Saturday, May 02, 2009

It's Not What You Do, It's Who You Are

Of all of the of the consequences of the current economic downturn, the worst is the rising number of suicides (especially family member murder/suicides). It seems to be a weekly, if not daily occurrence. And it seems that no one is immune.

Just last week, a Manhattan lawyer killed himself and his family in a Baltimore hotel room, while visiting their daughter at college. In that case, it appears that the lawyer, may have been involved in a financial scam that was about to be exposed.

As I've mentioned before, the legal community has been experiencing the same economic pain as is felt everywhere. Wolf, Block, a large Philly firm, decided to close last month. Lawyer layoffs are becoming a common occurrence, especially at the large firms and there doesn't appear to be an end in sight any time soon.

Another casualty of law firm layoffs was the suicide of an attorney who was told that he was being laid off by his firm. As reported by the Washington Post, Bethesda Lawyer Who Argued Before High Court Kills Self in Office on Layoff Day:

A 59-year-old lawyer with an Atlanta-based firm who was about to lose his job because of the economy was found dead in his Washington office yesterday of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to police.

Mark I. Levy, a Bethesda resident who was a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration, was discovered by a co-worker about 8 a.m. in his 11th-floor office at Kilpatrick Stockton, in the 600 block of 14th Street NW, police said. They said evidence indicates that Levy shot himself in the head with a .38-caliber handgun.

In typical lawyerly fashion, Levy made sure all of the details were taken care of. The ABA Journal reports, Reportedly Laid-Off Lawyer is an Apparent Suicide at Kilpatrick Stockton:

An e-mail sent to Levy this morning produced this auto-reply message: "As of April 30, 2009, I can no longer be reached. If your message relates to a firm matter, please contact my secretary ... . If it concerns a personal matter, please contact my wife ... . Thanks."

His body was discovered at about 8 a.m. by a co-worker in his 11th-floor office, apparently shot with a .38-caliber handgun of which Levy was the registered owner. Today was to have been his last day, although he was to receive four months of severance pay, the Post reports, citing an unidentified source.

"The source said Levy left a note in his home, saying he loved his family and instructing his wife on how to handle finances and other matters," the newspaper writes. His teenage son found the note this morning and a Montgomery County police officer was in the home and broke the news to the family when someone called from Kilpatrick Stockton to report his death.

By all appearances, Levy was a successful lawyer. He was a Yale Law School graduate who headed Kilpatrick's Supreme Court and appellate advocacy practice group. He also worked in the U.S. Department of Justice as a senior political appointee during the Clinton administration. Yet, I'm sure that for him to face the loss of his career this way, at the age of 59, without another potential opportunity, had to be devastating. Lawyers, especially those who have done well, have a difficult time losing their identity as a lawyer. For many in the legal profession, a legal career defines them. In other words, "it's not merely what you do, it's who you are." That was the first thought that came to mind when I heard of the sad news of the suicide at the firm.

And apparently, Mark Levy was just that kind of person. It certainly didn't help that he had an appellate practice, which is extremely difficult to sustain. As noted in Mark Levy's Battle for Success:

In his 59 years, Mark Levy, head of Kilpatrick Stockton's Supreme Court practice, achieved more than many lawyers ever hope to. But friends and former colleagues believe he felt the pressure to accomplish even more.

After spending the past five years at Kilpatrick, Levy was found dead in his office Thursday morning, in what police are investigating as a gun-related suicide. Friends describe Levy as an upbeat but reserved person, who always turned out top-quality briefs and often arrived at the office before the sun came up. His career included stints at some of the most prestigious law firms around, as well as the Department of Justice.

But friends say he wasn't satisfied. And just two days prior to his death, Kilpatrick laid off 24 associates and counsel, including Levy, according to a close friend of Levy. . . .

Levy, who joined Kilpatrick as a counsel in 2004, had struggled to establish his appellate and Supreme Court practice, according to lawyers that knew him. Levy, who argued a total of 16 times before the high court, won a case for DuPont last October in Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings. But prior to winning that employee benefits matter, Levy hadn't argued in front of the high court since 1989.

* * * *

Levy's age, however, may have been a factor in his unhappiness, according to psychologists.

"At age 60, you're starting to think of retirement. You're thinking that you should be immune to layoffs due to your prominence and your position," says Sherry Molock, a professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University, who studies suicidal behaviors. "You've paid your dues. You feel that you should have arrived by now."

An accompanying ABA Journal piece discusses the higher risk of suicide among attorneys, Lawyer Personalities May Contribute to Increased Suicide Risk:

Personality characteristics often associated with lawyers, such as perfectionism and competitiveness, when combined with depression may be contributing to a higher suicide rate in the legal profession, an expert says.

Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, a group devoted to suicide prevention, says risk factors for suicide include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicide ideation, divorce and stress. And lawyers experience many of these risk factors at higher rates than the general population, he says. Lawyers are also more likely to be perfectionist and competitive, personality traits that make a person considering suicide less likely to seek help.

Those factors may be contributing to the increased suicide rate for lawyers, he says. A major study conducted some 20 years ago by the National Institute for Safety and Health found that male lawyers between the ages of 20 and 64 are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than men of the same age in other occupations.

What did Levy's firm have to say about this news? As noted by the Washington Post, it was PR all the way:

Diane Prucino, a co-managing partner of the century-old firm in Atlanta, confirmed the layoffs Tuesday in a statement quoted by the Fulton County Daily Report.

"These actions are driven by the economic downturn," she said, adding that the belt-tightening was "structured to further the long-term success of the firm and to enhance the achievement of our strategic goals."

Of course, achievement of our strategic goals is another way of saying that cutting lawyers & staff comes before cutting compensation for the big partners. These guys deserve the big bucks, you know, even if the rest of the world is cutting back. So, I wonder, how's that working for you now?

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