Monday, July 4, 2011

Is It Really Worth It?

Last week a friend of mine forwarded me an article from Above the Law, regarding the recent death of a Skadden associate.  (To view the article, click here.)

It really is such a tragic story.  In a nutshell, a senior associate putting in insane hours died of a heart attack last week.  It is not yet apparent what the cause of the heart attack was, but it has brought up a lot of discussion about her work and stress level prior to the time she died.

The article is written by Elie Mystal, the editor of the Above the Law site.  He usually writes satirical articles or witty commentary, but this article is sincere, personal, and incredibly written.  He reflects on his own experience at biglaw working long hours.  An excerpt:

"On one case, a senior associate on the team . . . passed out in the office - right in the middle of the conference room everybody was working in . . . .  We had to call an ambulance and everything.  And when they carted her away, the rest of us went right back to work - because that's the mentality that had brought us through law school and into a job like that in the first place . . . .   When my colleague collapsed, I didn't think, 'Wow, there are limits.'  I thought: 'Oh nonononono, we're a man down.  I'm going to have to work even harder now.'"

My husband and I both laughed at the last line, even though it's not at all funny.  We have both been there, and we both know, for better or worse, that we would have thought the same thing - that just means more work for me.

The life of a lawyer can be an unhealthy one.  There have been weeks where my husband has gotten less than 4 hours of sleep multiple days in a row.  That usually leads to a loss of appetite, so he basically doesn't eat all week and lives on coffee.  I do worry about him.  Thankfully, these weeks don't happen too often.

I never did have one of those nightmare weeks myself, but the threat of it, and seeing others go through it, was enough to cause anxiety.  When I was at Skadden, there was a particular nightmare case that no one wanted to be staffed on.  Luckily, I avoided it.  But for those who didn't, it was hell.  For several weeks it was 15 hours plus of document review well into the morning, every single night.  I rarely saw members of the team around the office anymore - they had abandoned their offices for a windowless conference room, and when they did emerge, they just floated around the building in silent exhaustion.  As it turned out, one of the senior associates on the case had a "nervous breakdown."  There was a lot of gossip about this breakdown and what it entailed, but needless to say, the attorney went on a leave of absence in excess of six months, as she had still not returned to work when I left the firm.  I don't know what ever happened to her.

Top law firms attract hard workers and people pleasers.  And as I have said before in this blog, you really can be your own worst enemy.  Elie Mystal summarizes it well:

"When I quit, it wasn't because I felt like the firm was going to work me into the ground.  It was also an admission that I was not wired to stop it from happening.  I didn't, at that point, have the skills to tell the firm: 'No, I'm not billing 100 hours this week.  Not now, not ever.'   But I didn't know what would happen to me if I kept working like that, and I didn't like what was happening to me already.  So I quit, consequences be damned."

Well, things certainly worked out for Mr. Mystal.  Here's hoping the same for me!


  1. Good post, but just FYI, the founder of Above the Law is David Lat, NOT Elie Mystal. He was hired later and Lat still is the main guy.

  2. Fixed it, thank you! I think I once knew that. My legal pop culture knowledge fades a bit more each day... :)

  3. One of the partners at the 100 attorney firm I used to work at had a nervous breakdown. I think she was about 50. I'm pretty sure she left the practice of law.

    I know of two suicides, but neither of them was BigLaw related.

    One was a personal injury attorney and one was from an IP boutique.

  4. I'd rather remain an under-employed solo practitioner with crazy family law clients than work to death in a sweatshop. I had no intention of working that hard in law school, and I certainly have no intention of working that hard in my career. I like sleeping too much.

  5. I actually went to law school with Lisa who passed away although I did not her that well. It's a shocking story, and I am so sad that she was pushed and pushed herself like this (if the rumors are to believed). She was so young, with such a bright future!

    My worst week as a BigLaw associate has probably 80 hours or so and I guess in a warped way that I can count myself lucky.

  6. I'm currently struggling with whether to go back to work full time, leave the law or stay home with my two boys. My husband suggested I read your blog and I just saw this post-- I had not known about the above the law story. This is sad. I feel like Elie--in many ways I don't know that I'm capable of saying no or setting boundaries. Law firms are really a strange place. I never thought I would become one of "those people" that loses themselves and their values in that environment, but I have. I too would probably have kept working and being stressed out about the additional work created by my colleague's health problem...

  7. I read stuff like this and I think, "That's ridiculous, I would always prioritize my health over my work." And then I remember my many nights of working until 2 a.m. during the last few months of my pregnancy.


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