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Sidley Austin lawyer’s widow reveals how work pressures pushed her husband to suicide in heartbreaking open letter

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Gabe MacConaill committed suicide in the carpark of the firm’s Los Angeles office last month

Sidley Austin’s Los Angeles office

The wife of a Sidley Austin partner who took his own life last month has penned a powerful open letter detailing the devastating toll work-related pressures had on her husband’s health.

“I’m beyond lost and I don’t know how I’m going to get through the rest of my life,” writes Joanna Litt, wife of US lawyer Gabe MacConaill. “[He] was my best friend, my partner, my lover, and my constant.” MacConaill, an insolvency and bankruptcy specialist, shot himself in the head in the carpark of the US firm’s Los Angeles office on October 14. He was just 42.

In the emotional letter, published by The American Lawyer, Litt explains how she met MacConaill during her time at law school. She adds: “We had every class together and sat next to each other for two bars because of our last names. He was the smartest person I had ever met. He was also the kindest, most selfless person I’ve ever met.”

Noting that the couple at times “worked hard” at their decade-long marriage, Litt reveals MacConaill’s most “serious problem” was with binge drinking. “It wasn’t on daily basis”, she stresses, “but maybe three or four times a year there would be some event or function where he drank too much.” Now, looking back, she says she never realised his drinking was “masking a deeper pain”.

Gabe MacConaill

Litt explains to readers how a “series of ill-fated events at work” had a huge impact on her husband. Following the sudden departure of another lawyer, described by Litt as her husband’s mentor and confidant, MacConaill was thrust into an important leadership role. She continues:

“Shortly thereafter, the last partner who was senior to Gabe decided to leave, and an associate whom Gabe spent a lot of time mentoring also left. The Los Angeles bankruptcy group Gabe had so deeply cherished and relied on for support had fallen apart.”

Alongside the office shake-up, MacConaill was asked to chair Sidley Austin’s summer vac scheme programme and had also started working on a “huge bankruptcy” case. Litt explains that her husband was stressed, struggling to sleep and hadn’t smiled in weeks.

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Feeling completely “helpless”, Litt reached out other lawyers at the firm and asked if they’d noticed anything unusual about her husband’s behaviour. Colleagues revealed he was working more with his door closed and “his sense of humour had been gone for a while”.

Despite completing the bankruptcy deal he was working on, MacConaill’s mental health continued to deteriorate. He stopped responding to work emails, Litts says, and even spent the day at his biological father’s grave (who he had never met) instead of going into the office.

On October 14 MacConaill had reached breaking point. “On the morning he killed himself, he said he got an email and had to go into work to put something together,” Litt explains. “I wanted to ask if I could go with him and just sit there, but instead, I simply offered to make him a sandwich for lunch. And without any hesitation, he said, ‘No baby, I’ll be fine—I won’t be long.'”

MacConaill, taking his gun with him, was found dead in the firm’s carpark later that same day.

At the time of MacConaill’s death, a spokeswoman for Sidley Austin said: “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Gabe MacConaill, our valued colleague and partner. He will be fondly remembered by colleagues as well as clients as an outstanding lawyer, partner and friend. Our hearts especially go out to his wife to whom we offer our sincerest condolences.”

Struggling with stress? You can contact LawCare by calling 0800 279 6888 in the UK or 1800 991 801 in Ireland.

74 Comments

Anonymous

Being an NQ, I noticed the growing sense of disdain and contempt for more senior associates and partners among my peers at other firms. We pretend, at work, that we care and we are committed to the case / deal we work on, in front of the mid level associates who are stressed out of their minds and worked to the ground. I guess, that’s partly what we’re paid for really.

In fact, many juniors just don’t care and don’t buy into the whole idiotic corporate culture of obscene hours and unhealthy stressy lifestyle. We look at our more senior colleagues and think “no way I want to be like you when I am in my 30s”.

This is reflected in how every time we meet up, we laugh our arses off sharing stories about some of our more senior sad colleagues trying every creative trick in their book to keep us in the office on Friday evening. The profession will have to adopt to be more considerate towards people’s mental health and work and life balance needs. Just because somebody who is a senior associate / partner today was made to work obscene hours in the 1990s / 2000s, does not mean my generation is necessary going to put up with that sort of insanity in 2018.

(203)(4)

Not a Russian bot

Most people these days would rather have less money but more free time and holiday.

(86)(1)

Anonymous

Agreed. Definitely seems to be a shift in attitudes from those who have qualified recently.

(18)(0)

Anonymous

As a 5 PQE looking to leave in-house whose seen 60% of my cohort leave already, I would say that’s partly because those who make partner were those willing to take the beasting back in the 00s, lots of associates who left still thought like you.

Remember, if you’re part of a trainee cohort of 80, it only needs 7/8 in the cohort to be the type who love long hours in order for 80/90% of the future partners amongst you to be sado-masochistic deal junkies.

Why law firms can’t run a shift system I do not know. If doctors can do an effective handover for hundreds of patients, we can do it for 2/3 deals that might need working on each night.

(36)(2)

Anonymous

Obviously no-one should be worked so hard that their mental health suffers.

But presumably you and your fellow NQs are okay with taking the massive pay cut to accompany your attitude to hard work, right?

(10)(25)

Anonymous

Hard work is one thing and keeping people around aimlessly for face time or sense of company is something completely different my friend. One example would be trying to keep somebody in the office for hours, late at night, because “comments may come in” and we should not be seen as “holding things up”.

Sure, because it’s not like tomorrow is also a day, right?

Most of the people I speak to about it just talk about trying to coast for as long as they can put up with the nonsense, cashing out and leaving.

As a broader point, I’d put it out there to most of the city firms: how about, instead of this whole mentally unrobust, buzz-words infested chat about lawtech and pro bono, you actually start a serious debate about associates’ workload and well being which is not just a part of your hot air corporate marketing?

(40)(1)

Anonymous

I think in some departments, this can be culture of the firm itself, but in others it is unquestionably driven by clients.

I used to think the same as you when I was a junior corporate lawyer, but now I am in-house at a fund I know that the Partners and VPs here would absolutely blow up if comments came across from the other side and our externals didn’t turn them around straight away, whether those comments come in at 2pm or 2am.

It’s partly an issue with being a lawyer (we are seen as getting in the way with detail when the fundamentals of the deal are already agreed), but also just a culture in City jobs generally. Whilst the big financial institutions work this way and have these expectations, the law firms who do their bidding will be largely powerless to stop it.

(11)(0)

Anonymous

I also work in-house for a fund and do agree, however if the client’s expectations are managed from the start and external counsel don’t set a precedent of replying at 2am, we wouldn’t expect it.

It also depends on the type of firm we use. If we’re using a ludicrously expensive US/magic circle firm, we will expect almost 24 hour service to justify their fees. It’s down to the firm to manage their associates’ workload. If they weren’t so profit hungry and hired more associates to share the load, they would have less work per head.

In contrast, when we use west end/regional firms for other matters, we don’t expect such rapid turnarounds.

(23)(0)

Anonymous

LC – take note of the comments above. Some valuable discussion for your journos. Try and put an article together out of this. The content is there just don’t mash it up.

(46)(0)

Anonymous

Definitely – rather than some pinhead comments about some a-hole blogger.

(18)(0)

Anonymous

Agreed with all of the above.

Less money, less hours and better job security and pensions.

Invest for the long term.

Stop this destructive madness, frankly.

It shouldn’t be allowed.

Anonymous

I agree external counsel sometimes bring it on themselves. I was using a very good regional firm once in a small investment and had to make it clear that no one expected 24/7 service from them, because no one was that fussed about the deal.

But whilst expectation management is an issue, on the bigger deals, for which we use US firms normally, I don’t think the partners/VPs expectations could be managed to be honest. As with most funds, they come from backgrounds in big investment banks where they worked brutal hours and they expect the external people they work with (be they lawyers, CF advisors, management consultants etc.) on a deal to do the same.

Until we change the culture from the guys really driving deals, in PE at least (which seems to be an ever greater proportion of law firms’ work), I can’t see the hours culture changing.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

There is a huge culture shift at the moment. In many ways, the senior people have brought it on themselves by making it so difficult (impossible in lots of places) to make partner. You can’t encourage a generation who are already more interested in work-life balance to work round the clock in their 20s and early 30s if there is no clear path to partnership.

(37)(1)

Kirkland 3PQE MEGACOCK

You bunch of weak beta puffers, eat law or die trying. I’m a huge alpha top dog as I easily pull 120 hour weeks on no sleep, just some quality white powder my boss gives me, deliveroo asian takeaway and mineral water. My bonus this year will be a metric f*cktonne of dolla and I’m on track to make partner in a couple years. I haven’t been back at my flat since Wednesday morning but it’s all worth it

(28)(9)

Anonymous

You’re madder than a sack of frogs my friend.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Too sad, but even sadder is maybe that is how this ‘mon(k)ey’ business works

(1)(0)

Anonymous

This is a very sad story. If he took his life due solely to work-related stress that is a very worrying and concerning. The firm should be putting measures in place to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Hopefully anyone suffering from such levels of stress or depression can realise that wellbeing is always more important than work

(25)(0)

Anonymous

A very sad story but unfortunately not the first to happen in the industry.

When will lawyers realise that they bring these pressures on themselves? They’re not dealing with life or death situations like doctors or people working for emergency services.

So many lawyers commit to some ridiculous timeline or wait until a deadline is imminent and then expect to meet it. Why? What’s so important that you need to spend more than 35 – 40 hours a week working?

Start planning ahead, allocate slots during the day/week/month for specific tasks but leave some headroom for jobs that may overrun, new work etc. When you’ve reached your capacity just say “no”. Your clients and co-workers will thank you. Instead of a burnt out wreck they’ll have someone on their team who is fresh and ready to take on the next task.

(31)(5)

Anonymous

Hear hear.

Yet sadly this will never take place in the City.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

This person definitely doesnt work in the City… back to lectures!

(3)(3)

Anonymous

Unfunny, you dumbf*ck.

(3)(0)

Anonymous Koala

It’s not for anyone to judge why someone cares a tremendous amount about doing excellent work in their career. Being a doctor is not a more important job than being a lawyer, it’s just different.

Also, the pressure is not necessarily only brought upon oneself. As a junior or associate in a team, pressure can come from the Partner, from the client, and from the firm’s billing targets – those are external pressures, just like if you were a doctor trying to treat someone else’s ailment.

Lastly, thanks for your top tips on how to handle a busy schedule, did Google give that to you? B/c you didn’t get that from the realities of a city job.

Some (many) would say that getting an international merger completed (worth billions of $, and affecting thousands of jobs / LIVES) is indeed something worth working more than 35 hours a week for. A bit of ambition might do ya good.

(5)(6)

Shawn Law

35 hours a week? Geez, you kidding me? Try double or triple that.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

This lawyer might need to take a look at the long term success rates in M&A – in reality a lot of mergers are better for the ego and CVs of those organising them than the businesses they affect. Comparing the work to that of doctors is absolute madness. But at least you’re suited to the job.

https://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/05/magazine/what-are-mergers-good-for.html

(5)(1)

Anonymous Koala

What’s wrong with comparing one job to another? As far as I know, comparing things is one of the common-place, valuable tools of analysis.

Perhaps you meant that the job of a doctor is superior to that of a lawyer. In which case you are, in fact, comparing the two. And you can see my original comments on why one isn’t superior to the other.. above.

(2)(0)

Junior doctor

Rofl stfu u beta

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Lawyers make shit managers. That is a big cause of the issues in law firms.

(29)(0)

Anonymous

Law is one of the few industries where senior managers are promoted without significant training.

Other organisations send key personnel to Harvard for dedicated courses and invest in MBA’s programmes for their future leaders. Law is stuck in the past with people being made up based on tenure and case results. A good lawyer will not always make a good manager.

The day courses that lawyers are sent on will not prepare them to manage staff correctly.

(27)(0)

Diane Abbott

Might have to do with Law’s age old elitism in academia and disdain for other less prestigious disciplines. However, just because lawyering is harder than managing people of course does not mean the mastery of one equates to knowledge of the latter.

Im certain most lawyers would scoff at being sent on a management course.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

It’s a very sad situation, but unfortunately I can see if happening again and again – For two reasons:

Firstly, there are always going to be the juniors that are willing to work the extreme hours because they believe it will get them ahead of the competition for the more senior roles. As they’ve done it in their career, it is likely that they will expect it of others once they’ve reached the top of the mountain, and so it never stops.

Secondly, as someone has referred to above, where some firms are charging the rates they do, there will always be client expectation that a question will be answered whatever the time, because that’s what they’re paying for.

I work in-house and often engage outside counsel for matters outside my expertise – Given the cost of such engaging (some firms more than others), I do expect to receive a prompt response whenever I call / email, be it 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon, or 11pm on a Sunday night.

Whilst the client (in some cases, me) may be blamed for putting such a demand on the firm, it is ultimately up to the firm to ensure that they have the correct amount of employees working on a project, and to ensure that the pressure is well managed.

(4)(25)

Anonymous

It is ridiculous to expect a prompt response at 11pm on a Sunday night.

(48)(1)

Anonymous

Not at all – We work across different jurisdictions, in different time zones with different working weeks.

At times, the working day doesn’t really end.

(1)(12)

Anonymous

Glad to see the Legal Cheek fascists deleting perfectly good comments again. You pathetic, weak c*nts.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Seriously – what is with the censorship on here? There were two very valid comments from in-house lawyers at funds that have been deleted and a comment saying they were great comments which provided content for a possible LC article.

Have they been deleted so LC can write the article and claim the thoughts as their own?!

This constant removal of commentary is weak and just embarrassing for your “journalists”.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

What were the comments?

Would be interested to hear from fellow in-house lawyers.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Think they’re showing again now, mine was one of them and i’ve Just replied to a response.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Mine was the other, and yes, they have just magically reappeared.

This website is a shambles.

Anonymous

You’re an utter c*nt if you “expect to receive a prompt response whenever I call / email… 11pm on a Sunday night.”

What kind of dumbf*ck pinhead calls/emails someone for work-related stuff at 11pm on a Sunday?

(29)(1)

Anonymous

One that works on multi jurisdiction projects – Our US office is 7 hours behind, our Middle East Advisors are 6 hours ahead and they have a different working week.

Not an every-week occurrence, but if you work or want to work in the City surely it can’t come as a surprise to you that this kind of thing happens?

(3)(4)

Anonymous

Then instruct the office in that jurisdiction as your 11pm may be their daytime.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

As I said, our advisors are in the jurisdiction required – However, given time zones, working weeks etc. it may be that a reasonable hour for me, may be unreasonable for them; however, if a firm has warranted to provide a 24 hour service then it’s up to them to manage it accordingly.

(0)(5)

MCNQ

Maybe try engaging with your advisors as people rather than just the other side of a contract and you’ll get a better work product from them.

Reasonable clients get better work as lawyers have time to think through what we’re doing and are more likely to actually care about getting a good outcome for you.

If a client wanted a 3am call because it was ‘a reasonable hour for [them]’ and we weren’t closing a massive deal that day, a decent partner would tell them where to shove the request and a long-suffering associate would form a view on the client regardless.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

I have a very good relationship with our advisors – As does the company as a whole, who have had a working relationship with them for well over twenty years.

The point is that we are paying for a service offered by the firm – And in most cases, paying a high price. If the firm is willing to offer such a service then it is up to them to manage it accordingly.

If a firm states that they are on call whenever we need them, and then charges in excess of £600 per hour for their work, then they should be expected to respond when needed.

You make the point that I, as a client, should treat the advisor as a human – Perhaps the firm should also be doing this instead of treating them as a cash cow?

(1)(9)

Anonymous

“I have a very good relationship with our advisors…”

What kind of firm is going to turn round to a client and go “You know what, I’m fed up of you asking for comments at midnight on a Sunday despite you giving us all this money, go shove it up your ar*e”. You’re delusional if you think they’re not bitching about you between themselves if that is the sort of attitude you possess.

“Perhaps the firm should also be doing this instead of treating them as a cash cow?”

Good attempt at shirking your responsibilities to your contemporaries. A lot Nazi’s did something similar at Nuremberg. What great company you keep.

MCNQ

You’re the sort of person who thinks you have a very good relationship with your advisors.

At every firm there are some clients that almost all of us hope will never bring us any work ever again. Please rest assured you’re one of them.

People like you drive talent out of the profession so you can feel smug while you’re ordering another 3 am call. Good luck when something goes wrong and you’re relying on a sleep-deprived 25 year-old to save your business.

Anonymous

You’re the kind of idiot causing the problems in this article. Get a life (and some friends) you utter asswipe

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Utter nonsense – It is up to the firm (ultimately it’s partners) to determine how they promote themselves to a client, and what promises they can and can’t make.

If a firm states that they will be available around the clock, then we will call up on that if needed – If they state that they won’t be able to respond at certain points then this is factored in to our plans.

As for my life, and my friends, all is in check there – But thank you for your concern.

(1)(4)

MCNQ

Choke on choad you pinhead

(0)(0)

MCNQ

(Err, that wasn’t me).

(2)(0)

Anonymous

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so take it as a compliment

Anonymous

“Whilst the client (in some cases, me) may be blamed for putting such a demand on the firm, it is ultimately up to the firm to ensure that they have the correct amount of employees working on a project, and to ensure that the pressure is well managed.” And yet at the same time you want a prompt response at 11pm on a Sunday night. What do you propose? Law firms should have permanent night shifts?

(28)(0)

Anonymous

How the law firm manages their work is not my concern – If they are happy to charge vast sums of money per hour to provide a service, and they promise a particular service (i.e. to provide a prompt response during critical parts of a project) then they need to ensure they can fulfil it.

We manage to meet project demands out here in the regions, so I’m sure you City chaps can too.

(1)(10)

Anonymous

To be clear, law firms (often) charge by the hour for the time their lawyers spend working on client files. That does not imply they are available any time to do that work, but that when they do do it, the rate will be the quoted rate. If you don’t like the rate being charged then go and get some – most likely materially worse – advice from someone else.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

I’m familiar with how we are charged, I was merely illustrating a point – Namely that if a firm offers a service, especially when the cost of receiving that service is high, then they should be prepared to fulfil their part of the bargain.

I have no objection with the rate being charged by our advisors – They are excellent at what they do, and I am fully aware that their expertise comes at a cost.

(0)(3)

Anonymous

I actually think permanent night shifts makes perfect sense, at international firms at least.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

We need a “metoo” moment for law, and in particular these exploitative American firms.

Bring the lot down.

Scandalous.

(13)(2)

Poor brother

This being said, if someone offered me £143k at NQ, together with another £25-30k as a Xmas bonus, I’d gladly do slave labour for a couple of years before fucking off.

(19)(3)

Anonymous

I wouldn’t.

(8)(1)

Anonymous

I wouldn’t either.

Make a stand for humanity and ban it.

Where is the Law Society to look after the wellbeing of young folks in their twenties?

We need a mandatory “walk away at six” rule. Just leave.

(14)(1)

US trainee slave

Yeah, lol, I’ll try that tomorrow. 5 mins later my boss will tear my nuts off and can kiss my qualification prospects bye

(10)(2)

Blue pilled

And then what?

You will qualify as a solicitor whether you leave at 6pm or 6am, having received world class training and will be employable at any number of the thousands of firms or companies where your skills are needed. You’re the one with the power, not them.

(3)(0)

0and

990

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Partners should employ more people to work shorter hours and take a hit on their PEPs.

There are loads of lawyers out there to take up the slack.

The problem is deliberate exploitation of insufficient employees to do the job.

(14)(0)

CitySlave

I see this daily: morbidly obese partners chipping off at 4.30pm daily while the associates and trainees toil for their drawings. The fat bastards.

(10)(0)

Anonymous

What we need are American wages for European hours.

And a general release of student debt through a Land Value Tax.

Only one choice: VOTE CORBYN!!!!

(9)(3)

Anonymous

Thank goodness there is this culture shift.

Much needed. Out with the deferential slaves of our parent’s generation and in with a new attitude.

Life is short, health is precious and we should all spend more time doing things that make us happy.

(5)(0)

Miserable

100% this. Unfortunately it’ll never happen. We live in an ultimate wage-slave trap: property prices brutally expensive by virtue of greedy Baby Boomer generation kicking back and enjoying the gravy train. There’s no way of getting on the property ladder without making absolute bank, especially in London. Add to that the pervasive ‘I want it now’ culture of consumer goods and you’re proper fucked.

(10)(0)

Barrister

No one is forcing you to take these very well paying jobs. If you want to clock off at 5pm, don’t go into the City. As a millennial, you whiners give us a bad name. The reality is that competition is worldwide. There are millions of hungry graduates who will out hustle you all.

You all took the easy route. Rather than doing something genuinely innovative with your career by taking a risk, you followed a path that required little imagination and sold out early doors. No sympathy.

(9)(7)

Anonymous

Jeremy Corbyn.

No brainer.

We need a proper change in this country, reset the balance.

OOOH

JEREMY CORBYN!

(3)(4)

Anonymous

Fuck off.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

‘Rather than doing something genuinely innovative with your career by taking a risk, you followed a path that required little imagination and sold out early doors.’ – Barrister

Hello pot, this is kettle. You’re black.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I don’t buy that this is just part and parcel of working in law. You only have to work on a few multi-jurisdictional matters to know that the Americans and British lawyers are available 24/7 and everybody anticipates a slower response from most other EU countries (Italy, Spain, Denmark come to mind).

We need to collectively adjust client expectations – the law society/SRA should really do a lot more.

(13)(0)

Anonymous

Word.

It’s madness, how this country has gone.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

This is a terrible story. Poor man, and poor wife, family and friends.

We should all take stock from time to time and decide whether we enjoy what we do and assess our home lives and wellbeing.

Then, if necessary, get out.

No wretched deal or case is worth it.

(6)(0)

Comments are closed.

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