Four years into my budding legal career, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II. I was 30 years old, with suffocating amounts of law-school debt, facing the real possibility that my legal career was over before it ever really started. Lawyers are supposed to provide rational, logical, and sound advice in the most stressful and difficult of situations. How could a client or employer ever trust a lawyer with a mental-illness that manifests itself with extremely irrational and illogical behavior? I asked myself this question on a daily basis as I tried to maintain my mental stability working in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of litigation.
When I received my diagnosis, I was commuting three hours a day to work for one of the preeminent firms in my field. Although I was a young lawyer, I had extensive trial experience and a knack for the practice, so I was quickly given the responsibility of handling multi-million dollar Federal Court cases with strict deadlines and no room for error. This led to working 14-18 hour days, 7 days a week, with no ability to maintain a healthy “work-life” balance because my life was my work. This type of lifestyle would no doubt cause even the most mentally tough individuals to crack, let alone someone with a predisposition to depression and hypomania.
I was terrified on a daily basis that someone might learn about my diagnosis and deem me unfit for the practice of law. Hiding and protecting my secret became as important to me as protecting my clients’ work-product and trade-secrets. I felt, to some extent, that I was leading a double life. While at the office, I put up a front so no one would suspect I was suffering inside but, the moment I left work, I would fall apart and become self-destructive.
As the responsibilities and pressure for perfection continued to build, I began to unravel. Eventually, the stress of the practice was more than I could manage, and I was ready to completely walk away from a career that had been my dream for as long as I could remember. I knew deep down I did not want to leave the practice of law but I also knew I could not sacrifice myself and my sanity just so I could be an attorney.
How Hillary Got Help
There had to be a better way to live and work. I needed help to learn how to manage the stress of the practice and crippling depression that I was experiencing. I started seeing a therapist regularly and spent the next few years trying various medications to manage my Bipolar II. Through therapy, I learned how to recognize my triggers and how to correct my behavior immediately to prevent myself from slipping into a depression.
Mental illness is extremely individualized and the “prescription” that works for me will not necessarily work for someone else. My “prescription” for maintaining mental health and stability requires medication, exercise, and decompression whether it be through meditation, journaling, or sleep. Rest is an extremely important part of my regimen for managing my mental illness. If I run myself down or stretch myself too thin, it can have disastrous consequences.
Like a diabetic, I will spend every day of the rest of my life managing my illness and, like an elite athlete, I will continue my regimen of training to ensure I continue to perform at my peak. There is no doubt that it is possible to live with mental illness and become a successful, respected, and productive member of the legal community. Just know, if you suffer from mental illness, you are not alone. There are people who can and want to help you, but you first need to want to help yourself.
If you are struggling with mental health or substance abuse, contact the Florida Lawyers Assistance Program for help:
Hillary is a partner and co-founder of Cassel & Cassel, P.A. in Hollywood, Florida. A former Assistant State Attorney, Hillary now represents policyholders in litigation against their insurers. She has earned an AV Preeminent Rating by Martindale-Hubbell and was also named 2018 Top Rated Lawyer in Insurance Law.