“True Stories” is a series of guest blogs I am running. Below, Gavin Alexander bravely tells his story of a journey from Harvard and Biglaw to becoming a champion for mental health and well-being in the legal profession.
I felt comfortable enough to come out as bisexual when I was 16. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to come out as suffering from depression until I was 30. As a result, while I was pretty darn sure from around age 12 that the symptoms I was experiencing were tied to mental illness, I did not seek or receive any kind of treatment or mental health support until I was 5 years into my practice as a lawyer. I was petrified that leaving any sort of “paper trail” of having received mental health treatment would place a cap on my ambitions, limit my career prospects, or even cause me to lose the support of my family and friends.
During my time in law school, I thought about killing myself nearly every day of every exam and study period. I believed, based on messaging I received from law school career services offices, law professors, and the legal media, that anything short of massive success would result in abject poverty and an inability to repay my over $200,000 of student loans. I wound up finishing my 1L year at Boston University School of Law with the number 1 GPA in my section of over 80 students, transferring to Harvard Law School, graduating from Harvard in the top 10% of my class with a GPA of 4.02, and securing a clerkship with former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the “SJC”) Ralph Gants. I provide these details not to brag, but to illustrate that depression and suicidal ideation can affect even those who show all external indicia of success.
Starting Work at a Biglaw Firm
Following my clerkship, I started working as a corporate associate in the Boston office of a massive international law firm with over 1,000 attorneys operating out of more than 10 offices worldwide. I’d read everything a junior lawyer would typically read around that time about large law firm practice, including how Above the Law painted a picture of junior associate life as something similar to torture in the bowels of the underworld. However, I was surprised when I arrived at my firm to discover that I actually really liked my work, and that most of the people I interacted with seemed genuinely to care about me and want me to succeed. I was delighted, and while the hours were extreme and the schedule entirely unpredictable, I really liked my job.
In my third year, that began to change. Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, I was a mid-level associate, and I was expected to know how to manage teams, efficiently run projects on my own, and make decisions that could seriously impact multi-billion-dollar transactions. Moreover, the more senior associates who supervised me were getting even more advanced, and as they started drowning in the expectations and burdens placed upon them, they took out their increasing stress on me, especially when I struggled to master non-legal skills, like management, that no one had bothered to teach me. I started sleeping around 4 hours a night, often in two-hour spurts because I couldn’t stay asleep. I started taking frequent breaks to cry in the middle of the mall near my office. Worst of all, I didn’t tell anyone about what I was experiencing. I genuinely thought that no one would believe me if I shared the emotionally abusive behavior that one supervisor in particular was putting me through, and further, I thought that what I was experiencing was an expected part of the job. I thought that if I sought help, I’d be seen as a weakling who couldn’t handle what was needed to succeed as a corporate lawyer.
A headhunter called with an in-house opportunity at a hedge fund, and I decided to take the interview. Finally, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. It was my only way out.
The interview wasn’t amazing. From my emotionally heightened perspective, I thought it was disastrous. I later learned that the interviewer actually thought it was great, but I left feeling terrible. Worse, when I asked about the expectations of the in-house position, they told me that I should plan to average 60-70 hours a week, and that I would probably need to consider reducing my bar association leadership and other external commitments.
On my way home from the interview, I stood at a train station, and I felt the worst I’d ever felt in my life. I was stuck. I would have to return to my firm, to the abusive supervisor, to the office where I had absolutely no control over my life, to the 60-90 hour work weeks, to all of it. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t go back. And there was no way out. So if I couldn’t go back, and I couldn’t leave, there was only one option left. As the train approached, I felt my center of gravity shift, and I leaned forward. The train’s horn sounded. It was almost over. A stranger shouted and grabbed my arm. She broke me out of my reverie. I stopped. I got on the train, I went home, I told my partner what happened, and we agreed that I needed immediate medical treatment. I called my primary care physician, and I began the journey to improve my life.
I tell this story very easily and very publicly now, but this wasn’t always the case. The first time I ever told this story to anyone in the legal profession was in a basement restaurant in Boston when Chief Justice Gants and I were having dinner. I told him what happened, because he was my mentor and my hero, and I wanted him to know I was doing what I could to get better.
He told me that he was there for me, and that he would do anything I asked him to do to support me, up to and including having a very serious conversation with any of my supervisors. I assured him that this was not necessary. However, he also told me that my story was so important, and he hoped that I’d consider sharing it with others, once I was ready to do so.
National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being
Around the same time, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, now known as the Institute on Well-Being in Law, was researching and working on what would eventually become its groundbreaking report, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being.” This report was released in August of 2017, and one of its most critical recommendations was that each State launch its own committee or task force to address the critical state of mental health and substance use in the legal profession. Chief Justice Gants took this recommendation to heart, and in September of 2018, the SJC under his leadership convened a temporary Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being to address this issue in Massachusetts.
I told my story publicly for the first time in front of a plenary session of the Steering Committee, a group of 80 or so lawyers and legal professionals from the top tiers of nearly every legal sector. It was terrifying, but it was also the most cathartic thing I’d ever done in my life.
The Steering Committee released its 123 page Report in July of 2019, another landmark document describing the challenges faced by lawyers, judges, and law students, and in January of 2020, the SJC again under Chief Justice Gants’ leadership convened a more permanent Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being. I was appointed as one of its inaugural members, and in the Fall of 2020, I joined the Committee’s unbelievable Director, Heidi Alexander, as its first full-time Fellow.
Since then, the Standing Committee has accomplished an unbelievable amount to draw attention to the state of well-being among Massachusetts lawyers, law students, and judges, and to create positive change for the profession as a whole. Here are some examples:
- Establishing and hosting regular meetings of a Legal Well-Being Network, where professionals from many legal organizations share ideas, policies, and practices relating to well-being.
- Working with the Massachusetts Bar Association to publish a toolkit for regional and practice-specific bar associations to incorporate well-being into their programming and structures.
- Working with the SJC to amend a Court rule which now requires all Massachusetts attorneys to submit anonymous demographic data as part of their annual registration process, so we can actually measure and track the diversity of the Massachusetts bar over time.
- Publishing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement explaining the critical connection between these topics and well-being and setting out a concrete strategy for how the Committee will address these issues.
- Publishing a list of resources relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession both in Massachusetts and at the national level.
- Developing and publishing a Report amplifying the voices of members of the Massachusetts affinity bars regarding the specific factors affecting the well-being of lawyers and law students from underrepresented, historically excluded, and systemically oppressed populations, and working with such populations to develop recommendations aimed at creating impactful change that will make the practice of law more inclusive and equitable for all.
- Co-Hosting a presentation series titled “Amplifying Unheard Voices,” which seeks to highlight and amplify underrepresented perspectives of attorneys, clients and communities that engage with the legal system regularly, and to move towards more equitable representation of and opportunities for these communities.
- Organizing and co-hosting a program on Upstander Advocacy in the Legal Profession addressing how bias and micro/macroaggressions impact our profession and its people.
- Collaborating with the Massachusetts Trial Court Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Experience on various training programs for judges and other court employees.
- Developing and publishing a list of recommendations and guidelines regarding legal workplaces as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Organizing and maintaining a database of legal mentorship programs in Massachusetts, and launching an innovative, technology-driven statewide mentorship program where mentees can request meetings with numerous mentors of their choosing.
- Hosting cross-agency training programs to build bridges and share lived experiences between prosecutors, defenders, and legal services attorneys.
- Launching a loan assistance program to provide financial education to lawyers with significant student loan debt, and advocating to President Biden’s educational transition team to expand the terms of public service loan forgiveness for legal professionals.
- Developing toolkits for both law students and law school faculty and administrators to acknowledge and support their well-being amid the unique tensions of the law school environment, which we expect to release later this Summer.
- Partnering with a nationally recognized research institution to undertake a comprehensive needs and well-being assessment of Massachusetts attorneys, which we expect will begin in the Fall of 2021.
It All Started with Sharing My Mental Health Story with a Judge
None of this would have happened without Chief Justice Gants and others in leadership roles throughout Massachusetts prioritizing this issue. The Steering Committee would not have existed or released its original report. I would not have been invited to share my story. The Standing Committee would not have been formed. The work would not have been done, and ultimately, lawyers would have died. I might have died. The leaders of this community supported me, inspired me, and helped me to turn my pain and illness into advocacy and change.
Chief Justice Gants unfortunately and unexpectedly passed away in September of last year, but his legacy lives on in our mission to make the practice of law more inclusive, more rewarding, and more sustainable for all of its participants. He always ended each of his remarks with a call to action, so let me end this post with a similar call to each of you. How can you critically consider your own well-being and the well-being of those around you, and advocate for policies, procedures, and cultural shifts that will improve or even save the lives and careers of other lawyers, law students, judges? How can you turn your lived experience into positive change? How can you use your privilege to amplify the voices and lived experiences of those who have been silenced or unheard for too long? How can you find the right people for the right work at the right time, and elevate them so that they can use their own experiences and perspectives to improve the world?
By Gavin Alexander, Esq.