Sit down. Put your feet up. Close the door, and put the calls on hold. I want a few minutes of your time. I want to talk to you about Philip Roth, the practice of law and, that most exciting topic of all, professional responsibility. The topic here is humility, as in the act of becoming humble. And suicide.
Lawyers are magicians. Much like writers we take masses of raw experience and transform them into utile forms. These transformations are a sort of alchemy. We can pass title, set men free, bind parties into perpetuity, and, insofar as money can, we say with a wink and a nod, rectify harm. It’s no small wonder that we acquire a second-hand sense of immortality and invulnerability.
But we all owe nature a death, and, before death, a reckoning.
Sometimes that reckoning comes simply with the passage of time. Once quick hands falter, and we lose a step, then another. One day the fight simply seems too much, and something irreplaceable snaps.
Thus the protagonist in Philip Roth’s new book, The Humbling. An aging actor loses his confidence, and thus his touch. He recedes into depression, and loses his wife, and then, briefly, his mind. He reawakens and turns to a species of love he once reveled in for revival. When that fails, he simply loses hope. The end is sadly predictable: the actor’s final role is to star in his own suicide. The death angers. It is unnecessary and feels, as all suicides do, like a betrayal.
I read Roth with a compulsive fascination. Each year, he produces a new book. Each year, he writes with grace about the contours of a world vividly felt and splendidly realized in beautiful prose. But, each year, he depresses me more and more. Roth knows one thing and one thing only: desire. And as that desire ebbs, so does his reason for living. His recent fiction represents not just the failure of a center to hold, but the collapse of the world into a vortex of spent longing.
Roth could just as easily be writing about the legal profession these days. Accounts of lawyer suicide appear to be on the rise. The ABA journal carried a report the other day of a lawyer who took the final exit rather than face the fact that his once confident grip on the law was faltering. And a Connecticut lawyer ended his life earlier this month as debts mounted. He was a real estate attorney who enjoyed decades of successful practice and an unblemished disciplinary record. As the real estate market dried up, so did his practice; somehow his will to live also evaporated.
Economic pressure is evident everywhere in the practice of law. A friend of mine recently laid off a couple of people. Common chatter in the courthouse is of slow phones, slower payers and a bewildering sense of awakening in a strange new world. Bills, however, keep coming, and so do new rules regarding the practice of law, and then there’s the ever present sense that the Internet threatens to drive the marginal cost of all professional services to zero. Old practice models are dying hard.
I write about these things as though I am visiting from another world. But I thought I saw the wolf peering into my doorway the other day. The stale yellow of his eyes, and foreign scent of his breath made me shudder. No one is immune, he seemed to tell me, from the press of necessity. He stared long and hard before loping away into the dark, turning once to remind again with unwavering eye against the sin of pride.
I sat for long moments thinking of a friend’s suicide note. He killed himself a few months back after an adverse ruling in a case. I miss him still, and wish I could talk to him now. I wish I had been a better friend, a friend to one in a need who I was too busy to see.
Suicide is not the answer. We remain a service profession. We are ambassadors for other people’s woes, and we cannot serve them if we are undone by our own concerns. But we are not immune to life’ s storms, and when harsh winds blow we, too, must seek shelter and a beacon. Let that beacon be honor, not fallen pride.
I asked you to close the door when you read this. This will strike a nerve in a few of you who are close to an unspeakable edge. If you cannot serve, let a fellow lawyer serve you. Call someone to ask for help. Call me if you must. I do not have many answers, but I know where to find them.
Reprinted courtesy of the The Connecticut Law Tribune