Law in Contemporary Society

Something Split, Regulation, and The Richard Cory Effect

-- By MolissaFarber - 14 May 2009

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king, 

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place. 

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, 

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

-- “Richard Cory,” Edwin Arlington Robinson

Introduction, Set-Up, Thesis

I can’t stop thinking about suicide. Not my own suicide (to be completely, 100% crystal clear about this, such a thing has never been on my personal agenda). A few weeks ago, a D.C. attorney shot himself in his office after being laid off. It’s horrific and sad, and the part that keeps echoing in my mind isn’t the part where we ask why an accomplished attorney would do such a thing.

It’s the email auto-response. I can’t get the auto-response out of my mind. Before putting a bullet through his head on the morning of April 30, he set up a Microsoft Office email auto-response saying simply:

"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."

In this paper, I use sociological models to suggest that the regulation inherent in the culture of law is strong enough to produce a split of the kind discussed by Larry Joseph in Lawyerland; a split so fundamental that someone would make sure to perform the professional courtesy of setting up an informative auto-response before ending his own life.

I recognize the sensitivity of an awful event like this, and I do not want to focus on the specifics of this man or that firm. Rather, I want to seek an understanding of how this fits into the frameworks we’ve created this semester.

Durkheim on Suicide and Regulation

In Suicide, Durkheim used social indicators of integration and regulation to explain the decision to commit suicide. One type, anomistic suicide, involves the experience of a disconnect between one’s own norms and the new norms of society as a result of dramatic changes in social or economic conditions. The individual is traumatized by a sudden shift into a state of de-regulation (“anomie”).

In discussing the “regulation” of the legal culture, I am not talking about the kind of regulations that are made in Congress. I am instead referring to regulation in this Durkheimian sense, indicating a presence of social norms and control.

Law Firms as a Regulatory Culture

“The recruit comes into the establishment with a conception of himself [based on] stable social arrangements in his home world. Upon entrance, he is immediately stripped of the support provided by these arrangements. ...He begins a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self. ...He begins some radical shifts in his moral career, a career composed of the progressive changes that occur in the beliefs he has concerning himself and significant others.”

This quote is Irving Goffman’s description of mental patients and other inmates, but its similarity to law firms - and law school, for that matter - is striking. Throughout the semester, we have discussed our various fears of the law firm. In KahlilWilliamsFirstPaper, Kahlil writes of accepting a job at a firm, “I shook hands with the recruiter, contemplated death, [ed. Presumably at Eben’s hands?] and...tried to assess how much of my soul I stood to lose in 10 weeks.” What are these places that we mystify so much?

Goffman calls them “total institutions.” The total institution is a closed world and the regulation is all-encompassing. Incidentally, where one makes the voluntary choice to integrate into the institution, Goffman says, “what is cleanly severed by the institution is something that had already started to decay.” He doesn't specifically discuss law firms, the description provided above - coming from a stable (is it fair to say “risk-averse”?) environment, being isolated from family (long work hours?), abasements (doc review) - seems to fit with the little we all know about firms.

How It Plays Out For Us

Wylie suggests in “Something Split” that lawyering produces a “poison in [your] brain...which, psychologically, manifests itself in one of twoat ways - in violence against others, or in violence against oneself.” Indeed, the ABA recently held a CLE session entitled, “ What Lawyers Need to Know About Suicide During a Recession: Prevention, Identity and Law Firm Responsibility.” In their abstract for this event, they wrote, “Attorneys...have the highest rates of depression and suicide of any profession.” Along these lines, The National Law Journal recently published an article about depression in the legal community, In it, they explain that “The typical attorney personality and training actually are barriers to treating emotional problems and substance abuse...Always being in control, not showing weakness and being assertive are not necessarily the characteristics that lend themselves to treating emotional problems.”

Wylie suspects that the moral compromises we make are what lead to the split, but if law firms are anywhere near as regulatory as Goffman suggests, perhaps the split actually could emerge from the culture and structure rather than the number of oil spills we refuse to compensate.

Does this mean we’re all going to become suicidal if we work at large firms? No, of course not - at least, I hope not. But if it is the case that it is the culture and not the work that splits us, then we’re all going to need to watch out. To the degree to which our GoodLeads involve doing nice happy work at firms, we may be ignoring the total reality of the institution.

In addition to the works cited in this paper, I also consulted Rebecca D. Farber, Research Paper: Crime, Law, and Society (Dec. 13, 2006) (unpublished draft submitted to the Bryn Mawr College Sociology Department).

  • I think this is a very promising beginning, but I don't think you've quite attained coherence yet. If the point under investigation is whether attorney suicide is anomistic, resulting from the totalising environment of large law firms, looking at the statistics to see if those are the lawyers committing suicide might be helpful. The Richard Cory epigraph, and title, suggest something else, because there is no suggestion that his death results from anomistic drama. If then, you are pursuing a complex mystery rather than a sociological illustration, and not regarding too closely the real-life incident from which you begin, something less firm-related would make sense later on. And if, as I can't help but feel, you are really trying to think about the email auto-response that you can't get out of your head, a little speculative personality psychology is in order.


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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:43:14 - IanSullivan
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