Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

'Big Law Killed My Husband': An Open Letter From A Sidley Partner's Widow

SIdleyAmerican 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.

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I find highly amusing not to mention illuminating the comparison of a BigLaw job to being a surgeon, a Navy SEAL or a firefighter (this comparison is especially odious here in CA at the moment). Come on, it's law! We sit in front of a computer, draft a document, negotiate, show up in a courtroom occasionally. These narratives of "tough as a Navy SEAL" are the stories that we lawyers tell ourselves to justify high partner profits, a pyramid with few spaces at the top and the arbitrary choices about which (predominantly male) lawyers make it to the top. The idea that law requires people who are tough in the same way as these (predominantly male) professions makes the widow's point perfectly.

Posted by: Anonime911 | Nov 21, 2018 10:30:20 AM

Mike also worked at what we in Atlanta called the "happy firm" - Alston and Bird.

Posted by: KandS | Nov 18, 2018 5:42:43 AM

It is easy, I suppose, to use this horrible tragedy as an opportunity to throw rocks at big law firms and big law firm practice, as some commenters have done in various forums. But as a lawyer who is retiring next month after 35 years with a big law firm, I call foul. Yes, practicing so-called BigLaw is hard. It is stressful and can take a toll on the physical and emotional health of lawyers and their families. So can being a fireman, a surgeon, a CEO, an air traffic controller, or a Navy SEAL. Or being a parent. Not all occupations are for everybody, and it is only sensible to choose an occupation that is compatible with one’s talents, temperament, priorities, and family situation. These variables can change, of course, just as one can one choose to change career paths. Yes, choices and changes carry risks and costs, but that is life as an adult. Adults weigh costs and benefits, and even the most optimal choices are inevitably imperfect. My 35 years in so-called BigLaw has been fraught with disappointments and stresses, some quite major. But I have also enjoyed wonderful colleagues, fascinating work, and the opportunity to do important and good things; and I’ve been paid quite generously in the process. Almost without exception my partners have been kind, fair, and honorable, and I’ve observed high achievers under great stress routinely act selflessly, which is quite a splendid thing. I do not think every law student or young lawyer, no matter how gifted, should seek a BigLaw career. But it is a wonderful option for many, and I would not trade my 35 years for anything.

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Nov 14, 2018 12:52:09 PM

Not to be insensitive, as the story is tragic, but "Big Law" didn't kill her husband. You can quit working for big law firms. I did it after 10 years, and thousands of other attorneys have quit as well. Working 70-hour weeks for a large law firm is not healthy - mentally, physically, socially - choose your metric. But it was her husband's decision not to walk away from that job for whatever reason - ego, money, social pressure, etc. - that killed him, not "Big Law."

Posted by: Ex Big Law | Nov 13, 2018 11:29:13 AM

Dear Sirs/Madam: In response to Joanna's open letter, I understand her heartache. To work with a group of ambitious, highly paid attorneys is akin to swimming with sharks, greedy for blood, hungry to win the prize of flesh. There is nothing personal to his colleagues, about his taking his life. This beautiful man is collateral damage to that law firm. They don't practice law to care about teamwork, or their client or their souls at all. They are probably as a group immersed in their culture of ambition, shocked! Shocked when there is mortality to one of their own. They probably murmur to each other sympathy for the widow or for their loss of this attorney and how his case load will be split; they had NO idea he was suffering. I tried to be a paralegal in it and it nearly tore my insides asunder with attacks of autoimmune responses deep within my tissues. Every cell in my body wanted me to leave. Thankfully I am not ambitious and I am intuitive, and I could see Shakespeare playing out, each case, each day, every 6 minutes of the hour. I say, if you have what Joanna describes as a hereditary mental flaw, it takes courage to see one's temperament as important in the world out there. Know oneself. Those flaws she described can be tools for the soul to grow, to seek out God in those moments of pain and suffering. They look like flaws, but they can over time become tools of a spiritual growth that make his time on earth a gift for so many! I think it is a shame that law schools don't discuss the pitfalls of the legal cultures in all practices, civil and criminal. I have first hand experience with the many attorneys who have horrible lives due to their lack of ability to cope and the ensuing alcohol/drug addictions, terrible personal behaviors toward loved goes on. Joanna's open letter must be taken seriously by law schools and the American Bar Association.

Posted by: RPW | Nov 13, 2018 9:26:28 AM

I have empathy for the widow, and the poor man seems to have been profoundly troubled.

What I do not see is how Sidley (a firm I have found uniformly difficult and distasteful to deal with in over 35 years in practice) bears any particular or specific responsibilty for his death.

Practice in a "BigLaw" firm is not for everyone, not even for everyone who becomes a partner. Especially someone with "a deep, hereditary mental health disorder and [who] lacked essential coping mechanisms."

Sad, but not the fault of the law.

Posted by: CatoRenasci | Nov 13, 2018 9:03:05 AM

Back before and early in law school all I wanted was BigLaw. But they don't want a street kid from South Philly who didn't come from what they consider good stock. I am now grateful for the rejections as I now own a small firm where I do quite well, and have the work-life balance everyone talks about but few actually achieve. I am so sorry he just didn't quit and move on with his life. When I was 18 the worst boss I ever had, and the reason I went to college, said to me after I missed a few days from being sick and thought they learned how much they needed me, "the graveyard is full of irreplaceable people, yet life and work still go on." Perhaps if he was lucky enough to know that, he would have quit and taken his loving wife on a trip around the world and not looked back.

Posted by: Brian | Nov 13, 2018 8:11:02 AM

wow. talk about transference. I have lost loved one -- an adult son -- but I know which shortcomings are mine and which ones belong to someone else. I don't absolve myself completely and place the blame on others. Wow. Just Wow.

Posted by: Susan Harms | Nov 13, 2018 7:50:07 AM

Thanks for posting...

Posted by: A. Ttorney | Nov 13, 2018 7:32:41 AM