July 16, 2024

Bionpa

You are Your Only Limit

My career as a lawyer almost destroyed me

8 min read
My career as a lawyer almost destroyed me

“I want to help other lawyers who were stuck in the cycle I was in” (Photograph by Yasin Osman)

I didn’t have much direction when I graduated from the University of Guelph with an economics degree in 1995. I come from a family of lawyers—my dad and sister worked in criminal law and my brother and sister-in-law are lawyers in Toronto—so I decided to write the LSAT. I didn’t score particularly well, but somehow I still received offers from several law schools.

I graduated from Western Law in 2000 and kicked off my career as a junior litigator at a major Bay Street firm. I worked upward of 100 hours a week carrying the bags—sometimes literally—of several big-shot lawyers. Junior litigators do a lot of the work of senior lawyers, without the credit. I was juggling 40 to 50 cases at the time and felt like I needed to achieve perfection in everything I did if I wanted to climb the legal ladder. Technology wasn’t as advanced back then, so I had to be at the office most, if not all, of the time I wasn’t sleeping. I would be in the office by 8 a.m, and wouldn’t leave until 9 p.m. or later. If I couldn’t work from home, I’d spend my weekends there too. If I wanted to be assigned to the biggest cases with the most senior litigators, I couldn’t complain about the workload.

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When my first child was born in 2002, I realized how crushing that culture was. For the first six months of his life, I spent more time at work than at home. This wasn’t uncommon: senior lawyers at the firm had been divorced two or three times. Often their identities were almost entirely consumed by their profession.

Looking for an escape, in 2003, I started my own litigation firm in my hometown of Lindsay, Ontario. At first, I had no cases. I went from representing some of the country’s biggest brands to working with regular people on defamation cases, or protecting lottery winners from former spouses who wanted a cut of the prize money. I turned out to be an effective self-promoter: one year into running the business, I was handling more cases than I did on Bay Street.

I was never able to fully shed the industry’s conflict culture. From the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, you’re constantly bombarded by conflict. As a lawyer, you spend most of your time arguing with people who are smarter than you, or have greater resources, and who are always expected to come out on top. When I was starting out, I could come home and detach from all of that conflict for a little while, even after late nights in the office. But with the advent of email and cell phones, work followed me home and wherever else I went.

I had a personal rule that if someone sent me an email, they’d hear back from me within two minutes, no matter the time of day or day of the week. I didn’t leave work until my inbox was completely empty. At least once a week, I would fall asleep in the office and wake up at my desk. Other days I would leave at 6 p.m. and continue working from home well into the night. I often spent entire weekends working. Periodically, I would ask my wife to take the kids to her parents’ so I could work without interruptions.

I hated this cycle, but saw no other choice. Litigation is a unique area of law—you can’t ignore emails or you risk jeopardizing your client’s case. I had high aspirations: I wanted to become a household name, to be respected by judges. I worked with 10 other lawyers, and I pushed them just as hard as I did myself. That was part of my brand, and part of the reason why my firm was so successful. It was also turning me into someone I didn’t recognize. I had to get my way with other lawyers, and I would litigate aggressively in court until I won my cases. I became increasingly annoyed with my kids and wife when I was at home. I was driven by anxiety, depressed and resentful of my job.

We travelled often as a family—twice a year, always somewhere tropical. I checked my phone incessantly and would wake up early to go to the hotel’s business centre, where I could get online and answer emails. I tried to be online before the kids woke up or after they went to bed, but I checked my phone all day and often excused myself from family dinners or activities to deal with work emails. We were on vacation together, but I wasn’t really there. Everything had to run smoothly, or I became even more agitated.

In 2018, I was sitting poolside with my family on vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, playing euchre with my kids, when my wife ordered a Bacardi and Coke. I ordered one too. Then another. And another. I only drank a couple of times a year, but at this point, alcohol seemed like a miracle cure for a severe case of burnout. I no longer cared about keeping my inbox empty or impressing my clients—it was a guilt-free escape. I had about 10 Bacardi and Cokes that day, ending the night vomiting in the hotel lobby’s bathroom. My wife later told me that she carried me back to the room, careful not to let the kids see me. It wasn’t long before the habit followed me home.

A small Italian restaurant in Lindsay delivered 24 bottles of cabernet sauvignon to my home every Monday. I didn’t want anyone to know how much I was drinking, or even that I had booze delivered, so I hid the wine around the house. My wife knew that I was drinking, but she didn’t know how much—by the next Monday, I would be out of stock. That’s on top of the Bacardi and Cokes that I started drinking every evening after work. Those nights often ended with me lying on my marble kitchen countertop, sobbing and listening to ’80s hair-metal ballads. I wondered how I had let things get so out of control. I needed to get to the feeling of 10 drinks all the time.

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I would start my mornings sitting in my truck for an hour, staring at the big glass doors with my name on them, trying to muster whatever I needed to go into the office. It was usually the thought of drinking at the end of the day that got me through it. I had thrived on managing conflict for 20 years, but by that point, I would get physically ill when I received emails about problems clients needed me to solve. I would vomit two to three times a day because of work-related emails. If I was checking emails at home, I would get frustrated and angry at my wife, gaslighting her or dismissing her questions. She learned how to navigate my moods and would talk me down almost every evening. She wanted to believe I had things under control, and I took advantage of that. It’s something I regret to this day.

I became an expert in hiding my addiction and mental health struggles from co-workers. I dressed impeccably and portrayed myself as a strong, organized and ambitious lawyer. I was razor focused at work, and initially, my work didn’t suffer. But eventually, I started showing up to the office drunk for our weekly evening meetings. Other nights, I would go into the office to “catch up” on work. Instead, I would sit alone, drinking in my office. If someone suspected I was drinking more than I should, they never let on. At home, I hid my alcohol in travel mugs. My kids could soon tell between “sober Dad” and “drunk Dad”—and more often than not, I was the latter. One day, my wife patiently told me that if I didn’t get help, she would leave me.

In 2020, I hired a sobriety coach who I spoke to daily, and I began seeing a therapist three times a week, in hopes of salvaging what I’d built. With their help, I went sober later that year, but continued to self-medicate with THC. Most people who take cannabis consume five to 10 milligrams of THC to get high for an evening; I was taking anywhere from 75 to 100 milligrams a day. I couldn’t physically go into work if I wasn’t on mind-altering substances, and I knew I had no choice but to quit my job. I retired from law in December of 2021. It wasn’t until the following March that I took my addiction seriously and spent 30 days in a rehabilitation centre in Montreal. I saw it as war in the trenches: I had to do everything to win.

I can’t help but feel like my industry has failed to address what is widely considered an open secret. Heavy drinking affects anywhere from one in five to one in three lawyers, compared to just 12 per cent of other professionals. Alcohol is as much a part of the legal industry as overwork.

From the educational institutions that train us to the firms that employ us, there is nothing built into our industry to prepare us for the conflict culture, demanding hours and competitiveness that pushes lawyers toward unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyles. On the contrary, I received the most praise and admiration when I sacrificed my mental health to excel at work.

My career in law is now over. I still own the firm, but I can hardly muster the strength to attend meetings—going back there induces PTSD-like symptoms. My head hurts, my stomach churns and I get the same panic attacks I used to get sitting in my truck the morning before work. For now, I’m just trying to take it day by day. I’m a much more involved husband and father, but I’m still making amends for the hurt I caused my family and friends. I want to help other lawyers stuck in the cycle I was in: I’ve launched my own website where I share my story in the hopes that others might learn from it.


—As told to Jared Lindzon and Prarthana Pathak 

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