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Ex-Skadden Lawyer Recalls Emotional Struggles in New Memoir

Nov. 16, 2020, 5:57 PM

A former Big Law attorney is drawing from the stresses of her career to tell a story of addictive behaviors, emotional struggles, and recovery through the power of group therapy in a new book.

Group therapy rips “off the masks that we wear at work,” Christie Tate said of her new memoir. The book contrasts her personal turmoil with her buttoned-up professional life as an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in the 2000s.

“Group. How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life,” was released in late October and quickly climbed the New York Times’ hardcover nonfiction bestsellers list, reaching No.6. It has also gained wider attention as the November pick for actor Reese Witherspoon’s book club.

Tate, 47, struggled for years with an eating disorder, an unfocused career and dead-end romances, she said.

She chose law school to vault her into a career that served as a “culturally approved-of beard for my dismal personal life,” she writes in the book. But embarking on a busy professional life wasn’t enough to outrun her self-loathing and loneliness.

“I dove into law to hide from my personal demons. I was going to have power and money and I told myself I’d find a way to be satisfied with that,” Tate said in a recent interview. “The traits of addicts have a lot of overlap with those who choose Big Law: perfectionistic, driven, intense. Addictive qualities are exacerbated by the pressure and loneliness of Big Law.”

She started writing the book five years ago, when little about lawyer problems with substance abuse, depression, and anxiety was publicly recognized. In 2016, a major study highlighting the prevalence of such problems in the legal profession began to draw attention from firms.

That study from the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found about 28% of attorneys struggled with depression, 19% with anxiety, and 23% with stress. Between 21% and 36% attorneys qualified as problem drinkers, a notably higher rate than other professional populations.

“We all knew that there were people with problems with alcohol, but we didn’t have a way to discuss it. Any weakness was not good,” Tate recalled from her law practice years.

Diving into her work didn’t help.

“I did a lot of document review in the early years, looking for a smoking gun in a case. On a big case, you worked for 12 hours a day until the sun goes down then you come back and do it again. The loneliness I was experiencing in my personal life was really mirrored at Skadden. You have to be buttoned up at work, there was not a lot of feedback and I felt so tired of being afraid and alone.”

While laboring to meet her billable hour targets at Skadden’s Chicago office, she was squeezing in as many as three therapy sessions a week at nearby meetings. There she was required to spill every single thing — sexual, bodily, quirky, obsessive, even loathsome — to the group. The therapist, who she calls Dr. Jonathan Rosen, a pseudonym, tells her to unburden it all, and leave behind secrets and shame.

Tate said such therapy — a process “which breaks you down and then reassembles you so that all the pieces finally fit,” according to the book jacket — is not widely known and understood.

In 2010, Tate, who met her husband at Skadden (he has since left the firm) moved on briefly to Epstein, Becker & Green, also in Chicago. The mother of two, she has since been a blogger, a legal writing professor, and a government attorney. She decided to chronicle her group therapy experience so people can see there are different ways to get help.

Tate, who still works as an attorney, believes so strongly in the process of radical honesty that after more than 19 years, she is continuing group therapy.

“Sometimes I say I consider myself a lifer.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson in Washington at egolson1@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story: Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com
Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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