On Lawyer-Leaders, Depression and Loneliness in the Practice of Law: It Can Happen to Anyone

Jack H. (Nick) McCall

Several recent articles in professional journals inform us that the practice of law ranks very high among those professions with enhanced incidences of loneliness and depression. As lawyer-leaders, we need to remain sensitized to the impacts of depression and loneliness; this is equally as true for us as professionals and colleagues. In the worse cases, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts—a fact of which I became all too aware, very early in my own professional life.

Working as a summer clerk at a large Nashville law firm, I recalled seeing a vivid depiction of business lawyers and business persons in action that was prominently hung in one of the firm’s main conference rooms. The artwork, by an artist named Jimmy Dyer, was called “The Closing”; the imagery it depicts, of the frenetic nature of the closing of a big corporate deal, is one familiar to any business lawyer or securities or M&A lawyer. Most noteworthy, though, was the brass plaque affixed to the firm’s copy on display: “In memory of Paul.” No further explanation was provided as to that cryptic dedication. I joined the firm as an associate several years later, and I finally asked one of the partners about the reference on the dedication. He paused, looked at me over his glasses and said softly: “Paul was our firm’s first managing partner. He committed suicide after the closing of his and the firm’s biggest deal.”

The story revealed to me by my senior colleague was an absolute tragedy—and above all, a needless tragedy.

Paul was a brilliant lawyer: top of his class in law school, driven, charismatic—the very model of the up-and-coming business and banking lawyer. He was selected as the law firm’s first-ever managing partner at the young age of 34. His life, and outlook, changed, however, when his principal client (equally as important, the firm’s then-principal client), a large local bank, was slated to be acquired by a larger, regional bank. He led the team for his client impeccably, working long and demanding hours to clinch the deal. However, what began to haunt him was the fear that he had now effectively lost his principal client—and equally, the firm‘s biggest client—to an outside, out-of-town bank. He apparently concluded that this would mean the loss of substantially all of his legal work, causing (so, he also apparently feared) irreparable harm to the firm and to his own standing in the firm. In short, his own vision of what he was supposed to be about as a lawyer and law partner was in the process of being turned upside down.

Shortly after the deal closed, after telling his wife that he was tired, he went to his garage and apparently killed himself. He left behind no suicide note; he did leave behind a widow and two children.

A tragic and needless death–made even more tragic by the bitter irony that not only did the firm not lose much work after the acquisition: the new bank owner, impressed by the work of Paul and his team, made the law firm one of its preferred legal providers. In other words, the firm’s banking law practice did not substantially decrease as Paul had feared. He left his family and colleagues heartsick and grieving. They still mourn the loss of such a bright talent, some thirty years later.

After Paul died, his colleagues asked what signs that they had missed, or what more they could have done to have reassured Paul that all was not lost with the closing of the deal. Some thirty years later, we live in a world that offers more coping and assistance tools to help those of us suffering from depression or related conditions. For Tennessee lawyers, TLAP is one such readily available resource. Many law firms and companies with in-house legal staffs also offer employee assistance programs; of course, there are numerous depression and suicide-prevention hotlines. Not all of these resources were as readily available in the 1980s.

Simplistic though this may seem, perhaps the best resource of all, though, is one that ought to be available to every one of us: caring—actually caring—about our colleagues and friends. Get to know them; take the time to talk with them and learn about them. This sounds simple, yes, but it is equally effective and positive, as well. Even in these hectic days of IMs and equally instant client expectations, there is quite simply no substitute for the personal touch; that remains as true today as it ever was.

Depression can affect anyone, regardless of one’s station, job duties, clientele, or position—even managing partners.

In memory of Paul.

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