.”  Whether that “No” was true then or true now or was ever true, it was the most humiliating moment of a 20-year career.

My boss started to dissect my prior trial, telling me that the insurance company’s representative was reporting that I was doing a bad job.  He even told me that the supervisor at the insurance company knew that I had depression.  After the expected awkward silence, another partner suggested that “we find a creative solution” to keep me at the firm.  I made some suggestions over the next few months.  No replies were forthcoming.  I was quietly being swept out the door.  It wasn’t hard to get the message. I found another job and moved on.

The whole experience seemed to confirm everything I feared about being a lawyer with depression.  Currently, I am not practicing, and am seeking other opportunities.

But if the story ends there, what is the point?  Can I offer my account as a teaching opportunity?  At the very heart of the tale lies the sad truth that we, as lawyers, trained to be superlative communicators, can utterly fail to make each other understood when it comes to depression.  Should I have been more candid about my condition?  My employers never told me what concerns they had or what they knew.  Could all of us have been proactive for our mutual benefit, especially after I returned to work?  I believe that there had been an opportunity to open a constructive dialogue, but my fear told me to keep my mouth shut.  I cannot speak for my former employers, although I highly doubt that they held any malice.  I doubt that they thought much about it at all until some critical pressure was brought to bear, whether from within or outside of the firm.  Unfortunately, by the time everyone was talking, my job at a firm I loved was gone.

I miss working there.  I still have close friends there.  I see them when I can, which is not often enough.  Just recently, I ran into my secretary, and we briefly chatted about my plans for the future.  And then she said something that cut me to the quick: “You were a good lawyer.”

— Anonymous guest blog

One Trial Lawyer’s Journey From Severe Depression to Greater Fulfillment

I do not consider myself a lawyer. I am a human being who took on the role and career of a lawyer for 25 years. Unlike some people who entered law school with a burning passion to practice law, I ended up there because I was confused about my career direction and had no career counseling. Stop here. If you don’t feel excitement and joy when thinking about a career my hindsight advice is don’t enter it!

After a couple of years in NYC working for a small firm I quit because I hated following orders due to my anti-authoritarian streak dating back to early childhood. When I left for California I passed the CA bar exam, worked briefly for a solo practitioner, and then opened up my own solo practice. During my first few years I took whatever I could get including cases involving wrongful employment termination, wrongful eviction, workers compensation, and personal injury. I gradually steered my practice completely into plaintiff’s personal injury because I come from a family of physicians and I was truly fascinated by the medical aspects of these cases.

After I while I became rather successful as a lawyer, especially because I had a nose for what made a good case, I enjoyed investigating the facts, I cared about my clients (most of them anyway), and I frequently knew more about the medical/psychological aspects of the client’s injury than the defense. My Achilles heel was my biological tendency toward anxiety and depression which, to my mind, are two sides of the same coin.

Although I got excellent results in my cases I was plagued by fears of failure and so I worked myself to the bone when it came to preparing for depositions, hearings, and trials or opposing motions to compel discovery or obtain summary judgment. Although I was never sued by a client in 25 years I always worried that the innately disgruntled ones who complained about everything in their lives might sue me. So I worked extra hard to make sure their cases turned out well. To put in all these hours I gave up on exercise, sat more, and ate unhealthy, high salt, high sugar foods to give me some compensatory pleasure. Stop. If you are doing these things you will damage your physical and mental health. Our bodies crave outdoor exercise in the fresh air and they crave real food, not the processed crap made in factories.

At the beginning of the 1990s I took on some new challenges. I moved to a larger, more expensive office. I became a homeowner. And, my wife became pregnant with our first child. In the mid-1990s, I developed a bridge phobia, a phobia involving the fear I would fall out of the window of a tall office building, and panicky dread over crime in our neighborhood which seemed to be getting worse every day. To help myself through these irrational fears I became a good friend of Jack Daniels. This nearly led my wife to divorce me. The threat of divorce woke me up like a cold shower. I went to see a psychiatrist who put me on Zoloft and I stopped drinking. Things got better. We had a second child, a son. In the coming years I became a very good father. I adore my kids. They adore me. Both kids are flourishing. This is something I am very proud of.

In the decade between 1995-2005 I handled an increasing number of cases involving traumatic brain injury and made significant income. Initially these cases were very exciting. Over time they became a drag. Why? The defense, which had paid up relatively quickly in the early days, now used scorched earth tactics by hiring experts in human factors, biomechanics, neurology, psychiatry, neuropsychiatry, neuroradiology, etc. I had to hire counter experts in each field and I had to pay to depose every over-priced, hostile defense expert who gave me all their specious reasons why each client was a neurotic, a hysteric or a malingerer.

I felt like Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a steep hill every day. The litigation costs drained my coffers to the point where I was late on my rent, my copier machine rental, my records fees, and witness fees every month. In the midst of these depressing circumstances my mother suddenly died of a brain virus. And then, one day, my wife noticed we were completely out of money and our home equity lines were maxed out. I instantly plunged into what my psychiatrist called a psychotic depression in which I heard a voice from within me tell me to die over and over again, relentlessly 24/7 until after 4 days of it, I went to a hospital emergency room.

The psychiatrists who cared for me in the hospital told me I had snapped as a result of an inborn vulnerability to depression, years of stress from legal practice, and the trauma of my mother’s death and insolvency. They told me never to return to legal practice. My past 8 years have been a journey back from severe depression and into a new, more fulfilling life. Thanks to a private, own-occupation disability policy I was able to pay my family’s living expenses while recovering.

upward-spiral

I researched and wrote my book for lawyers, The Upward Spiral: Getting Lawyers from Daily Misery to Lifetime Wellbeing, on stress and depression while studying and practicing Buddhist meditation. I became ordained as an interfaith chaplain and sat with dying patients at a local hospital. More recently I entered an MS program in mental health counseling at Capella University. I anticipate becoming a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor at the beginning of 2017. I am finding my studies, practicums, and internships in mental health graduate school to be very meaningful and fulfilling.

Law is a very stressful profession which produces severe depression in one out of every five lawyers. What is my message to my colleagues in the law who suffer depression?

First, face the depression. Do not deny it and self-medicate it with unhealthy substance or behavioral addictions.

Second, try medication. For a depression with obsessive, suicidal rumination (like mine) it can be life-saving.

Third, see a therapist (a psychologist, MFT, counselor or social worker) so you can explore and understand the bio-psychosocial roots of your depression and choose the best form of therapy to resolve your depression.

Fourth, consider couples counseling or family therapy so your spouse and children can understand your depression and have an opportunity to educate you as to how it is affecting them. This can lead to improved understanding, communication, and cooperation at home within the family system.

Fifth, consult experts in nutrition, exercise, and sleep to develop ways for you to eat healthier, exercise more, and sleep better. A wonderful book on these topics is Go Wild by Dr. John Ratey.

Sixth, spend more time in nature because there is nothing better to quiet the mind, ease the sore psyche or restore the spirit.

Seventh, take time to actualize your potential as a unique self through whatever activity calls to you, be it photography, calligraphy, water color painting, baking, cooking, etc.

Good luck. I know you can beat depression and be happier.

Harvey Hyman, J.D. spent 25 successful yet stressful years practicing personal injury law in New York and California.  Thanks to an episode of severe depression in 2007, he found happiness and joy that had always eluded him.

 

A Trial Attorney’s Dirty Little Secret: Depression

Once upon a time, I was a trial attorney at a personal injury defense firm. I was good at it.  I always pushed hard; always did the best job possible.  I won a good share of cases, and, of course, lost a few as well.  I was valued highly enough to be made a partner shortly after joining the firm.

But I had a dirty little secret.  I had bipolar disorder, which was well-controlled through a close partnership with a good psychiatrist.  Still, in my mind, if word ever got out, my employers would see me as weak, a liability.  To a degree, I understood.  If the insurance companies that paid the bills learned that one of the firm’s trial attorneys had such a condition, their mandate would be clear: if you want our business, get rid of him. That is what I assumed.

Throughout my career, colleagues would make offhanded remarks about someone “not taking his medication.” I would grit my teeth and ignore it.

Instead, I was able to construct an alter-ego, the “happy warrior.”  I had a smile on my face and a sardonic remark ready on cue. But I went about my daily business feeling like a secret agent in a Cold War spy movie.  If my cover was ever blown, I was certain that my career would be at an end.

Over time, maintaining this secret identity while dealing with the usual strains of trial practice gave rise to a growing depression.  Yet I still performed at a high level and still got results.

Although I had a close friend at the firm, another partner, he would deflect when I tried to talk to him about my depression, so I stopped.  I began to worry that others at the firm might know about me.

Fear and the sense of isolation only fed upon themselves in a continuous cycle.  I finally experienced a severe episode of depression that led to a period of disability.  When I told my boss what was going on, he expressed genuine surprise that I was suffering from depression at all.

When I returned to work, I felt better, but I remained wary.  Instead of engaging in a conversation about what had happened, we all acted as though nothing had occurred.  The computer was rebooted, and business continued on as usual.  I went back undercover, and no one seemed to mind.

Simply due to scheduling conflicts and adjournments, it was some time before I tried another case.  I admit that I was a little nervous, but I was having no trouble handling my case load.  I was puzzled when my boss came into my office one afternoon as I was preparing for the trial.  He asked me if I felt good to go.  He had never done that before.  I said, “yes,” because I felt perfectly up to the task.  I never asked myself, “If he is worried about my performance, why is he even letting me try the case?”

At trial, the insurance company sent an adjuster to audit the proceedings, a routine procedure.  I knew him well, and he had an excellent grasp of the case, even though he had not been involved before trial.  We had constant discussions about what was going on, and we seemed to be in sync.  Suddenly, the insurance company pulled my old friend off the case and replaced him with a mid-level manager who consistently praised my performance.

The case went to verdict, and the jury awarded somewhat less than what the insurance company had offered settle for.  To preclude the possibility of an appeal, the insurance company threw in a few more dollars.  Case closed, on to the next one.  To me, that was a pretty good result.

Was I in for a big surprise.

Shortly after the trial, year-end reviews were scheduled.  I was getting ready for another trial, and I was very excited about it, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on in the office.  Other attorneys were getting their reviews – important because raises would be discussed – but I was never called in.

Ultimately, my case settled after much hard work on all sides, and the usual time for reviews was long past.  I did start to worry then.  I even made a remark to my secretary about it.

The call finally came.  When I stepped into the conference room and saw every equity partner in the firm waiting for me, I knew.  The spy had been caught, but what would happen?

My boss said that they waited to speak with me because they did not want to put pressure on me while I was preparing for another trial.  He asked me if I felt capable of trying cases.  I paused, and then broke under the years of strain.  I wept, and answered, “No.”  Whether that “No” was true then or true now or was ever true, it was the most humiliating moment of a 20-year career.

My boss started to dissect my prior trial, telling me that the insurance company’s representative was reporting that I was doing a bad job.  He even told me that the supervisor at the insurance company knew that I had depression.  After the expected awkward silence, another partner suggested that “we find a creative solution” to keep me at the firm.  I made some suggestions over the next few months.  No replies were forthcoming.  I was quietly being swept out the door.  It wasn’t hard to get the message. I found another job, and moved on.

The whole experience seemed to confirm everything I feared about being a lawyer with depression.  Currently, I am not practicing, and am seeking other opportunities.

But if the story ends there, what is the point?  Can I offer my account as a teaching opportunity?  At the very heart of the tale lies the sad truth that we, as lawyers, trained to be superlative communicators, can utterly fail to make each other understood when it comes to depression.  Should I have been more candid about my condition?  My employers never told me what concerns they had or what they knew.  Could all of us have been proactive for our mutual benefit, especially after I returned to work?  I believe that there had been an opportunity to open a constructive dialogue, but my fear told me to keep my mouth shut.  I cannot speak for my former employers, although I highly doubt that they held any malice.  I doubt that they thought much about it at all, until some critical pressure was brought to bear, whether from within or outside of the firm.  Unfortunately, by the time everyone was talking, my job at a firm I loved was gone.

I miss working there.  I still have close friends there.  I see them when I can, which is not often enough.  Just recently, I ran into my secretary, and we briefly chatted about my plans for the future.  And then she said something that cut me to the quick: “You were a good lawyer.”

— Anonymous Guest Blog

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