Now this is a remarkable omission at a time when the contemporary legal press (plus even mainstream media like CNN) are talking about unhappy, depressed and even suicidal lawyers. It is also unfortunate in a period when so many members of the population at large are obviously alienated from members of the legal profession, regarding them as disconnected, heartless, and even fundamentally inhuman (thus the proliferation of lawyer jokes depicting lawyers as lizards and snakes). Maybe exploring the historical reality of lawyers' feelings, and their reactions to those feelings, would help us acknowledge and better manage a critical part of our lives that we have hitherto sought to suppress. Maybe if we shared those stories with others outside our profession it would help them understand that lawyers are people too.
So where do we begin? Lawyers' emotions have inevitably left their mark on the entire sweep of lawyering history, but there are certain periods, at least in the record of American lawyering, when they come to the professional fore and leave a distinct imprint. One of these periods is (no pun intended) the Great Depression. Prior to a few years ago there was remarkably little written about the plight of many practicing lawyers during these years. Since 2008, some people seem to be taking more interest. The diary of one Depression-era lawyer, Benjamin Roth, was published in 2010. Although Roth wrote about many subjects apart from law practice in his journal, he obviously knew things were not going well in his profession, and that left him troubled: "It is very disagreeable as well as unprofitable to practice law these days. The work is of a destructive nature such as foreclosure, receivership and bankruptcies... As to fees – well, they have shrunk beyond recognition and in some cases we are offered pass books on closed banks, etc.."
In Ohio, however, Roth himself was slightly sheltered from the worst of the downturn, at least as his fellow lawyers experienced it. In Manhattan in 1933, half of all lawyers were living below the poverty line. Some desperately attempted to hang on to shrinking books of business while their clients faltered and failed around them. Others gave up law practice in whole or in part, looking for alternative employment as insurance agents, title searchers, policemen or really anything remotely remunerative. Some got to the point where they took a pauper's oath and applied for federal relief.
The impact of the Depression on these lawyers was tremendous. For what was probably the first time in their professional careers, their lives were out of control. They faced the prospect of poverty and failure with families to support and personal reputations to uphold. They struggled and inevitably, they hurt. One upscale New York lawyer who left a remarkable record of his own despair was Phelan Beale, a partner with Jacqueline Kennedy's grandfather in a small Broadway firm. In a letter to his estranged wife, he said that his "desperate situation" had forced his firm to lay off support staff and was now forcing him to stop paying for private school for his children. He was about to move himself into a "bachelor hotel" to save money. But he tried to console his correspondent, and perhaps himself: "I am not giving up, although at times there is great temptation to take the easiest way out. It will not be the first time that I have met with a major catastrophe. When the war broke out in 1914, all of my German business was destroyed and I found myself facing a situation similar to the present, although then it was not as burdensome as I was unmarried." It was nonetheless a lot to bear, and Beale was near the end of his rope. He concluded: "There is nothing more to write just at this moment, because I must leave in the next five minutes to get the airplane to Washington. I do hope that the machine crashes, because it would be a pleasant exit of a very tired man."
Other lawyers in New York and elsewhere who had less cushion than Beale were even more desperate, and their despair and hopelessness drove them to actual suicide. We get a glimpse into their lives and deaths in the pages of the contemporary New York Times. The Times, then as now, was a relatively high-end paper. As such, it can hardly be considered a comprehensive chronicle, even for the New York area. There were many lawyer stories (and doubtless suicides) that it did not deem "fit to print." But it's nonetheless noteworthy that between 1929 and 1939 the number of lawyer suicides reported in the Times spiked as lawyers tried to deal with economic collapse and the prospect or actuality of failure. In 1930 four lawyer suicide stories specifically mentioned "financial reverses" or "financial troubles" as a probable cause of self-inflicted demise. In 1931 there were also four, in 1933 (apparently the year of the most suicides in the US during the Depression) there were five, and in 1938 there were two. In other years only single instances were noted. In a couple of instances lawyers in financial distress had apparently dipped into trust accounts or other client holdings in a last attempt to right themselves financially before taking their own lives.
One DC lawyer's Depression-era struggle with the loss of his career, his family, his hope, and finally his life is particularly poignant, and was recently shared by his great-granddaughter in the pages of The Atlantic. Roy Humphrey was a graduate of National University's evening law school (National merged with GW in 1954). He established a practice, but it collapsed after the 1929 crash. His marriage subsequently disintegrated; his wife went to a boardinghouse, his daughter went to live with relatives, and Humphrey himself moved back in with his mother. In late 1931 he applied for a job as a US customs inspector in Manhattan, but was turned down "on account of his drinking, temperament, officiousness, antagonism and tactlessness." At least some of these personal faults had doubtless been exacerbated by the loss of his professional prospects. He quit drinking for six months and applied again; this time he was successful. But the work was grueling, dangerous and downright awful. Customs inspectors climbed up and into ships, and then down into their dark, dank holds. Some died. Roy Humphrey did the job for five years, but one morning in April 1937, tortured by frustration and hopelessness, he decided he had had enough. He walked into a train station in Elizabeth, New Jersey, paced on the platform for some 10 minutes and then jumped down and lay on the tracks just as the train was coming. According to the Times, he was killed instantly. He was only 41.
Stories like that of Roy Humphrey may shock us, but they can also educate us. They can remind us that no matter how successful or unsuccessful individual lawyers may have been as career professionals, they lived complex personal and emotional lives. No, pace some bar associations, we are not superheroes. We are flesh and blood, joy and sadness, hope and despair. At the end of the day we are and have been, like everyone else around us, human beings. If Roy Humphrey, Phelan Beale and all the other lawyers who struggled during the Depression can help us recover some small measure of our essential humanity as lawyers, they will not have lived, felt and (all too often in those years) even died in vain.