Lawyer and military vet now fights his biggest battle: ALS
It’s strange how three little letters can cause so much angst, even if you know nothing about them. As a veteran aviator, I pride myself on my resiliency, flexibility and confidence. But it would be untruthful to say transitioning from over a decade of active-duty flying to a legal career didn’t cause a level of trepidation.
When I interviewed for a summer associate position with some of Seattle’s biggest firms, I had only two years of law school under my belt and knew little of the legal field (and even less of “BigLaw”). As I saw it, “Law” was looming enough without “Big” preceding it. So I aimed for a firm with the people and culture I thought would help me understand what it meant to be an attorney for the biggest companies in the world.
Five years later, those same people would help me face the biggest challenge of my life and a new set of terrifying letters: ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
As a 2L interviewing with firms, I remember thinking that every firm had all the right “window dressings”: Pro bono is important, we value work-life balance and associates are real humans who need to sleep. Yet as someone evaluating a second career, I tried to pry beneath the veneer. I spoke with current partners and associates at each firm and did my due diligence online.
At the same time, I also hoped that I would connect on a personal level with one of the interviewers. Would there be someone who embodied the ethos she espoused?
Luckily, one firm sent that person. She was a litigator, mother, pro bono champion and general badass. Through insightful anecdotes and real humor, she shared how the firm had supported her career through pregnancies, how her colleagues respected and encouraged her, and how the firm’s leadership valued her beyond the hours she billed. When she asked about me, I sensed that she was genuinely curious about who I was and whether I’d be a good fit. I was sold on Davis Wright Tremaine, and it took a chance on me.
When I finally made it to the firm, I remained confident I was where I wanted to be, yet I was still a green attorney who knew very little about BigLaw. Luckily, the firm lived up to its original bill of sale: Partners maintained open doors, senior attorneys mentored and encouraged juniors, and firm leadership popped in to see how I was doing. There was still the slog, for sure, but the hours I billed above the minimum were because I wanted to, not because it was expected.
Indeed, the opposite was more common—partners often would tell me to pull back and get more family time. And it wasn’t just my own time they placed above billable hours; partners regularly would stop what they were working on to help or chat. Eventually, their efforts would yield a confidence and knowledge base that I used to tackle any assignment BigLaw could throw at me.
As luck would have it, I had found what I was looking for and, along the way, had learned that the secrets of BigLaw were just a small part of what it meant to be a good attorney.
The next big challenge
Then, as I hit my stride, a diagnosis of ALS blindsided me. ALS is a progressive neurological disease that is currently 100% fatal (typically within three to five years). At different rates, it cruelly reduces limb function until patients with ALS can no longer talk or move. ALS is twice as common in veterans and may be connected to sports (one study found top-level contact sport athletes are 8½ times more likely to develop motor neuron disease). Unfortunately, my service and time playing football and international rugby checked both those boxes.
My first thought was, “How could this be?” I was a relatively fit 37-year-old father of four, digging into a new career. Aside from an unhealthy amount of coffee, I had no real vices and tried to live as healthily as possible. Had my stress or something else contributed to the odds already against my favor? Next, I wondered what this meant for my career and my family’s financial well-being. Would I be hurried toward the door because I was no longer a profit center? How would I support my family? Were all those relationships I valued at the firm genuine?
As my doctor slowly whittled down the alternative diagnoses, I began to question my ability to focus on my work.
I called my practice group chair, a woman with whom I had collaborated on several tech deals, to tell her what was happening. Suddenly, I was having a hard time keeping it together. Maybe it was because my livelihood was slipping away with my health, or maybe it was because I knew I was sharing my diagnosis with someone who cared. She consoled me, helped me clear my client load, asked what she could do and told me to take as much time as I needed.Later, she would organize a near-endless meal train for my wife and children as I continued through the diagnosis process. A few days later, I stopped by to talk to the Seattle office’s partner in charge (an informal mentor for whom I worked most often) and broke down again. He listened, again asked how he could support me and then, COVID-19 be damned, offered me a hug. As a former naval officer and grown Midwestern man, I never imagined a boss being as sympathetic as he was in that moment.
But that was just the beginning of the compassion shown by my colleagues. I was humbled as the firm approved a pro bono initiative for legislative work advancing the ALS cause. It organized an ALS awareness walk in each city where the firm had an office. Friends delivered meals; the partner in charge followed up after appointments; and partners would regularly call or text to see how my family and I were doing. All the while, there was no pressure, no questions about when I was coming back and no discussion of billable hours or client needs.
As I transitioned away from my practice, the firm endeavored to keep me in the loop with enjoyable events and opportunities and insulate me from client and administrative matters. It was a nearly daily affirmation that Davis Wright Tremaine was where I belonged—because it showed me I mattered more than the bottom line. Recently, firm leadership and friends even attended my 40th birthday celebration. Perhaps even more than during my 15 years of military service, I knew I was part of a team that looked after its own.
Call to action
So what’s the takeaway? Is this a diary entry for me, a love letter to the firm or an upsell for BigLaw? None of the above. This is a genuine call to action from someone with a newly found perspective. For the students out there: Know that there are firms that possess more than just superlatives in an interview. There are places where you can go to grow in BigLaw and be valued beyond your production. If you are focused solely on the dollar, you’ll probably find it, but you also may find a world of pain along with it. You could wake up working for a firm that wouldn’t miss you if you left tomorrow and with a family that hasn’t seen you in years.
For the attorneys already practicing: If you’re in a place that doesn’t sound like what I described in the preceding paragraphs, I’d encourage you to either seek out those places or be an agent of cultural change at your current firm. BigLaw attorneys focus so often on hours, clients, filings or closing deals without pausing to consider where they fit. What is your self-worth, and does that match how the firm views you?
For everyone: At some point in your life, you will be (or maybe already are) staring down a scary word in your personal life: cancer, depression, racism, divorce, loss, etc. Ask yourself, “What will happen when that day comes?” Will your employer be more concerned with how to fill the gap left by you or how to ensure your well-being? Will you be left alone to figure it out? Seek a professional setting with people who help you learn who you are in your field, who foster your growth and who help you get back on your feet when you get knocked down.
A firm that truly invests in you as a person is more likely to care about you when life goes pear-shaped. Those people and places are out there—find them, because you don’t have a moment to spare.
This story was originally published in the October-November 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “3 Scary Letters: Big. Law. ALS.”
Nick Warack is a former attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine. He joined the Navy in 2006, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander, and he has served as a flight instructor and mission commander. He's nearly three years into his diagnosis and working toward the day when ALS is a chronic, not terminal, disease. He'd greatly appreciate your support in this battle, so please feel free to email him ([email protected]), follow him on X (@NicholasWarack), connect with him via LinkedIn or donate to a charitable cause like I Am ALS or Team Gleason.
This story originally appeared on ABAJournal.com on July 11.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.