Introduction: My Story
In 2016, while practicing law as a mid-level corporate associate at a massive international law firm, I tried to end my life by leaning in front of an oncoming train with the intention of falling to my death. A stranger grabbed my arm and stopped me. When I got home, I told my partner what had happened, and we agreed that I needed to make some changes not just to improve my ability to practice law, but to survive.
Two years later, I shared this story for the first time in a public forum at a plenary session of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being. I told my truth, knowing that it would be received with sympathy, but still fearing that it would make the gathered leaders of the legal profession in Massachusetts see me as weak, a failure, someone who just didn’t have what it took to practice law. Nevertheless, I told my story because I knew people needed to hear it. Those who were investigating how to improve well-being among lawyers needed to hear how someone like me, who had graduated in the top 10% of his class from Harvard Law School, secured a prestigious clerkship, and started practicing at one of the top firms in the world, wound up nearly ending it all rather than seeking any form of help or support, primarily because he didn’t see anyone in the positions to which he aspired talking publicly about their mental health and the steps they’d taken to maintain it.
However, even more importantly, I told my story because at least a few people in the audience probably needed to hear it to know that it was ok to talk about what they were experiencing, and to hear the message I’ve shouted in nearly every presentation I’ve given since that day: If you are struggling with your mental health or well-being, the best thing you can do is tell someone, and the only way more lawyers will feel comfortable telling others what they are going through is if they see those in leadership positions doing the same.
We frequently hear that one of the primary reasons lawyers do not seek mental health care or support for our well-being until it is far too late is because of stigma: the fear we will be judged as inadequate, lesser, or a failure by our peers; the fear that our career aspirations will be limited, the trajectory of our ambitions capped, by admitting that we need help. In October 2021, the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being noted that, in a recent New York lawyer wellness survey, respondents were “reluctant to seek assistance with mental health concerns,” that “stigma and confidentiality concerns posed significant barriers,” and that “[s]everal respondents did not want to be perceived as ‘weak’ by their colleagues or clients.” Similarly, a 2019 Report of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being highlighted that “[a]cknowledging the need to seek help in a large firm is seen as in conflict with a predominant culture where working hard, presenting as strong and confident, solving client problems and constantly being available are important issues,” and noted that similar sentiments had been expressed by subcommittees made up of public lawyers, legal aid lawyers, judges, and law students. A 2018 article from Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga in the Florida Bar News notes that, for too long, athletes were “expected to suffer in silence,” with the “predictable result . . . that minor injuries accumulated into major threats that ruined lives, ended careers, and damaged families,” and that “[l]awyers have made this same mistake with their job stress. We have looked the other way until the strain kills or maims.” Further, the seminal 2016 report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, highlighted that one of the five core steps toward building a more sustainable culture among lawyers needed to be “[e]nding the stigma surrounding help-seeking behaviors.”
So how do we begin to break this stigma? How can we show those around us that it is ok to seek help? Legal organizations can take many strategies to tackle this particular problem, but ultimately, they all boil down to the same premise: The more we talk about it, the easier it is to talk about. Lawyers and other legal professionals need to see that we won’t be penalized in any way, even reputationally, by seeking help. We need to see we can be open about what we’re experiencing and not only survive, but thrive. We need to see people in our dream jobs sharing that you can make it to the top even if you’ve struggled with your mental health during your life and career. We need role models, and if such role models aren’t visible, the profession tacitly conveys that success and mental health support are mutually exclusive. And that is a message that is literally costing attorneys around the country their lives. See, e.g., Joanna Litt, “‘Big Law Killed My Husband’: An Open Letter From a Sidley Partner’s Widow,” The American Lawyer (Nov. 12, 2018); Dodai Stewart, “The Dazzling Life and Shocking Death of Cheslie Kryst,” N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2022); Rosa Flores & Rose Marie Arce, “Why are lawyers killing themselves?” CNN (Jan. 20, 2014).
When addressing the notion of stigma-breaking, the National Task Force’s report (the Report) emphasized that “Leaders should demonstrate a personal commitment to well-being,” noting that “[p]olicy statements alone do not shift culture,” and that “[b]road-scale change requires buy-in and role modeling from top leadership.” The Report observes that “[l]eaders in the courts, regulators’ offices, legal employers, law schools, and bar associations will be closely watched for signals about what is expected,” and that a critical way to create and support such change is through leaders’ “demonstrated commitment to core values and well-being in their own lives.”
Similarly, when managing partners, law school deans, and agency leaders with whom I interacted during my career leading up to my crisis point have asked me what they could have done to convince me to get the care I needed, I always say the same thing: I needed to be shown through concrete examples that I could get care, prioritize my well-being, and still succeed. I didn’t see any partners, professors, or judges sharing that they’d received psychological care of any kind, and so I believed that if I did, the paper trail of having received such care would bar me from reaching their levels of success. I didn’t seek care, and it almost cost me my life.
Leading Each Other Out of Darkness
If you are a leader in the legal profession, whether it is in private practice, public work, an in-house legal department, the judiciary, law school, or beyond, share with your teams how you’ve struggled, when you struggle, and what you have done or are doing to mitigate those struggles. Don’t worry that talking about what you’ve been through will cause others to experience similar struggles or even engage in self-harm. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Even when considering catastrophic mental health crises like my own, research suggests that acknowledging and talking about suicide may in fact reduce, rather than increase, suicidal ideation, and may lead to improvements in mental health. See: T. Dazzi, R. Gribble, S. Wessely & N.T. Fear, “Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence?” Psychol Med. 2014 Dec;44(16), 3361-3363 (July 7, 2014); Pravesh Sharma, M.D., “8 common myths about suicide,” Mayo Clinic Health Systems (Dec. 20, 2021). After all, “there is no substitute for a convincing first-hand account of learning to manage or overcome a behavioral health issue that might impact someone’s personal or professional life. Such accounts destigmatize these issues and may help encourage others to be proactive and get help.” Report of the Colorado Supreme Court Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, pg. 17 (Nov. 2021).
If you don’t have a personal story to share, are there role models within your organization who do openly share their struggles with mental health and well-being and what actions they take to thrive? If not, are there ways you can identify such potential role models and amplify their message? As one of my first initiatives after joining Jackson Lewis P.C. as its wellness director in July 2022, I initiated a process to record and share quick, 3-5 minute videos from equity principals and other firm leaders highlighting their own challenges with wellness and what actions they’ve taken to seek help, in monthly firmwide communications. I and two highly regarded principals also shared our stories in person at the firm’s most recent equity principals meeting. With this regular, ongoing acknowledgment of how even our leaders struggle, we seek to highlight role models who have achieved success while getting care and support for themselves and their families, and to convey that not only is it ok for you to seek help, but that doing so will help you succeed at the firm. This would not be possible without leaders who are willing to share their stories and be the role models so many of us desperately need.
This stigma will not be broken overnight, but every time a legal leader role models help-seeking by sharing that they, too, have struggled, gotten support, and gotten better, it lights a path toward recovery that has remained shrouded for far too long, allowing others to see a way out of their darkness.
If you are looking for a space to meet with other lawyers who share their challenges and experiences with mental health, consider joining Lawyers Depression Project, which hosts 10 or more free, confidential, online peer support meetings for lawyers and legal professionals every month.
If you are a lawyer seeking care and support for your mental health or substance use issues, consider looking up your local Lawyer Assistance Program and reaching out to them for free, confidential support.
If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, consider calling 988 from any phone in the United States to connect with a trained counselor who can provide you with support.
About the Author
Gavin Alexander is an experienced and passionate advocate and thought leader in the areas of mental health, well-being, and diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal profession and beyond. He is an attorney and Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, and he serves as the wellness director of Jackson Lewis P.C.