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Bipolar Lawyer

Vivia Chen

January 25, 2013


Maybe it's because I've been  watching back-to-back episodes of Homeland. That might explain why I'm so intrigued by the story of bipolar lawyer Kathleen "Kathy" Flaherty (near right). (In case you don't know, Homeland is a Showtime series that stars Claire Danes, at far right, as a bipolar CIA agent fighting terrorism.)

Flaherty, a 1994 graduate of Harvard Law School, was recently named as the sole lawyer to Connecticut's 16-member Sandy Hook Advisory Commission. According to Connecticut Law Tribune, the commission's job is "review policies and make recommendations on school safety, mental health, and gun violence in the wake of the horrific Newtown shooting."

A lawyer with Legal Services in Connecticut, Flaherty tells the Law Tribune: "I was asked to be [on the commission] as a person with mental illness."

Flaherty, who has long struggled with bipolar disorder (she was forcibly hospitalized for depression during law school), would presumably offer insights into the mind of Adam Lanza, the gunman in the Newtown massacre, who allegedly suffered from mental illness. What's noteworthy about Flaherty is her matter-of-fact admission about being bipolar herself.

Flaherty says she feels strongly about shattering some of the myths about bipolar disorder. Some state bars impose unnecessary barriers to those who admit to having been diagnosed with mental illness, she says. Connecticut was one of them. "I got a letter that I had passed the bar, then [the Connecticut bar association] took a year and a half to investigate my case—and it was done by people with no medical training." She adds: "It was based on the automatic assumption that you might hurt clients or be violent—which is just wrong."

In a credential-crazed profession where most people keep even their slightest imperfections tightly wrapped, I find Flaherty's honesty to be refreshing and uplifting—a word I usually don't use. Flaherty is living proof that mental illness need not be a hindrance to a career in law, if it's properly treated (she has tried 32 medications since 1990, before finding the right kind 10 years ago).

What helps is that she works in an environment where she can be open about being bipolar, Flaherty tells me. As a public interest lawyer who works with low-income clients, Flaherty says she feels no need to disguise her condition: "This is who I am; I need to be in an environment where I can be myself." She adds, "If I were at a big law firm, I might hesitate about being open." 

So was she deterred from going into Big Law because of her illness? Flaherty says no: "When I went to law school, I knew I wanted to do legal aid work. Never did I want a job in Big Law." She says she worked in a big law firm one summer and did not like the experience.

As for whether she sees herself as the Carrie Mathison (the Claire Danes character in Homeland) of the legal world: "I've never seen the show. I don't have Showtime." But she adds, "I"ve heard she's sympathetic on the show."


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected] 

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More recently, Elyn Saks published an op-ed piece in the NYTimes about how she does it ... and frankly discusses the limits of that.
Who knew that schizophrenia could make such sense? I'm grateful to be informed.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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