The logistics of making partner have also changed as Wilmer has grown to more than 1,000 lawyers. It now takes 8½ to 11½ years to be considered for partner. Each summer, a 32-partner committee starts collecting evaluations of possible candidates. The committee works closely with the firm’s entire 320-member partnership to solicit views on every candidate. Before the new year, the decision is put to a full vote of the partnership.
Wilmer’s process is similar to that of other large firms. It bears almost no resemblance to the fraternal way lawyers of Perlstein’s generation were welcomed into the club. Perlstein says his fate was decided in the early ’80s by the existing partners as they mulled over their options on a Saturday afternoon.
This year, Wilmer named ten new partners, down from 23 in 2008.
Partnership or Bust
All of that uncertainty and unease is good for business in another sector: the mental-health industry. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 19 percent of lawyers experience depression, compared with 7 percent of the general population.
Washington’s legal community got a reminder of how serious this issue can be when Mark Levy, the 59-year-old head of Kilpatrick Stockton’s Supreme Court practice, shot himself last April in his 11th-floor office. Levy, who was a counsel in the Atlanta-based firm’s Washington office, had been laid off two days earlier.
He was one of more than 5,000 lawyers let go from major law firms since January 2008, according to the Web site Law Shucks, which tracks legal layoffs. Many lawyers still lucky enough to have their jobs have been affected by salary freezes or pay reductions.
With the profession shell-shocked from those cutbacks as well as entire law-firm dissolutions, anecdotal evidence indicates that lawyers are only getting gloomier. The American Bar Association invited a psychiatrist to speak about depression at its annual meeting in Chicago. And more than half of respondents to a recent poll conducted by the blog Above the Law said they suffer from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. A third said they struggle with sleep problems and chronic fatigue.
Why stay in such a profession? The money can be great, but mental-health professionals say the reasons go beyond that.
Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, treats lawyers. He says many young lawyers’ identities have become so bound up in their achievements that their self-image becomes dependent on always being able to make their next goal. “For the ones who do, that is often very satisfying,” Appelbaum says. “For the ones who fail to, that can be an enormous blow to their self-esteem—and one that leaves them anxious, depressed, and uncertain where they go next in life.”
Washington psychologist Renana Brooks echoes that perspective. She says more lawyers are seeking her help after being laid off or not making partner. The disappointment, she says, “is enough to send them to the mental institution.” She’s not joking: “What it takes to be a partner is a singular focus on doing anything at all costs to succeed.” If that doesn’t work out, Brooks says, lawyers can lose their entire identity.
Ask any lawyer to recall the moment he or she first made partner and the import of that milestone is evident.
Jennifer Trock, one of the newest partners in the Washington office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, was out of town meeting with clients the week she expected to find out whether she had made partner.
“I intentionally left my phone on,” she says. “I was staring at it every five minutes.” But the call never came.
It was only after Trock returned to the office the following week that she got the news. Her practice group’s head partner called her into his office and put her on the phone with the firm chairman. Then out came the Champagne.
The memory still eliciting a big smile, Trock says: “They timed it so everyone on the floor could come by and do a toast.”