We tend to think of the biggest Biglaw firms as “sweatshops,” while we view small firms, midsize or regional firms, or even Am Law 200 firms as “lifestyle” shops. The thought is that the big bad firms that service Wall Street clients will grind you up and spit you out, while somewhat smaller firms will allow you to have a normal life as you pursue your career.

It’s a great story, but it’s not necessarily a true one. Sometimes working at a smaller firm or a regional firm just means the same work with more pressure and less pay. Attorneys at such firms, whether partners or associates, don’t always have the kind of resources that Biglaw attorneys enjoy. There aren’t multiple layers of staffing available to double- or triple-check every document. It’s a lot of stress.

And stress can be just as deleterious to your health when working at a regional firm as it is when you work for a truly huge firm. This week, we’ve been fielding a bunch of reports about an associate who passed away at home after working what some tipsters report as maniac hours at his regional law firm the week before.

It’s a sad story, one that some accuse the law firm of trying to cover up, but it’s another opportunity for us to remind readers to take care of themselves even when work seems overwhelming…

The obituary from the Charleston Gazette (West Virginia) reports on the death of Adam Maynard, an associate in the labor and employment practice at Dinsmore & Shohl:

Adam L. Maynard, 35, of Charleston, formerly of Chesapeake, Ohio, passed away Friday, February 10, 2012….

Adam, first and foremost, was a loving father to Christian. Adam proudly graduated from Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in 2003. He was an attorney with Dinsmore & Shohl, LLP, in Charleston. He was a member of the bars of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Adam was a dedicated youth basketball coach, and committed to working with children.

Dinsmore as a whole is a sizable shop, an Am Law 200 firm with almost 500 lawyers. But they’re spread out over 13 cities in multiple states, and the Charleston office that was Maynard’s professional home has only about 30 attorneys. One might expect that working for a 30-lawyer office in West Virginia would be less taxing than, say, working in the New York office of a global mega-firm.

But maybe that’s not the case. Friends of Maynard and tipsters at Dinsmore claim there is more to the story. We don’t know why Maynard passed away, but his friends say he was working hard before the end — very hard. Friends and colleagues tell us that Maynard had been billing over 20 hours a day for multiple days in a row. Those days came as a crescendo of a “month of nonstop billing,” according to a friend. We’ve heard stories like this in the past, sadly.

I’ve had weeks like that. We’ve all had months like that. You don’t sleep. Even when you close your eyes, you don’t rest. And, in a cruel twist, you are working slowly and extremely inefficiently because you are so damn tired. Friends report that Maynard was gunning for partner, which must have increased the stress of any work he was doing.

Of course, most of us have had those kind of crazy schedules and survived. Working like an insane person isn’t healthy, but it’s not necessarily deadly.

But Adam Maynard’s friends claim that the firm is trying to “cover up” the details surrounding his last days. Here’s the opening of the email that partner Mark Carter sent out to Dinsmore associates after Maynard’s passing (the full message appears on the next page):

It is with deep sadness that I write to inform you that on Friday February 10 our friend Adam Maynard passed away from natural causes at his home in Charleston, West Virginia. As many of you know, Adam was a senior associate in our labor department and was only 35 years old. His passing came as a total shock to us. Adam has distinguished his service to the firm in many respects both in his practice and in his community. If you do receive any media inquiries regarding Adam please insure that they are routed to myself or John Hussell here in the Charleston office.

It is a little strange to jump to the PR angle right in the first paragraph. Note the statement in the first sentence that Maynard “passed away from natural causes,” as well as the directive to route media inquiries to Carter or to Hussell.

Speaking of media inquiries, we’ve made multiple inquires of Mark Carter over the past couple of days. We have not received any response from him about Maynard’s death. The firm has, however, posted a moving tribute to Maynard on its website (also viewable on the next page).

What we have heard is associates telling us that Dinsmore partners are internally pushing the line that Maynard’s death had “nothing to do” with the crazy hours he was working. It sounds to me like the firm adopted a media strategy before it figured out a human resources strategy. Regardless of what happened to Adam Maynard, it seems clear that current Dinsmore associates are concerned that heavy hours might exact a price beyond what they are willing to pay. Instead of preemptively defending itself against charges that it worked somebody to death, couldn’t Dinsmore use this occasion to make sure that employee health is being correctly addressed?

In the end, no employer is going to care as much about your health as you do. If your work is the most important thing to you, that’s fine, but there is no shame in telling a superior that you need a break. And if you are a superior, it’s in your interest to make sure that the work is being spread around in an efficient way.

Maybe Adam Maynard would have died while working in any profession. And any one of us could die tomorrow for any number of reasons. But you hope that nobody puts their health at risk just trying to keep up with the pace of their law job.

UPDATE (2/24/12): Here is a statement from the Maynard family (first link).

Obituary: Adam L. Maynard [Charleston Gazette]
Dinsmore mourns loss of Adam Maynard [Dinsmore & Shohl]

Earlier: In Re The Passing Of A Skadden Associate


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