I won’t mince words about this: depression is a real illness, and it really, really stinks. That may be an obvious point for anyone drawn to read this, but obvious as it may be, it is worth repeating aloud occasionally for people like me who learned it the hard way.
To the extent that the depression literature addresses its prevalence within our profession, most of it seems to be directed to, or at least about, our more veteran practitioners: the shareholders and shareholder-aged lawyers among us who have been honing their craft for a decade or more. But depression is not an ageist beast. To the contrary, it is indiscriminately opportunistic and content to sprout quietly from a tiny seed, and young lawyers should not be afraid, as I was, to acknowledge this.
You see, we young lawyers are eager to hit the ground running in our careers. We have typically been successful at everything else we have done in life, and don’t for a second think that our journey through this profession will be any different. Already Type-A overachievers to begin with in many cases, our desire to succeed these days is heightened by the fact that, especially for young “BigLaw” associates, we know there is a long line of potential replacements waiting in the wings. Contrary to many of our veteran colleagues, the only legal market we have ever known is that of the Great Recession, where the supply of new lawyers far outpaces the demand for their services.
So we put our heads down and work because that is what we have always done, and because want to be as good at our careers as we have been at everything else in our lives. However, for many of my peers (lawyers who have been out of law school for six years or less), our burning desire to succeed from Day One, coupled with the modern legal services landscape, is creating a potentially expensive psychological cocktail.
Nine weeks ago, at the ripe age of twenty-eight and nearly four years out of law school, I was diagnosed with depression after failing to heed the warning signs that festered unattended to for over a year. I was stunned by the news. How could this have snuck up on me?
I had always prided myself on being even keeled and thoughtful, someone who always had a good feel on his internal pulse. I had done well in law school, too. I graduated near the top of my class, was the editor-in-chief of the law review, worked as a research assistant, and had two law review articles to my credit. During my 3L year, just after
Lehman Brothers collapsed and the hiring market started to spiral into the abyss, I got a state court appellate clerkship with a great judge (who happened to be an even better person, and has been one of my best sources of support these days). I was smart, worked hard, and generally checked off all the boxes budding young lawyers were supposed to.
As my clerkship term was winding down in early 2011, I received an offer to join an Am-Law Top 10 law firm, the biggest and best in town. It was an opportunity of a lifetime, and I happily accepted. Sometime thereafter is when things started to fall apart. During the 2011 holidays, it struck me just how much I had been grinding at the firm. I was still getting my feet wet to some degree, but my overwhelming desire to please and be perfect meant that I was seeing my wife for barely two hours a day during the week, and going weeks if not months at a time without seeing any other family or friends. I was working so hard, and yet the billable hours weren’t reflecting it. “Suck it up,” I thought, “you’re a young lawyer paying your dues. All of your peers are in the same boat and you’re lucky to be paying them here!”
And so it trudged on, constantly tweaking my schedule and searching for any edge to achieve that magical balance between the ideal young associate and fulfilled human being. For the better part of a year, I suppressed any feelings that didn’t sync with my war chant: “You’re blessed. People would gladly trade places with you. Represent yourself, your family, your law school!”
As time wore on, I began to lose the control I had always had over my life. A classic overachiever, I had always striven to be the consummate All-American Kid, juggling an apparently impossible plate of demands, goals, and desires with aplomb. For the first time in my life, the internal and external pressures I was feeling were making it difficult for me to juggle, and as the balls hit the ground I felt myself sinking into a pit of deep frustration. The frustration turned to anger, which turned to sadness, and ultimately the pervasive emptiness that is depression’s hallmark.
It seems obvious now in hindsight, but I was missing, misreading, and just flat-out dismissing so many of my symptoms. When the crushing fatigue and inability to concentrate on even simple tasks overwhelmed me, I scolded myself for being lazy. When I started gaining weight and stopped enjoying the active outdoor lifestyle I’d carried on with my wife since we were in high school, I chalked it up as a cost of working in our profession at a high level. And when personal emptiness and numbness enveloped me, I told myself I was being unappreciative of my many blessings.
I had been programmed for so long to relentlessly push myself toward my next goal that I shoved aside what my own body was trying to tell me. All the while I was continuing to pull on my proverbial suit of armor, making sure that my colleagues and the rest of the outside world – even my wife and parents – believed I was doing just fine. I even took on additional extra-curricular activities at the firm, hoping that my increased engagement beyond the day-to-day work would nudge me from my melancholy.
But I was slowly dying behind that armor. And when I started to realize that what I was feeling wasn’t normal, the paralysis hardened. I felt like I had been buckled into a stock car and sent around the track a few times at ninety miles per hour. On the one hand, I knew that to drive the car properly I had to commit to a greater velocity, at the cost of the world outside the car becoming blurrier and me feeling less in control of the race. On the other hand, I couldn’t bring myself to pull the car over and get out, and even if I thought that were an option, I didn’t know how I would do it. After all, I was driving a bloody stock car around a racetrack! Very few people get to drive what I was driving before my thirtieth birthday, and I really wanted to be successful at it.
By the time November 2012 rolled around, however, I had become so terrified of making mistakes, so worried to ask for help for fear of being perceived as incompetent or weak, that I had almost completely withdrawn from any real engagement in my professional life. Just the act of physically plucking a case file off the shelf became a monumental task, and I had even become afraid to engage in conversations with coworkers for fear that the cracks in my foundation would show through. Entire days would go by without me speaking to anyone at the office, and I often wondered how I would be able to continue this for another twenty years. On some days it was all I could do to keep from collapsing in the hallway on my way to the restroom.
I finally realized that I needed to take a step back and address what had become a raging forest fire when I was called into my department head’s office on a Friday evening for a meeting with all of the department’s shareholders. I recall feeling my head go light, my hands go numb, and my chest go tight when my boss said that this would not be a pleasant conversation, and I remember my “calm armor” defense mechanism kicking in as I silently listened to what he had to say.
My depression had essentially become so pervasive that it had started to affect my work. Of course, nobody else in the room knew what the root cause was. When I was asked to take the weekend off to think about whether this was really what I wanted to do with my career, I instinctively tried to respond that of course it was, but what came out instead was an embarrassing, blabbering mess, the details of which I (thankfully) cannot recall. Even as my body was smoldering inside, I was clinging to whatever I could to keep from waving the white flag.
It was not until the following Tuesday morning that I finally mustered the courage to tell my boss that I had not been healthy for a long time, and needed to take a leave of absence to address my medical issues. To his credit, he was very supportive and encouraged me to go home and start healing right away.
Today I am less than three weeks away from my return-to-work date, and I frankly still don’t know whether I can climb back into that stock car. What I do know is that I have learned a hard lesson early in life and early in my career, and I can only hope that my experience can help other young lawyers staring at a similar battle to find the courage to address their depression sooner and more effectively than I did. As the old proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.