Eilene Zimmerman’s moving article in the NY Times this weekend about the death of her attorney ex-husband is receiving a lot of attention. Please don’t rely on my description of the article. If you haven’t already read it, go read it at above link and come back.
Peter Munson died in 2015 from complications related to intravenous heroine use. A Silicon Valley patent attorney, his last phone call was dialing into a conference call for work. Peter’s ex-wife is convinced that the profession contributed to his addiction.
This section really moved me:
At Peter’s memorial service in 2015 — held in a place he loved, with sweeping views of the Pacific — a young associate from his firm stood up to speak of their friendship and of the bands they sometimes went to see together, only to break down in tears. Quite a few of the lawyers attending the service were bent over their phones, reading and tapping out emails.
Their friend and colleague was dead, and yet they couldn’t stop working long enough to listen to what was being said about him.
Peter himself lived in a state of heavy stress. 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.
I’m convinced that the combative nature of the profession has a cumulative adverse impact on attorneys mental health that slowly builds for years. I don’t hear about lawyers in their 20’s and 30’s having mental breakdowns. It seems to happen in our 40’s and 50’s after we’ve endured 20-plus years of the grind of the profession.
I’m also convinced that constant connection with work from cell phones is terrible for attorney mental health. Am I the only one who sometimes dreads having my phone vibrate signaling a new email has arrived when I am not working? It used to be that a day off was really a day off. Now, it’s just a day out of the office. The fires keep coming.
This point also hits on something I’ve been thinking of as a stresser in the law:
“Yes, there are other stressful professions,” said Wil Miller, who practices family law in the offices of Molly B. Kenny in Bellevue, Wash. He spent 10 years as a sex crimes prosecutor, the last six months of which he was addicted to methamphetamines. “Being a surgeon is stressful, for instance — but not in the same way. It would be like having another surgeon across the table from you trying to undo your operation. In law, you are financially rewarded for being hostile.”
Exactly. In what other profession is there an opponent whose job it is to point out your deficiencies and ruin your case? That’s stressful. At least for normal people.
I wish I had the answer for dealing with professional stress. I don’t. Daily exercise is my go to stress reliever. But it’s a treatment–not a cure.
I would love to know the affect on attorney mental health of the sabbatical that Butler Snow requires its attorneys to take every, what? 15 years? It sounds like a great idea. Of course, most attorneys don’t work at a big deep firm like Butler Snow and a sabbatical is not realistic.
I’ve more than toyed with the idea of taking a sabbatical. Leading up to the summer of 2015, I cleared my calendar for a 500 mile hike that would have taken 4-6 weeks to complete. And then my hip went bad. Now it would be hard to get away for that long even if the hip was 100%.
Sometimes when I think about that hike, I hear Morgan Freeman’s voice at the end of Shawshank Redemption:
I wonder if he would have finished that hike. I wonder if he would have gone home relieved of the stress of the law and ready for another 20 years. I wonder if he would have gotten eaten by a bear. I wonder…..