Natalie C. Fortner (J.D. 2023, Arkansas), Comment, Mental Health, Law School, and Bar Admissions: Eliminating Stigma and Fostering a Healthier Profession, 75 Ark. L. Rev. 689 (2022):
In October 2018, Gabe MacConaill, a junior partner at Sidley Austin, died by suicide in the firm’s parking garage. Gabe and his wife, Joanna, had been planning a ten-year anniversary trip for over a year, which was to take place just one month from that October day. Colleagues described Gabe as a “natural born leader” who had the ability to “make you feel like you were the smartest person on earth,” which is why he was “the obvious choice” to take over the firm’s bankruptcy team when two senior partners, Gabe’s mentors, left Sidley Austin in early 2018.
However, this meant Gabe had very little guidance when he took on the massive Mattress Firm bankruptcy case in summer 2018. The firm told him “in no uncertain terms” that they would not hire any lateral support, even when he had other significant responsibilities, including chairing the firm’s summer associate program. Gabe worried he would be sued for malpractice for lack of sufficient debtor experience but was afraid to show his bosses any weakness. He proceeded to work himself to exhaustion: he no longer laughed, went to the gym, or slept regularly. Joanna asked him to see a therapist, but Gabe could not even find enough time to finish his work. When Gabe began showing cardiac symptoms, Joanna decided to take him to the emergency room, but Gabe responded, “if we go, this is the end of my career.” He took his own life a week later.
Kyrie Cameron, wife of Ryan Keith Wallace, another big law attorney who died by suicide, and a lawyer herself, maintains that her husband’s perfectionism and fear of failure led to a belief that he had no way out: “We think being a lawyer defines us. That success means being the highest-billing, highest-earning, most productive person there at the expense of taking care of ourselves.” Gabe’s story is strikingly similar—his wife believed “he would rather die than live with the consequences of people thinking he was a failure.”
Though it is easy to blame big law and other high-pressure legal jobs, mental health issues often begin in law school—an environment that often fosters low self-esteem, distrust of peers, and disillusionment about the law. Though students begin their legal education with psychological profiles similar to peers who are not in law school, by graduation, one in ten law students self-harms, one in six has clinical depression, one in three has clinical anxiety, and one in four has developed alcohol dependence. Part II of this Comment explores the current state of mental health in the legal profession and the shortcomings of state bar associations, lawyer assistance programs (“LAPs”), and courts applying the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in combating the profession’s mental health problem. Part III then examines practical steps the profession can take at the law school level that will aid in eliminating the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment in the legal profession, thus addressing the problem at its source.