How Legal Work Can Feed Attorneys' Suicidal Thoughts

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Thoughts of suicide can plague any attorney no matter their circumstances or what might twist their feelings in such a perilous direction.

Texas attorney and therapist Erica Grigg had been relying on alcohol to power through her day for years. Bruce Simpson was a successful trial lawyer in Kentucky when he became sick and missed a filing deadline. D.C. lawyer John Roberts was unemployed for months after failing his first attempt at law school. And Pennsylvania attorney Megan Will stood alone in her kitchen, mind racing as years of depression, anxiety and stress came to a head.

"This is it. I'm done," Will recalled thinking on that Tuesday in 2019. "I don't need the pressure," she reasoned with herself. "I don't need any of this. It'll be better."

Four minutes slowly passed as Will wrestled with such weighty thoughts. But before she could decide, her best friend Jenny rang.

"If she hadn't called, I don't think I'd be here, honestly," Will told Law360 Pulse. "It was seeing her name on my screen and that phone ringing that just snapped me out of it. I thought, 'I have to take this. You can't do this right now.'"

Will cried on the phone with Jenny until her husband came home. She was finally honest with him about the depths of her everyday despair. "I need some medical attention," she told him. "I feel like I'm crawling outside of my skin."

Now Will now knows that she doesn't have to "live like that." But during those four minutes, she was far from alone.

A survey conducted in 2020 found that about 8.5% of attorneys in D.C. and California have experienced suicidal ideation, while a 2016 study of about 13,000 lawyers across 19 states showed 11.5% of practicing attorneys reported suicidal thoughts. But experts say the share of legal practitioners thinking about suicide is probably far higher nationwide, with attorneys among the occupations most at risk for death by suicide.

Eight attorneys who have contemplated suicide or made attempts to end their lives told Law360 Pulse that burnout and stress from their jobs can compound difficulties outside of work or mental health concerns like depression and substance misuse, intensifying negative thoughts or actions until they reach a terrifying critical mass.

While these attorneys are now in recovery and receiving treatment, they said the pressure to expertly handle matters that could upend client lives or businesses, coupled with arduous billable hour requirements and the daily demands of their employers, contributes to a dangerously fatalistic view of their work, life and the world. And even for a field that often prioritizes profits over mental health, they said the industry's indifference to suicide is palpable, creating an environment where asking for help feels incomprehensible until it's too late.

"The culture has got to change," Will said. "Because it's killing people."

Will's mental health struggles deepened in law school, when she began therapy and was formally diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She moved back home to open her own practice in Pennsylvania when she was 25, but Will said she became "distraught" when her grandfather died a couple of years later, amplifying stress from running a business. She went back to counseling, but her grandmother's death two years later made everything worse.

"I remember being in court and just crying," Will said. "My client was taking a plea and I would just be standing there crying from grief."

The immense pressure within the legal industry to rise above personal struggles at the expense of well-being also brought long-simmering mental health issues to a head for Roberts when he began studying to become an attorney.

Roberts said he grew up pushing his feelings aside, and when he was a U.S. Army Reserves officer after college he felt asking for help was a "sign of weakness." Even after Roberts began seeing a therapist in 2016 for stress and depression, he would often lie in sessions to "make things seem right." This made his first go at law school in 2018 that much harder, as negative self-talk overwhelmed the benefits of therapy and medication. "I wasn't able to make the grades and I wasn't invited back," he said.

The suicidal thoughts Roberts had weathered since middle school escalated. But he still presented a "mask" in therapy, refusing to share the suicide plans that he quietly began to form.

The demands of lawyering and life events also reshaped Ohio attorney Stephanie Mitchell Hughes' ability to bear the "suicide voice" she's had since adolescence. Becoming a single mom of two when her marriage dissolved in 2006 made her realize she had been "deeply, deeply depressed for at least a decade."

"We are taught as lawyers to be invisible while in plain sight," she said. "When you've been conditioned to keep going regardless of whatever your personal circumstances are, that is when you start neglecting yourself."

Mitchell Hughes said she felt like she was "swimming in Jell-O."

"I worked as a depressed person, I parented as a depressed person, I lived as a depressed person," she said.

Former Holland & Knight LLP attorney Wendy Robbins described a similar sense of "complete isolation" and an inability to communicate her feelings, "like being in the bottom of a well with no way out and no voice to scream for help."

Robbins, who is now a wellness and life coach, said her suicidal ideation began in college, though she'd had "bouts of depression" since she was about six. When she became a practicing attorney, thoughts of suicide would follow "moments of sheer overwhelm where the anxiety gets so heightened that your brain starts to really kind of shut down as a coping mechanism."

"It seems like that's the only option, because it's so terrifying to be in that place," Robbins said.

Robbins decided to resign from her law firm to work in professional well-being after realizing attorneys are replaceable at work — but not to their loved ones. "We can step back to protect our mental health," she said.

But remembering this is particularly challenging as stress and anxiety from work encourage suicidal ideation.

Grigg, the Texas attorney and therapist, said she began relying on substances and drinking more in law school to manage stress and depression, a dynamic that continued into her legal career. Grigg said she knew she needed professional help, but as a woman she worried about being seen as too emotional to handle the job. She also didn't feel she had the time as a practicing attorney to seek support or commit to therapy.

"What was within my time management routine back then was the 20 minutes it took for a double vodka soda to help me relax," Grigg said.

Research shows attorneys are prone to risky drinking and substance misuse. The 2016 study of about 13,000 lawyers across 19 states found 20.6% engaged in "hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking," with 22.6% of all participants reporting they felt their alcohol or substance use was problematic at some point in their lives. Another study in 2020 found that the legal occupation had the second-highest prevalence of binge drinking at 23.9%.

Grigg said her alcohol use impacted her initial attempts at treatment. While she was prescribed medication, Grigg said she would take it with alcohol or be too drunk to remember to take it at all. She began lying about deadlines at work, sometimes failing to call clients back.

New York attorney Daniel Lukasik also saw a drop in his work productivity as his stress became unmanageable when he turned 40.

"I found it very difficult to concentrate, to be productive," said Lukasik, now a law professor and the judicial wellness coordinator for the New York State Office of Court Administration. "I started adjourning trials or depositions. I started closing my door at the office, which I never did before, and I would pile files around the perimeter of my desk so that if people came in I looked productive."

The responsibility of being the managing partner at his litigation firm and juggling his own caseload only intensified his depression. Lukasik had to deal with the bank on the firm's line of credit, manage the finances with his partners, hire and fire employees, implement marketing plans and be the face of the organization. Lukasik said he felt incompetent and struggled to sleep, often waking up at 3 a.m. He had thoughts of suicide.

"I was crying all the time, sometimes sobbing," he said. "While I did not attempt suicide, the quality of my life day to day had become so poor. I went to bed with depression and I woke up with depression."

This kind of passive suicidal thinking has also haunted attorney Christina Green since college, after a lonely and isolated childhood.

"I didn't have a plan," said Green, a research and policy fellow at Fair and Just Prosecution. "I wasn't actively looking for ways to end my life. I just stopped caring."

Green's mother died when she was in first grade. At the time, her father was in the midst of a civil rights case regarding racism he experienced as a Black police sergeant. Her tumultuous home life led to an eating disorder and self-harm. In college, she worked with a therapist and a dietician, eventually graduating law school and passing the bar.

But after landing a job as a Massachusetts criminal prosecutor in January 2021, stressors from work and daily life became overwhelming, taking over her therapy sessions. And even when she got a new job in June 2023, Green said she still had intrusive suicidal thoughts.

"To some extent, I think I do put so much on my plate so that I don't have to focus on all that underlying stuff," Green said of her therapy.

Recovery is still a struggle, but Green said she's more aware of her feelings. "I'm able to talk about it, whereas before I would shut down," she said. "Now I'm working through all of that trauma while also being an attorney"

Attorneys said the evolution from suicidal ideation to suicidal behavior is often felt over decades, with work only intensifying the impact of past trauma. Their busy work lives can also help mask insidious thoughts.

Before trying to kill herself, Grigg said she would often beg God to let her die in her sleep. She worried she couldn't get sober and that she was letting her parents, employers and clients down.

"These people had entrusted me with the most important thing in their life," she said.

Grigg was intoxicated coming home from her parents' house after Sunday dinner when those thoughts finally bubbled over on May 10, 2010, and she tried to take her life.

"I don't know why that night I decided to do it," she said. "Previous evenings I had contemplated the same thing."

Now Grigg struggles to identify with "that precious human being" who wanted to die.

"I've made it a part of my mission now because I've been given this second chance," she said.

Grigg lived, but others haven't.

At least 232 people working in the U.S. legal services sector died by suicide in 2021, according to data for 49 states from the National Vital Statistics System. Using industry estimates of the U.S. civilian, noninstitutionalized working population between the ages of 16 and 64, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that the legal sector's suicide rate per 100,000 was 23.7 for men and 10.6 for women in 2021, the most recent available year. The analysis cautioned that the rate for women could be skewed because of low working population estimates.

Ken Jameson, an attorney at Cohen Todd Kite & Stanford LLC in Ohio, died by suicide on May 22, 2011. He joined the firm five years prior after working at a smaller outfit with just one partner for nearly 30 years, according to his widow, Betsy Jameson Ingram. She said that while Jameson had more colleagues to help with work, the new job came with additional pressures, and he struggled to sleep.

"'I can't keep this pace up,'" she recalled him saying. "'I'm going to lose the practice, and I'm going to lose everything.'"

Jameson would fret over the firm's spreadsheet showing how well attorneys were doing by billables and caseloads, going into the office at 7 a.m. and returning home at 8 p.m. or later, according to Jameson Ingram. He worried about keeping the pace up or telling anyone something was wrong and risking colleagues questioning his judgment. He took time off for lack of sleep and a pinched nerve in his back that required surgery, and Jameson Ingram told him he didn't need to be an attorney.

"But he couldn't see another path," she said. "His whole identity was being an attorney."

In the months leading up to his death, Jameson Ingram recalled going to psychotherapy appointments with her husband. A psychiatrist also prescribed medication, but "he just got worse instead of better," she said.

Jameson was found with letters addressed to each of his family members on yellow legal pads, a sign he had been drafting them for a while. 

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Ken Jameson, center, with his three children. (Courtesy of the Jameson family.)

Many people with suicidal ideation think they can justify their feelings and actions, but attorneys said that rationalizing such thoughts is even easier for them.

"Lawyers argue for a living," Roberts said. "So you can really make a good argument as to why suicide is a pretty good idea."

Suicidal thoughts increased for Roberts after he flunked out of law school. Already feeling like "a failure," his depression and anxiety intensified as unemployment and the breakup of a long-term relationship collided with the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Devastated and struggling to find work, Roberts convinced himself suicide was the only solution and decided to die on Memorial Day weekend 2020. He got drunk, left his D.C. apartment and tried to kill himself while listening to a Spotify playlist. He survived because he had to use the bathroom, blacking out on a couch back at home where the police eventually found him.

"I wanted the easiest way out," Roberts said.

Suicidal ideation like this can feel like a constant, unrelenting pull, according to Lukasik.

"It was like a primal pulsing in my brain," Lukasik said. "Like, I got to stop the pain. I got to stop the pain."

Suicidal thinking is often coupled with a warped self-superiority — that attorneys should be able to "stop the pain" and fix themselves.

Robbins said she would go to therapy or take Klonopin for anxiety before abandoning both in favor of a more conceited mindset: "I can handle this myself. I don't need help."

Simpson, the trial lawyer in Kentucky, said he also had trouble asking for help when the time came.

He carried low self-esteem with him from adolescence through his early 40s, when his law career finally began to take off. Though public recognition from cases would stave off "bad days," Simpson said he's self-medicated since his teens, taking as many as eight to 12 Excedrin a day for tension headaches brought on by stress and anxiety, counteracting with Tums or Rolaids. He couldn't sleep more than five hours a night, but he thought the anxiety helped his practice.

This approach seemed to work until January 2022, when Simpson was hospitalized with a heart condition and put on a blood thinner. That May, Simpson suffered a brain bleed and was hospitalized again, this time for nearly two weeks. He was hospitalized four more times in 2022 and became forgetful.

"I thought everything was fine," he said.

Then in January 2023, Simpson opened the mail and got an opinion from the Kentucky Court of Appeals on a high-profile case he'd won at trial, noting he'd failed to file a brief. Simpson was distraught and embarrassed for himself and his family.

"It was almost within seconds that I knew I had to die," he said. "And I went about taking steps to accomplish that."

The next day, Simpson gathered what he would need, careful to avoid causing suspicion even when he kissed his wife for what he believed would be the last time. He wrote a note to his family and took an Uber 30 minutes from home to the Maple Grove Cemetery where his grandparents were buried.

"I didn't want my wife to come home and find me," he said.

The cemetery was cold and empty when Simpson arrived around 6:30 p.m. He walked around for a while, wondering if he could follow through with his plans. Hoping a first responder would find him, Simpson called 911 and reported his own body in the cemetery.

But the method he used didn't end his life.

By then a police officer had arrived at the cemetery, and Simpson lied to get him to leave. Though Simpson planned on trying again, he said the officer's lingering presence and the 20-something temperatures tested his resolve.

So Simpson went to a nearby gas station and called a former close friend and attorney who lived nearby, lying that he left home that night after a fight with his wife. After they talked at a bar, his friend insisted on driving Simpson back home, where they found a handful of police cruisers that had been called after his wife found his note. His friend was suspicious but agreed to drop him a couple miles away to avoid a commotion after making Simpson promise he would walk home. Simpson considered trying again when his friend drove off, but he eventually decided to go home instead.

His wife was devastated, but Simpson was alive. The police drove him to a hospital where he was involuntarily held for three days.

"I'm grateful that I had intervention to save me," he said. "But a lot of people don't come back from attempted suicide, and you got to reach them before they get to that point."

Simpson said he still thinks about his filing error "almost every day."

"Mistakes are worse when you're a lawyer," he said.

This perspective is common among attorneys given the competitive nature of the law and the immense pressure to please law firms and clients.

"The culture of attorneys is still resistant to acknowledgment of a problem and getting help. We remain very concerned with our public image and professional reputation because of competition, pride and the need to attract clients," explained Travis Pickens, an Oklahoma lawyer whose attorney brother died by suicide. "Also, the risk of potential professional discipline is a stressful consideration. Sometimes the thought of being professionally disciplined publicly and among our peers is enough to lead lawyers otherwise at risk to suicidal ideation."

Attorneys' oversize responsibility is often coupled with an extreme lack of agency, particularly among BigLaw associates or other lawyers with less control over their clients, workdays and practice, according to Robbins.

"You never know when that call is going to come," she said. "And the consequences can seem — or actually be — extremely high."

Jameson Ingram said her late husband would treat every phone call like "a crisis," no matter if he was on the clock or not. Asking for help from his law firm didn't alleviate the stress because he would feel guilty about putting additional pressure on them. "It was a double-edged sword," she said.

Without a clear avenue to relief, many attorneys will turn to unhealthy coping strategies like drugs and alcohol, caffeine or all-nighters. Attorneys said that suicidal ideation can also seem comforting in these moments.

"I do think the law field will increase someone's chances of getting so stressed and so depressed that they would end up getting suicidal ideations," Green said. "It is the perfect dynamic for a chemical storm in one's body. … It also makes it really hard for you to have relationships because of the overburdening workload."

Many attorneys are also detached from their feelings and analytical to a fault, Green said.

This emotional discipline is ingrained in law school, where future attorneys are taught the benefits of negative thinking when predicting potential problems for their clients.

Even before going to law school, Robbins said she was always looking out for threats and trying to avoid the "worst-case scenario."

"Then you go to law school, and they're like, 'Yes, you're perfect for this job,'" she said. "It becomes who you are at work and also spills over to who you are at home, and your stress response becomes dysregulated."

And after they pass the bar and enter the workforce, many lawyers don't feel they have time to address their mental health and well-being because their new profession prizes productivity and profits over personal feelings, according to attorneys. "When you've been conditioned to keep going regardless of whatever your personal circumstances are, that is when you start neglecting yourself," Mitchell Hughes said.

Cheslie Kryst first attempted to take her life when she was in law school. She continued to battle mental illness for years in private while working as a successful attorney, author, diversity adviser, Miss USA and "Extra" TV correspondent, according to her mother April Simpkins, who is also married to a lawyer.

Before Kryst died by suicide in January 2022, she was vocal online about the pressures she felt as an attorney and why she left a litigation firm and the law to work in entertainment journalism. A few weeks prior to her death, Kryst lamented "trash" billable hours requirements and "the general lack of diversity in the legal profession and the constant microaggressions because of it" as a Black female attorney.

"You're dealing with a market culture where mental well-being trails the importance of keeping up the billable hours, the money coming in," Simpkins said.

Recovery is all the more difficult for attorneys who struggle to put themselves first. Attorneys who spoke to Law360 about their recovery said medication, dedicating time to talk about their feelings in therapy, adjusting their work lives and building community through honest conversations around mental health have helped.

In 2001, Lukasik began taking antidepressants and took a six-month leave of absence to focus on his mental health. Twenty years later, he created a depression support community for attorneys, including some who struggle with suicidal ideation. Lukasik said creating a safe space for attorneys to discuss tough topics has helped his own recovery. The community website not only provides information and resources, but shows how attorneys like him have overcome depression and other issues. In recent years, however, at least two members died by suicide.

Lukasik believes the legal industry's emphasis on output ignores the impact of stress on attorneys who may struggle to produce precisely because they're overworked.

"In a profession that prizes and emphasizes productivity as a means to not only success but career satisfaction, that's a mixed message when it comes to people who have risk factors for these kinds of problems," Lukasik said. "Perpetual, unrelenting stress cracks a person."

Grigg said trying to kill herself in 2010 was a culmination of the stress and culture of the job. She went into intensive outpatient therapy to satisfy her worried family, and the treatment ended up working.

"Now I see the beautiful hope that was still there," she said.

Will's close call led to more therapy and different medication. She hasn't had suicidal ideation since 2019, but Will acknowledges she still rides waves of depression and anxiety.

"I've definitely had depressing thoughts," she said. "I've had depressing days. I've had high-anxiety days. Those have not gone away."

Green said her suicidal ideation is "pretty passive" after more than a year of therapy where she was able to focus on trauma. Leaving behind a district attorney's office for reform work has also helped.

"It's better now," she said. "When I say better, it's something that I'm aware of and that I'm able to talk about. Whereas before I would shut down."

Simpson had diagnostic cognitive testing after his involuntary hospital stay. The test showed he had cognitive memory impairment in addition to his brain bleed, conditions that he said were "largely responsible" for his forgetting to file the brief. He met with his clients and reported himself to the bar association. With therapy and medication, Simpson sees this as his "second chance."

"We got one life and as miserable as it may get, as tortured as it may seem at times, there is a path forward," he said. "I'm living it. And I want other people to have that same opportunity."

Mitchell Hughes tried various medications until she found one that worked for her. But she said the legal industry has a long way to go.

"We've got to stop pretending like the emperor is wearing clothes," she said. "We've got to stop being afraid of this. And I think that we can, regardless of how jaded lawyers are."

Roberts stopped lying to his therapist and went back to law school after trying to kill himself. During the mandatory five-day stay in the hospital after police found him, Roberts saw surviving as another failure like his first turn at law school. But by the time he left, Roberts began telling himself a different story.

"I knew I was going to have to try my hand at making a life," he said.

–Editing by Kelly Duncan and Kat Weaver.

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