In support of the well-being of lawyers across the professional spectrum—from students in the classroom to attorneys in all walks of legal life—we have launched a Mental Health Impact Blog Series, in partnership with alumnus Jim Warner ’92. Comprising deeply personal essays by community members who have struggled with mental health issues, the series provides restorative insights and resources to fellow lawyers in need. Read them all here.
The Mental Health Impact Blog Series coincides with a Law School-wide initiative, which will include lectures and workshops to support and promote mental well-being. With this latest post, we are also offering a companion podcast interview with Jim Warner and Mike Cavoto (see below). To get involved in the activities or to write a guest post, contact email@example.com.
By Michael Cavoto ’19
This is my story of experiencing personal loss in law school. I’ve kept some details purposefully short and omitted others. The point of this story is to address loss and how we deal with it (or don’t). I will speak only to my own experiences and conclusions. This story also references sensitive matters, including–but not limited to–suicide. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call, chat, or text 988 to speak to someone.
Law school dominates students’ lives: classes all day, networking events in the evenings, pretending to study in the Yellow Room in the afternoons. It demands full commitment from participants.
The grind doesn’t stop after you graduate. Studying for the bar requires dedication and fresh graduates launch themselves fully into bar prep right after graduation.
Professional life doesn’t give much room for breathing either. Lawyers at the big firms are expected to hit the billable requirement, which usually equates to billing somewhere around 40 hours per week of strictly billable time, without factoring in vacations or holidays.
The common word here is “commitment.” The practice of law demands your attention. So, what happens when you can’t fully commit? What happens when reality plucks you away from coursework and legal practice? The question for me was: how could I advance in my professional life when my personal life was so unstable?
My stepdad Mark died from suicide during my 3L year. It was the most impactful single event of my life.
I wish I could say that it got better after a few months, but it didn’t. I wish I could say that time healed all of my wounds, but it didn’t.
Law school teaches students how to identify problems, not necessarily how to solve them. That was true for me on a personal level. I knew something was wrong, I had a pretty good idea of what caused it, but I had no idea how to fix it. I wasn’t even sure that I had the energy to fix it even if I knew how.
My friends did their best to help, but sometimes the familiar comforts of friendship felt abnormal. After engaging a therapist, I realized I was frustrated because I was experiencing two distinct, conflicting feelings simultaneously: guilt and loneliness. More on that later.
After returning to Boston College, Dean Maris Abbene (now retired) reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to meet her in her office. We didn’t know each other, but Dean Abbene offered me a lifeline. She asked me if I would be willing to eat lunch with her once a week in her office. She was gentle but insistent. We could chat about whatever I wanted to chat about or nothing at all. I cautiously accepted.
In the moment, these lunches with Dean Abbene felt like we weren’t actually solving any problems. It felt like a pleasant distraction. Dean Abbene was a stranger after all, and she made it clear that these lunches weren’t going to be therapy sessions. Even still, I felt her authentic desire to just be present with me in a dark time. It was only much later that I realized how difficult it must’ve been for her to watch my suffering and not be able to give me concrete solutions. She gave me her time, energy, and attention. It helped. It meant a lot to me then and means even more now.
I engaged my friends and family to help. I also began my search for a therapist who would fit my needs, which was more difficult than I expected.
My family, usually my built-in support network, did their best, but they were also struggling with the same feelings of loss and grief. It was hard to find a balance between sharing and listening. Everyone had big feelings and was grappling with the aftermath of tragedy. Conversations were consistently a minefield. Some days, I didn’t want to talk about Mark. I’d avoid conversations about him even though another family member clearly wanted to talk. On other days, roles were reversed. No one could fix anything, and nothing is more frustrating to an aspiring lawyer than a problem without any plausible solutions.
Simultaneously, my wonderful friends constantly checked in on me and made sure I knew that they were always there to support me. But I still felt the distance between us. Why?
I chose a therapist after a difficult journey through health insurance plans (nothing makes you feel safe, secure, and heard like navigating behavioral health payment options with your insurer!) and many introductory sessions.
Through therapy, I began to understand that I felt alienated from my friends and family because there was an emotional distance between us. I couldn’t comprehend that someone might not have lived my experience, but still could support me. My therapist and I discussed that grieving is an incongruent process. No one grieves the same way, and friends might experience their own symptoms of grief even if they weren’t directly exposed to a loss. I began to understand that it’s possible to feel lonely despite genuine attempts by friends to make you feel the opposite. That loneliness compounded internally and led me to judge myself harshly for not being able to reciprocate their efforts.
One of the most important lessons I learned through therapy and reflection is that my support system needs support, too. My friends and family were doing their best to show up for me, but that didn’t mean that I should stop showing up for them. No one is always the best version of themselves at all times, and that’s perfectly OK, but it was important for me to respect that even though I was struggling, I needed to treat my support network with gentleness and compassion.
Ironically, I also realized that I needed to cut myself some slack. My grief wasn’t a problem to be solved. My path was different from my family’s path and different from my friends’ paths. No one has the power to fix everything, not even lawyers. No one has to have everything figured out all of the time.
I continued to process my emotions as my last semester wound down and finals approached. I regimented my days: library in the mornings, classes in the afternoons, work-study job in the evenings, and study group at night. Despite my best efforts, I was distracted most of the time. I could plan my days, but I couldn’t plan my emotions.
I reflected on this after a few particularly tough days. I began to accept the fact that I plainly just missed Mark, and I couldn’t force myself to feel any other way. I had a vice grip on my calendar, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t similarly manhandle what I was feeling. And that was OK. I kept coming back to the idea that there was no “proper” way to grieve. Everyone has their own path, and I was finding mine, clumsily but steadily.
My family and friends all had their own paths to walk. The important thing for me was to remind myself that I needn’t walk alone. Some days, members of my support group were able to help more than on other days. Some days, I was more emotionally available to my support system than on other days. I can only imagine how difficult it was for my friends to watch me oscillate like a sine function.
As time has gone by, I’ve realized that there’s no perfect solution to any of what I’ve written about. The major lesson for me was to be comfortable with being uncomfortable; a lesson any lawyer would have to learn as she begins to practice. Paying attention to my family and friends’ needs was important. Listening to my own needs was just as challenging. It’s a balancing act; one that I never quite mastered.
Eventually, I was able to regain my footing. I graduated, passed the bar, and started practicing. Nothing has quite felt the same as it did before Mark died, but I’ve accepted that change like this is a part of life. A lawyer’s job is to identify and solve problems, but not every problem can be solved in real life. Grief comes for us all. Whether you’re a law student, a firm associate, or a Supreme Court Justice, all l can suggest to you is that you be patient with yourself when confronted with something that feels all-encompassing.
When I feel overwhelmed, I keep coming back to the fact that everyone’s path is different, and it’s hard to predict where those paths intersect. But if you listen closely, you’ll hear the crunching leaves of those walking beside you even if it’s sometimes too dark to see.
Michael Cavoto graduated from BC Law in 2019. He is an Associate Counsel at Thrive Global. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SERVICES AND RESOURCES
This blog series is meant to shine a light on the often hidden epidemic of mental health struggles felt by so many in the legal profession and beyond, and to share personal stories and insights into recovery. It is not meant to provide professional advice or counseling. If you are struggling, below is a list of resources you may find helpful. If you are in crisis and this is an emergency, please call 911.
For a list of services offered to students, faculty and staff through the University and the Law School, visit https://www.bc.edu/content/bc-web/schools/law/sites/students/community/health-and-wellness.html
Individual counseling and psychotherapy consultations are available at BC Law (Alumni House, Room 112). Call 617-552-3310 and ask for an appointment with the Newton Campus clinician. Law students may also meet with any of the clinicians at University Counseling Services main campus location at Gasson Hall Suite 001 (140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467). Students can schedule an appointment at the main campus location by calling 617-552-3310 or visiting Gasson Hall Suite 001. Interactive campus map
Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL) (31 Milk Street, Suite 810, Boston, MA; (617) 482-9600; helpline: (800) 525-0210; https://www.lclma.org/) is a confidential counseling and referral resource for lawyers and current law students. LCL offers help for alcohol and drug abuse, stress, depression, work, family, marital issues, mental health and other personal issues.
The Association of American Law Schools had compiled a set of materials and resources for law deans concerned about student mental health and well-being, the Law Deans Clearinghouse for Student Mental Health. Although meant specifically for deans, it has a number of valuable resources for others.
Lawyers Depression Project: online peer-to-peer group for legal professionals
Lawyers with Depression: resources for stress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession
Institute for Well-Being in Law: dedicated to the betterment of the legal profession by focusing on a holistic approach to well-being. Through advocacy, research, education, technical and resource support, and stakeholders’ partnerships, they are driven to lead a culture shift in law to establish health and well-being as core centerpieces of professional success. Note: BC Law grad Shailini George ’93 is a board member.