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Why We Can All Identify with Gabe MacConaill

Vivia Chen

November 19, 2018


Above all else, it was painful to read Joanna Litt’s essay about the suicide of her husband, Gabe MacConaill, a 42-year-old partner at Sidley Austin in Los Angeles. Whether you agree or not with Litt that “Big Law Killed My Husband,” elements of that story will certainly hit home with just about everyone who’s spent more than an hour in a big law firm.

For me, it brought me back to my days as a young associate decades ago—and the memories it unveiled were not pleasant. It took me back to a time when I felt constantly unsure, nervous and unmoored.

Among Litt’s descriptions of her husband’s anxieties, this one struck a particular chord: “He said he felt like a phony who had everyone fooled about his abilities as a lawyer, and thought after this case was over, he was going to be fired.”

For the five years or so I spent as a corporate associate, that feeling that I was merely posing as a lawyer rang true. Did I really know what I was doing? Did I grasp all the tax, securities and other complicated legal issues underlying the deal? Surely not. And even if I did something well—wrote a good research memo, drafted a decent contract or kept a client happy for another day—wasn’t it just a lark?

Of course, I never rose to the career heights that MacConaill did. Never tried. Never even thought of trying.

Which is what makes MacConaill’s story even more jarring: He already had passed the big test and won the grand prize of partnership. He was an experienced, well-regarded bankruptcy lawyer at a top firm. Yet, he basically felt as insecure and vulnerable as some random junior associate on rotation.

I find that remarkable, yet I’m not entirely surprised. The Big Law profession doesn’t give you much sense of security—much less validation or warmth. It’s such a cliché, but it’s true: You’re only as good as your last deal or case, and you live in constant fear that the client or rainmaking partner who’s giving you work might cut you off any moment.

In trying to understand her husband’s suicide, Litt writes that she read about the concept of “maladaptive perfectionism, that combines unrealistic standards of achievement with hypercriticism of failing to meet them.” She adds, “Gabe displayed most if not all of the characteristics. Simply put, he would rather die than live with the consequences of people thinking he was a failure.”

The cult of perfectionism is indeed pervasive in law firms—the notion that you should feel deep shame about an inconsequential typo or experience terror for not properly reading the unstated wishes of some client or senior partner. Even as an associate, I always found all of this ridiculous, but it’s hard not be caught in that culture when you’re in it.

MacConaill seemed to have been totally steeped in that culture. His wife had suggested to him that he quit, and “he said he couldn’t quit in the middle of a case,” adding, “the irony is not lost on me that he found it easier to kill himself.” She also writes: “We spoke a handful of times about how he should just try to care less about the work, but knowing the kind of person my husband was, that was never going to happen.”

As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s ultimately just sad. What makes it profoundly even sadder is that he seemed to have killed himself over the pressures of being a lawyer. And what prompted all of this—at least in the immediate picture—is a goddamned bankruptcy for a mattress company. He wasn’t working on curing a horrible disease, solving world hunger or stopping terrorism.

What killed MacConaill was the type of work most lawyers do: helping a company make or save money. Nothing flashy. Nothing life-altering. Which is what makes it all so prosaic, poignant and simply sad.


Twitter: @lawcareerist

Photo: Gabriel MacConaill in Halong Bay.


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His story highlights much:
1. The fear that the state bars instill in lawyers to NOT seek help because they could lose their license.
2. The fact that law has the #1 suicide rate of any profession.
3. The fact that law has the worst substance abuse problem of any profession - 25% and headed to 30%.
4. The fact that the tribal culture (aka silos) facilitate, condone, turn a blind eye to mental health issues - they don't even have metrics to track mental health.
5. The fact that the culture condones drinking and even facilitates drinking.

Am I surprised it happened. No
Will it happen again. Yes.

Is it horrifically sad - most definitely.

Mercedes Meyer
Drinker Biddle

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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: VChen@alm.com

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