For the past week, a conversation has percolating around Skadden that has made its way into the ATL inbox. A Skadden corporate associate, Lisa M. Johnstone, died last week. Her obituary ran earlier this week in the San Diego Union Tribune. And her memorial service was yesterday. She died of an apparent heart attack, though we understand that her autopsy has not yet been completed. She was 32.

We’re talking about Lisa Johnstone’s death because reports indicate that she died while doing legal work from her home office on a Sunday. We’re talking about Lisa Johnstone because for over a week, Skadden associates have been talking about just how many hours Johnstone had been working. We’re talking about Johnstone because while the root cause of her death my never be known, many Skadden associates and others who know the story are taking this as an opportunity to assess their lives and their mental and physical well-being.

And that’s a good thing. The best advice I ever received in Biglaw was the partner who said: “You don’t have a thermostat”…

If you talk to Skadden associates in Los Angeles right now, they are understandably angry. The people we’ve spoken to in that office say that in the weeks prior to her death, Johnstone was pulling 100-hour weeks and was under intense pressure. Multiple sources tell us that she had her vacation cut short after being called back to work.

Sources also report that Johnstone had shown some disturbing signs of overwork. Multiple people told us that she was suffering from hair loss. Again, we don’t have the autopsy report, but multiple sources speculate that under these conditions, Johnstone had turned to “the lawyer version of performance enhancers,” just to stay awake.

Now, if you’ve never worked a day in Biglaw, these stories might sound like “horror” stories. And maybe they are. But they’re not “novel” stories. We can’t be sure of what happened to Lisa Johnstone, but we can be sure that this kind of stuff “happens to” Biglaw associates all across the country.

I’ve pulled a few 100-hour billable weeks. I still remember them, as I imagine one would remember spending a week in prison, or a week marooned at sea. On one case, a senior associate on the team (who, incredibly to me, was working harder than everybody else) passed out in the office — right in the middle of the conference room everybody was working in (the partners were, you guessed it, out of town at the time). We had to call an ambulance and everything. And when they carted her away, the rest of us went right back to work — because that’s the mentality that had brought us through law school and into a job like that in the first place.

Luckily, she was fine — just “exhausted,” which until that time, I did not know was an “official” medical diagnosis. And that case pretty much clinched partner for her so, you know, I guess it all worked out based on the logic of Biglaw life. But later on that week, our team was addressed by the partner in charge of the case. He gave us the standard blah blah blah about taking care of ourselves and all that. But then he said (and I won’t forget this until the day I die): “You guys, you don’t have a thermostat. Nobody knows how far you can go before you blow.”

Now, understand, at the time I was angry. Enraged. I felt much of what these Skadden L.A. associates have been feeling this week. Here was a colleague of mine, a person I liked even though we weren’t friends in the social sense, who had just been pushed to the brink. Here was this colleague who had just gone down a road I did not want to go down, and the firm — who at that point was the thing I had dedicated my freaking life to — was doing nothing to help her. And by her, I of course meant me. A thermostat? Are you kidding me? Why is the goal to push me to the absolute breaking point without actually causing me so much harm that I can no longer stand up? That’s how people treat horses, not men and women.

But over time, and after I quit, I came to understand that the partner wasn’t actually saying the most callous thing in the universe. I mean, it was still a pretty cold thing to say, but it wasn’t totally devoid of feeling. He was also reminding us that we ourselves don’t really know how much we can take, until maybe it’s too late.

We treat ourselves like horses sometimes. I know I did. I never took some of the stimulants available to enhance my “alertness,” though I certainly know a lot of people who did. But as I’ve discussed before, I did find myself filling out prescriptions for drugs that were supposed to make the anxiety go away. When my colleague collapsed, I didn’t think: “Wow, there are limits.” I thought: “Oh nononononono, we’re a man down, I’m going to have to work even harder now.”

When I quit, it wasn’t just because I felt like the firm was going to work me into the ground. It was also an admission that I was not wired to stop it from happening. I didn’t, at that point, have the skills to tell the firm: “No, I’m not billing 100 hours this week. Not now, not ever.” But I didn’t know what would happen to me if I kept working like that, and I didn’t like what was happening to me already. So I quit, consequences be damned. I didn’t have a thermostat.

My story is the one I know about. I don’t know Lisa Johnstone’s story. We don’t know what kind of pressures she was feeling. We don’t know if she was being pushed, or if she would have naturally found a way to work as much as she possibly could. We don’t know if her heart could have given out sitting on a beach sipping a cocktail, just like it apparently did sitting in her home office trying to get work done. She’s gone now, and we can just hope and pray for her family and friends.

But we, the living, are not gone. We still have choices to make. If in Johnstone’s death somebody else out there can find a moment to recalibrate his or her life, that can be a good thing.

These Biglaw jobs are hard. Insane even. You literally can no longer pay me enough to do one. But if you are putting yourself in the middle of this pressurized insanity, please remember that you don’t have a thermostat. Nobody knows how much you can take.


UPDATE: The Daily Journal covered Lisa Johnstone’s passing as well. From their article:

Johnstone joined Skadden’s Los Angeles office in 2007 after spending three years with Sidley Austin LLP in New York. As a corporate associate, her work included residential mortgage-backed and other asset-backed securities transactions, public and private structured finance deals, mergers and acquisitions, leveraged buyouts and ongoing public company representation.

“The overwhelming sentiment in the office is that Lisa was someone who always had words of encouragement and a positive attitude,” Skadden partner Brian J. McCarthy wrote in an email. “She was widely viewed as not just a colleague, but as a friend.”

Born in Scotland, Johnstone moved to the San Diego area in elementary school and later attended the University of California Los Angeles, graduating magna cum laude in 2000 with a degree in history. She earned her law degree in 2004 from Northwestern University School of Law, spending summers working at Sidley Austin and externing for former U.S. District Court Judge John S. Rhoades Sr. in San Diego.

UPDATE (11/16/11): The autopsy results are now available. The precise cause of death remains unclear, but the toxicology analysis found no drugs or alcohol in Johnstone’s system.

Ed. note: We’re leaving the comments open. We’re leaving the comments open because we think that it is appropriate that lawyers who read us have a chance to share their thoughts on wellness in the profession, work/life balance, and all the other issues the death of a colleague and fellow practitioner naturally bring up. We’re not leaving the comments open so people can take potshots at a woman who just passed away. So please try to control yourselves.

Lisa Marie Johnstone Obituary [San Diego Union Tribune]
Lisa M. Johnstone, 1978-2011 [Daily Journal (subscription)]


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