The past few years have given many of us, for better or for worse, a chance to ponder our own mortality.
On an unassuming Friday afternoon in late November of 2019, I began to feel weird. I noticed I was anxious and unusually aware of my heartbeat. I chalked it up to a long week at work; I drank some wine with dinner and tried to relax and get a good night’s sleep. On Saturday morning I felt fine; we walked to the farmer’s market, saw friends, and played with the kids at the playground. It was only later in the day that I again became aware of my heartbeat. It felt like my heart was racing, working harder than usual, faster than usual, in a way that felt unfamiliar. I took some ibuprofen and went to bed early, but when I woke up at 5 am I felt exactly the same: anxious, heart racing, unfamiliar, weird.
Unfortunately, as with most maladies, if you Google “heart attack symptoms” there is little chance you’ll conclude all is well. Instead, you’ll discover that heart attack symptoms can include a racing heart, faintness, dizziness, chest pains, breathing difficulties, tightness in the chest, and anxiety. I stared out the window for a few moments, cataloging my perceived ailments while looking at the trees and the clouds, and recalled an article I once read about how the shorter life expectancy of men is partially explained by their failure to seek out appropriate medical care.
I woke up my wife. I told her I didn’t feel right, had some symptoms of a heart attack, and was going to drive myself (dumb) to the hospital to make sure everything was okay (smart). She was immediately wide awake, flanked by our two sleeping children and 4 months pregnant with our third. We embraced and I walked out into the cold pre-dawn light.
The drive to the hospital was short and uneventful. I still felt weird. Walking into the ER entrance and up to the desk made me feel weirder. They took my vitals and hooked me up to an ECG machine. I surveyed the various devices in the room, recognizing some from patent cases I had worked on. The ECG machine showed what appeared to be a normal heart beat.
The doctor wandered in. No heart attack. My ECG and vitals looked fine. My blood pressure was high but dropped significantly after I was told I wasn’t having a heart attack. I was to follow up with a cardiologist and my general practitioner. The weirdness abated.
I picked up donuts on the way home for the girls and that afternoon bought my wife two Christmas trees.
After several days of taking it easy, I began to work my way through the medical system. Human hearts and bodies are monstrously complex, but even if a physical malady wasn’t apparent in those few minutes hooked up into an ECG machine, I had to believe that one was the culprit.
Over the weeks and months, however, the doctors concluded that my heart and I were generally healthy. My cholesterol was a bit high and I could lose a few pounds. I still felt the urge to do something. Maybe it was the cholesterol? I decided to go vegan for a while and cut out all animal products from my diet. A plant-based diet is hardly a silver bullet cholesterol-wise, but it felt good to take action even if I knew I was still missing a key piece of the puzzle. (Plant-based Sam is a topic for another blog post.)
I began telling select people about my experience. Eventually, someone suggested that I might have had a “panic attack.” Panic attacks can, apparently, present themselves much like a heart attack: anxiety, a racing heart, breathing difficulties, and tightness in the chest. Although they can be triggered by moments of acute stress, they can also occur somewhat randomly as a result of lifestyle stressors.
Lifestyle stressors were easy to find: I was a big law litigation associate and family man, with two small children and a third on the way. Parenthood and big law arrived within the same two month span and entirely restructured my life. See, e.g., Chapter 160 (“Lauren’s Lasagna” and “Lucy’s Pasta and Tiny Cheese”). Even compared to attending law school while working full time, big law litigating-while-parenting was a challenge. And unlike law school, where your stress usually peaks during your first year, my litigating-while-parenting journey kept adding new complications: my first appellate brief, my first deposition, another child, my first oral hearing, my first trial, yet another child, etc. I have the most wonderful spouse and partner in parenthood, Jess, and many wonderful legal colleagues, but every once in a while the waves would all collide and I’d have to choose between being a bad husband and father, a bad colleague, or (through sleep-deprivation) a bad mammal. Too often it was a bit of all three.
Still, I felt like something was missing from my health picture. When the waves weren’t all colliding, I loved being a litigator. Chalking what happened up to litigating-while-parenting didn’t feel like an honest answer. Maybe it was just an inconvenient answer. I focused on taking care of myself and my family, delegating and managing my time at work, and giving myself space to process the world around me.
That was about the time that the pandemic hit.
Much of the world was upended by the pandemic. My wife and I were privileged to be able to work remotely, reobtain childcare (eventually), find life-saving support from friends in various COVID-bubbles, and celebrate an extended network of family and friends that (mostly) took things seriously and have remained healthy. All that said, the complete shutdown of our lives concurrent with the birth of our son was and will remain an extraordinary moment. Parenting tiny humans during a global pandemic is a scar many of us will wear forever.
Despite these obvious stresses and the slow descent into a new reality, something about the pandemic was … calming. I didn’t notice it at first, but the time window of what I worried about had shortened considerably. Expectations were lower. Everyone’s big, long term plans were thrown out the window, at least temporarily. Sort of like camping during a rainstorm; all you had to do was stay inside and pass the time to accomplish something important.
Embracing this sense of groundlessness — of recognizing that you had little control over your life — was freeing. Instead of agonizing over what I could not control, I focused on the present. I wasn’t very stressed over COVID after the initial transition. I could follow the best practices and the rest was out of my control. Success was surviving, medically and financially, the next few years.
Immediately before the pandemic, however, success had looked a lot more complicated.
Way back in the summer of 2019, and several months before my trip to the ER, the law firm brought me and every other 5th year associate to its headquarters for a week-long “mid-level associates” retreat. We mingled, attended career development seminars, and talked to distinguished senior partners and alumni about their paths through the law. With one large and looming exception, it was a phenomenal event. That exception was the realization that there were around five times as many 5th year associates at the retreat as the number of associates that made partner the previous year (generally 9th or 10th years).
Big law, by design, grinds a sea of talented associates into a smaller group of junior partners, who then manage, leverage, and grind the next group of talented associates using the same process (and are themselves managed by more senior partners). This model means that for every future junior partner in the group there were three or four mid-level associates destined for another path. Maybe that path meant joining a peer firm in need of a partner-track candidate, or maybe a smaller regional or boutique firm. Maybe it meant a governmental or in-house position. It could even lead to running a taco truck or a bed and breakfast. For 75-80% of the people in that room, however, it would not lead to a long term position at the firm. (This up-or-out attrition model is common for most big professional service firms.) And even those associates who were elevated to partners had new and significant responsibilities: they became junior management and had to oversee budgets, generate business, etc., all in addition to the day-to-day grind of being a lawyer and the pressure to maintain their position as partner. (That pressure can, in some cases, become unbearable.)
Every big law associate eventually dies: they are either reborn as a partner, leave big law, or collapse at their desk. What I came to realize was how tightly my identity was wound up with my big, fancy law firm job. The upcoming partnership shakeup messed with the assumptions underlying that identity: a successful professional, a solver of puzzles, and a provider for my family. I was scared of being put up for partner and failing, and having to retreat into some mundane “backup” job that did not challenge me. I was scared of making partner and having to take on ever more stress and responsibility, to the neglect of my health and family. And I was also scared of having to put myself out on the job market as some sort of presumed failure if I left before I was put up for partner. The uncertainty of it all messed with my confidence that I could provide support and security for my growing family, yet the ticking clock meant Sam the Associate was on borrowed time.
Until the pandemic and its opportunity for self-reflection, I had no idea how deep that stress had taken root. It added a new meaning to wanting to do a good job with a brief or a deposition. It changed the tenor of building new professional relationships or taking on new projects. And it had put an extra, unnoticed focus on a high profile matter I had been working on during that fateful week in November of 2019.
It would be a bit reductive to conclude that the fear of not-making-partner gave me a panic attack. But stress can come from a variety of sources, including a fear of professional change. The fear that however well I was making “it” work now would further fall apart in a few years as part of this upcoming shakeup. I bottled that fear up, un-analyzed, and let it stew until it found its own, unexpected way out.
The panic attack (or whatever it was) in combination with the pandemic gave me an opportunity to think about my own personal and professional mortality. I thought about how, rather than deciding where I wanted to go with my career, I had allowed myself to follow the default path set by the firm. The pressure of that path grew and grew until it was taken away, temporarily, by the pandemic’s shift of focus from long-term to short-term success. I thought about how I had avoided figuring out what long-term personal success looked like. Success as a husband and father, as a professional, and as a mammal. Whether that success involved being a litigator. Whether I wanted to work at a firm. Whether I wanted to even practice law.
In the end, it’s embarrassing how much I had let one idea of professional success creep into my definition of personal success. I may never entirely untangle that mess. But I did manage to let go of the idea that partnership at my firm had any relation to my long-term personal success. It was just a job, one to be considered with all the other jobs. It wasn’t an issue of making it or failing, it was a choice between what I would do once Sam the Associate’s time was up. That changed perspective was valuable as the post-pandemic pace of litigation picked up and an interesting opportunity at a technology company landed in my lap.
Sam the Associate might be dying, but what came next for Sam the Mammal was up to me.