A BigLaw partner's journey through clinical depression
Kent A. Halkett. Photo by Karen L. Richard Photography.
Back in the day, I ran with the big dogs in BigLaw. Now, after suffering with clinical depression for more than 20 years and surviving a suicide attempt, I am happier than ever in the legal profession. My mental health journey is a cautionary tale, but one with a message of hope.
I graduated from law school in 1981. By 1990, I was a 33-year-old litigation partner in the Los Angeles office of a BigLaw firm, Sidley Austin (then known as Sidley & Austin), working on international disputes in far-flung jurisdictions. My legal career seemed to be successful, set and secure.
Five years after becoming a partner, the firm’s management hand-picked me to take the “case from hell” away from other partners and fix it. I welcomed the assignment and was honored to have the trust of those in charge. But the pressure and stress were intense. I worked around the clock until the immediate threat of terminating sanctions for the client had been successfully avoided. It became clear, however, that internally, something was terribly “wrong” with me.
A couple of months later, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, which was both a relief and a nightmare: There was a medical reason for my constant misery, but I had a gut-wrenching fear that my mental suffering, arising in the work environment, would jeopardize my career and my family’s way of life.
I initially did not disclose my suffering or diagnosis to the firm or any of my colleagues. I was ashamed and afraid—mostly of being labeled “damaged goods” if my condition was revealed. However, in utter desperation, I confided in the managing partner in my office.
My worst fears were confirmed after I took six weeks of paid leave from the firm. When I returned, I went right back to the grind, despite my ongoing recovery and better instincts. I did high-quality work and consistently obtained good results for the firm. Other than the managing partner, my colleagues did not know about my mood disorder.
Nonetheless, my career hit a plateau. The firm no longer directed choice cases to me, it curtailed my administrative contributions and my compensation was stagnant. It was clear that my partners in senior management decided I was “dead wood” to the firm.
After 10 years as a partner and less than five years after my initial diagnosis, I resigned from my BigLaw firm and moved laterally as a litigation partner into a 20-person boutique firm.
I moved laterally again a few years later as a litigation partner into a well-respected old-line California firm with more than 100 attorneys and multiple offices. I thought that my struggle with depression was behind me forever.
However, after resurrecting my career and practice without any further mental health incidents for more than 15 years, my depression resurfaced with much more severity. I quickly became “damaged goods” for my new firm.
Once again, I left and tried to reinvent myself at another BigLaw firm in LA, but I was fighting a losing battle. I attempted suicide less than six months later.
Now, almost six years after my suicide attempt, I am semiretired in Nashville, Tennessee, but remain active in the law. I provide procedural and substantive advice for a free legal helpline and supervise law student volunteers at a medical-legal partnership.
Sharing my professional experience with others is immensely rewarding. I still take medication see a psychiatrist to manage my mood disorder.
The profession’s growing mental health problems
The legal profession has increased its efforts to overcome its mental health and substance abuse problems in recent years, but unfortunately, those problems are still prevalent.
The American Bar Association and others have produced numerous studies quantifying these mental health and substance abuse problems, documenting the disturbing trends.
A 2018 study, ALM Survey on Mental Health and Substance Abuse: Big Law’s Pervasive Problem, found that 31% of those professionals feel depressed and 64% report having anxiety. When asked, “Do you think the profession has had a negative effect on your mental health over time?” a total of 74% of the respondents answered yes. Also, 17.9% admitted to considering suicide.
Individuals directly impacted by mental health challenges in the law have put the data in context and personalized the crisis. In 2018, Joanna Litt penned a very poignant Law.com article less than a month after her husband’s suicide, “‘Big Law Killed My Husband’: An Open Letter from a Sidley Partner’s Widow,” that hit a nerve in the legal community and with me—a former Sidley partner who had lived her husband’s experience over 20 years earlier. She highlighted “maladaptive perfectionism”—a combination of unrealistic standards of achievement and hypercriticism of failing to meet those standards—a destructive trait plaguing many attorneys.
The ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being issued a report in 2017, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.” Its commonsense recommendations were helpful, but not enough to solve the existing problems.
In 2020, law professor Jarrod F. Reich, who then taught at Georgetown Law School but now teaches at University of Miami School of Law, addressed the problems from the law firm’s perspective in his article “Capitalizing on Healthy Lawyers: The Business Case for Law Firms to Promote and Prioritize Lawyer Well-Being,” adapted from his Villanova Law Review article. He presented a compelling cost-benefit analysis for the profession and firms to prioritize attorney well-being.
“Systemic changes designed to provide support and resources to firm attorneys will avoid costs associated with attorney mental health and addiction issues and, more important, create efficiencies that will increase their long-term financial stability and growth,” Reich wrote.
I addressed the problems from the individuals’ perspective in the April 2021 Los Angeles Lawyer article I wrote, “Stop the ‘Insanity’: Mandating Mental Health Education in Law School,” in which I urged the ABA, law schools and state supreme courts to implement a for-credit mental health and substance abuse course for law students as a requirement to graduate from ABA accredited law schools, as well as similar courses for licensed attorneys as part of their CLE requirements.
It is too early to know if the legal profession will embrace these alternative approaches.
My message of hope
In my experience and opinion, the four pillars of the mental health problems in the law are shame, stress, status and stigma. In a January 2021 Tennessee Bar Journal article, “Mental Health in the Legal Profession: A Crisis, a Case Study and a Call to Action,” I challenged all of them, saying there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing mental health challenges. I also pointed out that free, confidential, professional help is available, at both the national and state levels, by telephone call or by computer.
Mental health challenges are medical issues, not personal or moral failings. The intense shame borne by those suffering from such afflictions in the shadows is misplaced. There is no shame in having a medical illness (e.g., diabetes), so there should be no shame in having a mood disorder.
Professional stress is unavoidable but can and must be offset by a balance of family, work and outside interests. Status is often a false idol for overly driven attorneys. Societal taboos that have kept mental illness issues locked away are withering daily and so too may the stigma holding back legal professionals from sharing their struggles.
My hope is that by publicly sharing my mental health journey, the legal profession will implement new approaches to find effective solutions to the urgent mental health and substance abuse problems in its ranks, and that others facing their own mental health challenges will be inspired to seek help.
Kent A. Halkett is licensed to practice in California and Tennessee. He and his wife live outside Nashville, Tennessee.
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