American Lawyer, 'Big Law Killed My Husband': An Open Letter From a Sidley Partner's Widow:
Joanna Litt’s husband, Gabe MacConaill, a 42-year-old partner at Sidley Austin, committed suicide in the parking garage of the firm’s downtown Los Angeles office last month.
My husband took his life—our life—on Sunday, Oct. 14, one month to the day before our 10-year wedding anniversary. We had been planning a trip for over a year in anticipation of celebrating.
I’m beyond lost and I don’t know how I’m going to get through the rest of my life. Gabe was my best friend, my partner, my lover, and my constant. I turned to him for everything, and he was always there with the most perfect advice and words. He was my world, and after losing him, I can absolutely say, my better half. Gabe and I did not have children (except for our dog Ivy) and we made that deliberate choice so we could focus solely on our life together, because we were happy. And now he’s gone. He saw no other choice or path.
I never thought in a million years that he could or would do that. And I keep going back to one thought: “Big Law” killed my husband. ...
On the morning he killed himself, he said he got an email and had to go into work to put something together. I wanted to ask if I could go with him and just sit there, but instead, I simply offered to make him a sandwich for lunch. And without any hesitation, he said, “No baby, I’ll be fine—I won’t be long.” I’ll be haunted by those words forever. He gave me a few kisses, and tried to get Ivy to come cuddle me.
And then he left, taking his gun with him, and shot himself in the head in the sterile, concrete parking structure of his high-rise office building.
I feel like I lost my husband so quickly—within the course of a month—but I’m now starting to realize how hard he must have been on himself all the time. The constant striving to be perfect at work, to be the perfect husband, son, uncle, brother and friend. And then living with this deep unbearable shame that he wasn’t performing to the impossibly high standards he set for himself. He said a few times how he couldn’t turn off his head, but again, I didn’t understand the severity of that statement.
Maladaptive perfectionists lack self-compassion. I should have held him just a little longer, loved him a little harder, and told him way more often how proud I was of him and how much I loved him—exactly as he was. I’ll make penance for this for the rest of my life and for just not seeing the depth of the sorrow and pain he was going through.
Then came Sidley’s handling of Gabe’s suicide—“damage control” that included a last-minute invitation for me and my mom to attend a service at the firm. We went because I needed to see what kind of narrative they were creating. There were a handful of attorneys there, but in the immense receiving line of people who patiently waited to tell us about their unique story of Gabe, most were support staff. One told me that after working at the firm for years, Gabe was the only attorney to take the time to know her name.
I heard story after story about Gabe’s encouraging nature and how he made people feel like they could succeed at anything they put their mind to. One close colleague said she wished “Gabe had his own Gabe.”
Finally, packing up his office, I was handed a gift left by someone who just missed saying goodbye to him. He had decided to go to law school after numerous discussions with Gabe. The gift was a leather plaque; on it was inscribed, “It Can Be Done.”
Gabe lived his life with integrity and treated those around him with sincerity, kindness, and a genuine sense of presence. Unfortunately, I know my husband died not knowing the impact he had on so many people. I believe he died feeling overworked, inferior and undervalued. And I know he died with a lot of shame.
So as I write our story and think about it more and more, I know “Big Law” didn’t directly kill my husband—because he had a deep, hereditary mental health disorder and lacked essential coping mechanisms. But these influences, coupled with a high-pressure job and a culture where it’s shameful to ask for help, shameful to be vulnerable, and shameful not to be perfect, created a perfect storm.
I don’t have any immediate solutions, but for the sake of retaining people like Gabe in these important professions, something needs to change. We need people like him walking this earth; they make it a better place. My husband was impeccable with his word, and actually cared so immensely about the job he did and how people viewed him. He wasn’t focused on the bottom line or lining his pockets with more money.