I can't stop thinking about this very sad story. It is the story of a BigLaw associate named Lisa Johnstone who recently died of an alleged heart attack while she was working from her California home on a Sunday. She was only thirty-two. That's my age.
I don't write about law as much these days. And this makes sense because I practiced for less than two years and my time at the firm is no longer a huge part of my identity. But. But that time affected me. It affected me profoundly. It woke me up. It prompted me to write an entire novel about this world.
And so. I have something to say. And I will say it.
While I was working at the firm, I was not exactly miserable. I was not miserable because I was very young and relatively untethered and pumped full of energy and optimism and caffeine. I was not miserable because I knew I would not be there for long; I did not have loans to repay and knew that I could walk away at any point. This fact - I realized then, and realize now - was a tremendous privilege. I have never taken this for granted, this ability to say no.
I was not miserable, but I was anxious. I slept with my BlackBerry on the bedside. I did not sleep well. I drank too much caffeine and too much wine. I was petrified of screwing up, of disappointing my superiors. In short, I was neither happy nor really very healthy. And - in these regards - I fit right in.
During my short stint at the firm, I saw people who were completely miserable. People who were anxious and exhausted and scared. I saw people who were working harder than any human should have to, people who were motivated by money and prestige and plain old survival. I saw people who were consistently testing the limits of body and mind and soul to just to keep going.
Apparently - and I will be clear that I never knew this girl and am not privy to the details of her story - Johnstone was one such person. Apparently, she was working very hard, too hard, and the hours and the stress were taking their toll. Apparently, she was billing 100+ hour weeks and losing her hair.
I repeat this word - apparently - because I want to be exceedingly careful here. I don't know what really happened. What I do know is that this is something of a cautionary tale and it hits me - even years after I walked away, years after I was able to walk away. What I do know is that something tragic happened, a life was lost. What I do know is that this woman, this girl, was my age. What I do know is that she was working from home on a Sunday and that her heart gave out. This should not happen.
As is so often the case with my posts, I'm not sure what the point here is. I think it has something to do with the fact that life is short and fragile and that we need to take care of ourselves. I think it has something to do with the fact that certain professions and practices should be looked at closely. I think it has something to do with the fact that I feel tremendously fortunate, and even a bit guilty, that I was able to walk away from the world and the ways that maybe, just maybe, spelled Johnstone's end.
Again, I don't know much. But I know enough. To feel this. To write this.
Have you ever worked a job where you felt that health and happiness was profoundly threatened? Do you agree that stress and exhaustion can adversely affect us, even those of us who are relatively young? Do you think that the competitive world of prestigious corporations will ever change?