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The Economy's Most Tragic Consequence

On the morning of April 30, 2009, Kilpatrick Stockton lawyer Mark Levy arrived early to his Washington, D.C., office. He had cleared his calendar the day before. He changed his e-mail auto-response to say, "As of April 30, 2009, I can no longer be reached. If your message relates to a firm matter, please contact my secretary. ... If it concerns a personal matter, please contact my wife. ... Thanks." He then took out a .38-caliber handgun and fired a bullet into the right side of his head. A colleague found him around 8 a.m.

ABAJournalCover Every suicide is a tragedy. But Levy's suicide was also a symbol. Two days earlier, the 59-year-old had learned he was one of two dozen lawyers the firm would lay off. Considered one of the most skilled appellate lawyers in the country, Levy chaired the firm's Supreme Court and appellate advocacy practice and had argued 16 times before the Supreme Court. Given his age and his achievements, his layoff provided striking evidence of just how hard the economy had hit the legal profession and his suicide showed just how painful its effects could be.

The story of Levy's career and death is the cover piece on this month's ABA Journal magazine. In A Death in the Office, writer Richard B. Schmitt suggests that Levy's layoff was not a precipitating event in his decision to kill himself so much as the last straw. Levy, it seems, was a lawyer torn between his love for the intellectual side of law and his dislike of the business side of law practice.

Levy loved the practice of law, but he struggled with the business of law. Without a firm stable of paying clients, he grew vulnerable in a world where rainmaking is often valued over skill and judgment. For all his prestige, he had little real power behind his formidable stature.

To some his final act was a rebuke to what his beloved profession had become -- a statement made in the very office he had been told to vacate.

In that sense, Levy's death seems even more tragically iconic. Not only was he the victim of a cyclical economic downturn, but he was also discouraged by longer-term changes in the practice of law. Toss depression into that mix and Levy may have seen no other way out. (A sidebar reminds readers that there are ways out.)

I checked back to this blog's posts for April 30, 2009, to see whether we had said anything about Levy's death. What I found was a post that day about another lawyer's suicide, one equally surprising and shocking to those who knew him. If Levy's death is symbolic of a broader problem within the profession, Schmitt's article offers some insight.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on October 21, 2009 at 10:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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