“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day…. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.”
David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College commencement speech.
I am usually late to appreciate great things – i.e., the Grateful Dead, foreign cinema, red high top Reeboks (trust me, they were a “thing,” unfortunate, but still) and David Foster Wallace. I often write such things off as “fads” only to realize later in life, when I have yet again matured a bit, that I was missing out due to my own prejudices or some other ignorant trait. I came across the above speech and a fairly cool video on gawker.com today. I had heard of Wallace and written him off, not wanting to conform to a mob mentality of greatness aimed in his direction. But, after truly listening to his words, and allowing them to touch me, I did a bit of research. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recalled that he had committed suicide, and upon further review, it was largely due to severe depression. Then, I came upon Elie’s piece regarding the T6 candidate with Asperger’s…
One of the dirty secrets of our profession is mental illness, and all that accompanies such problems. It is largely given lip service, a page in the HR handbook with a phone number to call, and then not openly discussed. Someone with mental illness surely cannot competently practice law, amirite? Curiously enough, earlier this week I was sent a link to two TED talks given by Brené Brown on vulnerability and shame. They are tangentially connected to the theme of today’s piece because the shame of admitting to suffering mental illness avoids the vulnerability necessary to make such an admission. And the circle becomes infinite, and a secret.
An attorney with a visible disability such as paraplegia who appears in a courtroom might be applauded as courageous, but a law school candidate who admits to having Asperger’s is called a fool for even trying to deal. Look, I get it, it’s not a comfortable topic, and it is surely something on which one would want to do extensive work before sitting in a room with a junior associate who holds the callback list in his or her hands. But, it isn’t a bar to practicing law. One of the basement dwellers was wise enough to recognize that Asperger’s could lend itself to a hyperextended attention to detail. And heck, lack of social skills is a prerequisite to attending any attorney function. I am quite sure that I have worked alongside many attorneys with some level of mental illness. If they have taken the necessary steps to seek treatment, medication, or whatever assistance the situation requires, there is no reason that people suffering from such an illness should be barred from practicing law.
The frustration regarding the topic for me is the absolute fear of discussing such illnesses. If you disappear from a job for a period of months and return to the firm, company or whatever, people will whisper, and there’s nothing leakier than a partner who is privy to a situation. Word will get around. And so what? You had a breakdown, a psychotic break, a debilitating stress that left you unable to function; you did the right thing and sought help. The help included time away from the very thing most likely to have caused the break in the first place. Should we then not allow that person to continue working? The law says we must. But when the statute of limitations runs, we can start to give progressively declining reviews and ultimately take the person out for the “final drink.” Because who knows when the person might “snap” again?
And that is the punchline. Once you have been branded with the letter C, it does not go away. No matter how hard you struggle to prove yourself capable, the C follows you. Never to your face, but always around your neck; like a noose.
The statistics bear out the fact that most people who suffer are fine (and competent) once they obtain treatment. The people who cause a continuation of the suffering are those ignorant enough to allow uneducated prejudices to sway their thinking with regard to promotion, assignments, and even simple compassion. We do not hesitate to condescendingly “feel” for the lawyer in the wheelchair — poor soul, but the person who comes back swinging from a bout with mental illness, well, that’s too bad. They had such a promising future.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.