'We are constantly in an adversarial state'

Portland attorneys respond to a New York Times article about pervasive mental health problems and drug use in the legal profession.


On Sunday, the Times published a harrowing account of a Silicon Valley attorney who dies of a bacterial infection connected to intravenous drug use. The article, which is titled "The Lawyer, The Addict" and unfolds as a first person narrative written by the attorney’s ex-wife, is a compelling and tragic read.

It is also an indictment of the high stress, antagonistic culture that defines many corporate law practices.

A few months ago I wrote this package story about Oregon law firms and how they are adapting to market, technology and demographic trends. So I was particularly interested in the Times article. I called a few attorneys to get their reaction.

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“Heartbreaking,” said Jay Hull, chief innovation partner at Davis Wright Tremaine.

The descriptions of grueling, cutthroat legal practices resonated, Hull said. He singled out in particular a paragraph in which the author describes her ex-husband’s attitude toward his career.

“He obsessed about the competition, about his compensation, about the clients, their demands and his fear of losing them. He loved the intellectual challenge of his work but hated the combative nature of the profession, because it was at odds with his own nature.

“That list — competition, compensation, clients — struck me,” said Hull. “If you lose some clients, there’s a good likelihood your compensation will go down; your influence in the firm will go down, and people will wonder if you are a good fit. Even if they're not thinking that, you think they’re thinking that, and that’s the death spiral.”

The law profession attracts people who are smart, driven, and love engaging with ideas via writing, research, logic and argumentation.

"But when they go to work," Hull said, "they realize they have to be in tension or conflict or controversy with lawyers on the other side."

Rich Meneghello, partner at Fisher Phillips, said in an email that he "has long viewed the toughest part of a litigator’s job as being the combativeness that is always present.”

“If I have 20 cases open at any given time, that means there are 20 people out there in the world who are waiting for me to slip up in some way,” Meneghello wrote.

“Any mistake I make would be to their benefit, so they are constantly probing and prodding and hoping for some weakness or error to be exposed. That concept can feel overwhelming at times, and I imagine the pressure that can result from that combativeness could easily lead to substance abuse."

The Times article cites a landmark study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. The study reveals substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems among lawyers.

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Mark Long, managing partner for Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, said Wall Street attorneys endure more stress than lawyers in other parts of the country. 

“Not to say it doesn’t exist here — it does," Long said. "But that [The Lawyer, The Addict] struck me as an extreme situation." 

The subject of the Times article worked for the intellectual property practice of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a prominent law firm based in Silicon Valley.

Long spoke to me by phone from Chicago, where he was attending the Attorneys Liability Assurance Society (ALAS) annual meeting. During last year’s meeting, Long said, one of the speakers drew a distinction between the challenges facing attorneys and surgeons, both high stress professions.

"The guy talked about how much respect he had for surgeons, saying, 'They are what stands between life and death.''

But whatever pressure surgeons feel, the speaker continued, at least "'they don’t have an equally talented surgeon constantly trying to undo what they are trying to do.'"

The takeaway? "We [lawyers] are constantly in an adversarial state," Long said. 

Market pressures are putting added stress on attorneys, Hull said, forcing them to work even longer hours and on weekends and holidays.

“It’s more of a buyers market now than at any time in my career. There's more competition between law firms, and the stakes are higher. If you're afraid of losing a client, you're going to do what the guy in the article did: send out a brief on Christmas night."

The Times story has Hull thinking about how DWT can be more proactive in preventing these kinds of problems.

But there's no easy solution.  "A lot of lawyers like working on their own; they like the control of their own practice. Lawyers are not in general a group that likes to sit around and share their feelings." 

In his 35 years as an attorney Long has encountered only a few instances of serious substance abuse, he said. But lawyers are talented individuals, he admitted. "That talent enables them to mask their problems."

In Oregon, the Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP) provides confidential substance abuse and mental health counseling service for lawyers and judges. The service is staffed by former lawyers who are in recovery.

OAAP's counselors and executive director were not available for comment.

Said Hull:  “Although this guy's story is an extreme case, a lot of lawyers I know would echo the things he said."

 

 

 

Linda Baker

Linda Baker is the former editor of Oregon Business

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