TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Death of a 32-Year Old Skadden Associate

The local San Diego paper reported the very sad story about Lisa M. Johnstone (J.D. 2004, Northwestern; B.A. 2000, UCLA), a 32-year old corporate associate at Skadden's Los Angeles office who died on June 19 (obituary; guest book). From Above the Law:

She died of an apparent heart attack, though we understand that her autopsy has not yet been completed. She ... died while doing legal work from her home office on a Sunday. We’re talking about Lisa Johnstone because for over a week, Skadden associates have been talking about just how many hours Johnstone had been working. We’re talking about Johnstone because while the root cause of her death my never be known, many Skadden associates and others who know the story are taking this as an opportunity to assess their lives and their mental and physical well being. ...

If you talk to Skadden associates in Los Angeles right now, they are understandably angry. The people we’ve spoken to in that office say that in the weeks prior to her death, Johnstone was pulling 100-hour weeks and was under intense pressure. Multiple sources tell us that she had her vacation cut short after being called back to work.

Sources also report that Johnstone had shown some disturbing signs of overwork. Multiple people told us that she was suffering from hair loss. Again, we don’t have the autopsy report, but multiple sources speculate that under these conditions, Johnstone had turned to “the lawyer version of performance enhancers,” just to stay awake. ...

I don’t know Lisa Johnstone’s story. We don’t know what kind of pressures she was feeling. We don’t know if she was being pushed, or if she would have naturally found a way to work as much as she possibly could. We don’t know if her heart could have given out sitting on a beach sipping a cocktail, just like it apparently did sitting in her home office trying to get work done. She’s gone now, and we can just hope and pray for her family and friends.

But we, the living, are not gone. We still have choices to make. If in Johnstone’s death somebody else out there can find a moment to recalibrate his or her life, that can be a good thing.

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With all due respect, I am surprised that I have not heard of a story like this before. And I am slightly surprised it was Skadden instead of some BIGLAW with much more pressure and more demanding billing and even less of a lifestyle than Skadden. I am most surprised that this did not happen in a NYC office of BIGLAW where stories like this work/lifestyle are endless and often worse.

This is very very sad. This is what happens when a profession becomes a business. This is what happens when associates merely are replaceable cogs.

My thoughts go out to her friends, her family, her loved ones, and all of you who are frightened that this might be you come tomorrow. Perhaps celebrating Independence Day, rather than spending Monday in the office, might be the start to a new future.

Posted by: tax guy | Jun 30, 2011 6:25:34 PM

Even a single 100 hour work week iis criminal. I hope her family sues Skadden to stop this kind of abuse.

Posted by: Greg | Jun 30, 2011 7:59:02 PM

It is sad that this young women died and my prayers are with her and her family.

I have worked corporate, Big 4, and been a partner with a national law firm. I have had my own (solo) pratice for the last 7 years. When the work comes in and must be done, I have and still do work 84 hour weeks (12 hours per day.)

I am not saying that I am stronger - I just believe that working for myself makes the time/stress seem different. It is the external and often pointless demands of those higher up the food chain that produces overwhelming stress. In Japan, karoshi - death from overwork - is counted as a separate cause of death. The societal pressures to keep up or excel typically causes death from heart attack or stroke.

Many self-employed and entrepreneurs work extremely long weeks. I don't necessarily embrace 12 hour days, but when they are mine (and not imposed by a boss who leaves hours before I do) I get tired but not stressed.

Posted by: Ed D | Jul 1, 2011 5:15:04 AM

Greg -- Spoken like a true plaintiffs' attorney. Her family should sue Skadden because they paid a market-rate salary and bonus to someone who voluntarily worked a lot of hours? Are you serious? All BigLaw associates know what they are signing up for. She could have done something else after law school.

Maybe her family should sue Northwestern because they charged high tuition, which led to a high loan balance at graduation, and FORCED her to take a BigLaw job. Is Northwestern to blame, too?

This is awful for her family and friends, but she chose her lifestyle. Perhaps we should all keep in mind that bad things sometimes happen to good people and that there is nobody to blame?

Posted by: Jeff | Jul 1, 2011 6:16:04 AM

I think this has probably happened dozens of times before but less obviously. Very very sad.

Posted by: mike livingston | Jul 1, 2011 6:33:18 AM

Law kills, and will kill again until we vote with our feet and get out of big firms (or the profession changes - ha, like that will ever happen when the top tier is making what the do for flogging the slaves...).

Very sad. No firm and no client project is worth a life. It's just another job.

Posted by: Tax Lawya | Jul 1, 2011 7:09:44 AM

Do you want to make $60,000 a year starting salary out of law school or $120,000. $120,000 of course!. The $60,000 a year job requires 40 hours of work, the $120,000 a year job requires 80 hours of work. $120,000 a year job is with big firm, $60,000 a year job is with small firm. I think some people thrive in this type of enviornment, and others do not. Quality of life is important and assoicates who are trained to argue for others need to learn to argue for themselves.

Posted by: Nick | Jul 1, 2011 10:09:02 AM

The green golden handcuffs are virtually impossible to resist. I have seen people be offered great jobs in smaller markets with a decent salary only to turn them down when NYC (ie, BIGLAW, BIGMONEY law firm) came calling. I have seen this when people were offered great jobs in government and NYC came calling. Sadly, I have yet to see anyone turn NYC down (I have seen people turn down a $125k starting job at a firm they had a good feeling about in a city they wanted to be in for $140k in a city they have no interest in and practicing a kind of law that was not their 1st choice).

The power of the almighty dollar.

And the analogy to Japan is all too apt.

Posted by: tax guy | Jul 1, 2011 3:00:49 PM

Big law partners are taking advantage of the tight job market to treat young lawyers in a way the SPCA wouldn't permit them to treat their pets. Jeff cloaks this abuse as a lifestyle choice. Are abused women just making a lifestyle choice?

Posted by: Greg | Jul 3, 2011 11:02:54 AM