In addition, he said, law students generally start school with their sense of self and their values intact. But, in his research, he said, he has found that the formal structure of law school starts to change that.
Rather than hew to their internal self, students begin to focus on external values, he said, like status, comparative worth and competition. “We have seven very strong studies that show this twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility,” he said.
Academics often study law students because students are considered a bellwether for the profession. “They are the canaries in the coal mine,” Dr. Benjamin said.
Will Miller, the lawyer and former methamphetamine addict, said that in his experience, law school encouraged students to take emotion out of their decisions. “When you start reinforcing that with grades and money, you aren’t just suppressing your emotions,” he said. “You’re fundamentally changing who you are.”
Research studying lawyers’ happiness supports this notion. “The psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers,” Lawrence Krieger, a professor at Florida State University College of Law, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, wrote in their 2015 paper “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” Conversely, they wrote, “the factors most emphasized in law schools — grades, honors and potential career income — have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.”
After students began law school they experienced “a marked increase in depression, negative mood and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction,” the professors wrote.
Students also shed some of their idealism. Within the first year of law school, students’ motivation for studying law and becoming lawyers shifted from “helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values.”
Young lawyers in treatment at the Center for Network Therapy, an ambulatory detox facility in Middlesex, N.J., frequently tell Dr. Indra Cidambi, the medical director, that the reality of working as a lawyer does not match what they had pictured while in law school. She has found that law students often drink and use drugs until they start their first job. After that, Dr. Cidambi said, “it’s mostly alcohol, until they are established as senior associates or partners and they move back to opiates.”
“These aren’t the majority of lawyers,” she added. “But there are quite a number abusing drugs, and once they get to heroin, it’s very hard to break it.”
For the last two years of his life, every time Peter and I were together — whether it was back-to-school night, our son’s cross country meets or our daughter’s high school graduation — people would ask me if he was O.K. They asked if he had cancer, an eating disorder, a metabolic disorder, AIDS. But they never asked about drugs.
Drugs didn’t cross my mind, either. Not even the day I found his body, surrounded by drug paraphernalia, and called 911.
That day in Peter’s house, the emergency medical workers told me right away that it was probably a drug overdose. I remember saying, “That’s impossible.” After all, I said, he was a partner at a law firm. He had an Ivy League education.
“How could that be?” I asked one of them. “He was so smart.”
ID around her neck and clipboard on her lap, she nodded at me with a look of understanding. “We see a lot of this now,” she said, meaning wealthy, accomplished men and women who start out with pain pills and graduate to amphetamines or heroin.
As I cleared out Peter’s house after he died, I found receipts from medical-supply companies that had delivered things like bandages and tourniquets to his office address. Yet I don’t think addiction crossed the mind of anyone he worked with, either.
Law firms are often reluctant to discuss substance abuse with their lawyers. The reason is not a malicious one, said Terry Harrell, a lawyer, substance abuse counselor and chairwoman of the A.B.A. Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs. Law-firm leadership, she said, doesn’t really know what signs to look for when it comes to addiction. And when it’s happening, she said, they are so busy themselves, “they just don’t see it.”
When asked what the American Bar Association is doing to help combat mental health and substance abuse, Linda Klein, its president, said the A.B.A.’s requirement for continuing professional development and education “recommends that lawyers be required to take one credit of programming every three years that focuses on mental health or substance abuse disorders.” She added that “by requiring lawyers to attend such programs periodically, the hope is that these concerns will be reduced.”
It’s difficult, though, to imagine that one class every three years would have prevented Peter — or anyone else — from becoming an addict. Real change, experts and recovering addicts say, needs to happen at the law-firm level, but that is complicated by an entrenched culture of privacy combined with an allegiance to billable hours.
Ms. Smith, the lawyer formerly of Pillsbury Winthrop, says she doesn’t know what her previous firm knew or didn’t know about her substance abuse. “They never said a thing to me,” she said. “And during that entire time I was an addict, I didn’t get a single negative performance review.”
Edward Flanders, managing partner in Pillsbury’s Manhattan office, said the firm was not aware of Ms. Smith’s substance abuse issues when she was there. Ms. Smith spoke about her experience to the firm’s New York City employees in March.
“Hearing about her experience was pretty eye-opening for the firm, and it’s not something we want anyone else to have to go through alone,” Mr. Flanders said.
Recalling Missed Signals
I’ve spent the past two years marinating in this mess, trying my best to navigate things like the byzantine probate process and my children’s broken hearts. I firmly believe that law-firm culture, particularly at big firms, has to become more compassionate and more aware of the signs that one of their own is struggling.
Looking back, I can see the signs I missed.
There was the time our son broke his wrist playing soccer four years ago and was prescribed Vicodin; Peter rifled through my medicine cabinet looking for the leftovers. “I use them for my back,” he said.
There was the holiday concert in which our son’s band was performing where Peter showed up late and jittery, looking so thin that I noticed his head seemed too big for his neck. After the show I walked with him to his car, and he complained that he was getting pushback from his firm about working from home so much.
“I’m more productive at home, but they have to see me, physically, in the office,” he said. “They don’t think I’m working if I’m not there.”
They were right.
And there was the time in early 2015 when my son told me Peter had received a shipment from Amazon that he had opened at the dining room table, pulling out boxes of syringes, bandages, cotton balls and wound cleanser. Peter explained it away as simply stocking up on medical supplies.
My son was puzzled by that. But by then his father’s behavior had become so strange, this almost seemed normal. “I just put my headphones on,” my son told me, “and said, ‘I have to do homework.’”
Years ago, when Peter was still a relatively new associate, he would joke that the perfect drug for him would be the combination of an antidepressant, a pain reliever and a stimulant. When I cleaned out his house, I found the ingredients for it: Vicodin, Tramadol, Adderall, cocaine, Xanax, crystal meth and a kaleidoscope of pills I couldn’t identify, but not for lack of trying.
Yet even as addiction was taking over his life, Peter continued working. In the notebooks he used to keep track of injection times and dosages, he also made cryptic notes about client calls and meetings, lists of things needed to prepare documents, filing deadlines.
Being a patent lawyer is intellectually grueling work, and Peter was good at it — really good at it — for a long time. Perhaps the arrogance that grows from a profession in which your advice is worth $600 an hour is what allowed him to believe he didn’t need to ask for help, that he could kick this on his own. Just another item on his lengthy to-do list.
In fact, while cleaning out his house I found a list of New Year’s resolutions Peter wrote in December 2014, tucked into the bottom of a dresser drawer. “Run three races, spend more time with kids,” his note to himself read.
And in red marker, the word “quit.”