The Downturn’s Worst Effects

Mark Levy always got to the office before me—or anyone else, for that matter.  For most of my ten years in private practice with the D.C.-based global behemoth now known simply as Howrey, Mark co-chaired the Supreme Court and Appellate Litigation Practice Group. (Mark’s co-chair, Jerry Ganzfried, was a fellow Yalie and, also like Mark, an alumnus of the Solicitor General’s office—traditionally a training ground for top-flight appellate litigators.) Mark came to Howrey after some years at the Department of Justice, where he had taken full advantage of “flex-time” to ease his daily commute: so, in by 6 a.m., out by 4 p.m., every day.  Early morning e-mails from Mark were a fact of life for me and the other associates in Howrey’s appellate shop.

I learned a great deal of value from studying Mark’s writing. Like most associates, I occasionally chafed when he threw away a draft I had given him and rewrote it from scratch himself, rather than suggesting changes to my text.  But the results were always worth it.  I also absorbed the SG’s Office rules of style by working with Mark, which I contined to use long afterwards—italicize party names in citations, but not the “v.”; if citing to the same page of the same work, it’s “ibid.“, not “id.“; mark ellipses with asterisks, not periods.  Silly little rules, every one; but if it made your brief look like a brief the Court customarily accorded weight, it could not hurt your client.

Mark was also an effective mentor to more junior lawyers in Howrey’s appellate section. He sat on two mock argument panels for my cases, and his feedback carried special force given his record as a Supreme Court advocate.  I also remember how Mark brought his wife and son (then only 7 or so) to the Fourth Circuit oral argument in this little dog of a case.  After the hearing, when the time-honored job of a junior associate is to tell the partner how brilliant he was, Mark wasn’t interested in any of that.  He wanted to ask his son what he thought of the judges on the panel—”were they mean to Daddy?”—and what he had learned about the justice system.  I’ve thought often of that little throwaway conversation since becoming a father myself; one day, I might want my sons to really understand what Daddy’s profession actually involves.

Mark and I left Howrey about the same time; I went into teaching and he hopped to another D.C. firm. We kept in touch intermittently; he would send me copies of his articles on appellate advocacy in the National Law Journal, and we chatted once or twice.  He really liked a paper I wrote that grew out of a case we had worked on together at Howrey.

I mention all this not because there’s any Info/Law angle.  I mention this because, yesterday morning, it seems, Mark showed up at his office in Washington, super-early as usual, set his e-mail to a rather chilling out-of-office auto-reply, then took his own life.  It’s an utterly unfathomable act, one I cannot square with the lawyer and mentor I knew.

I can’t understand it, but I can’t not want to.  I knew nothing of Mark’s personal life, except that during the time I knew him he seemed amiable, well-functioning, and contented.  Had he been treated shabbily by his firm?  I know what that’s like, which is all I intend to say about that.  But it seems like such a grotesque overreaction to a layoff for someone of Mark’s incredible gifts.  Did he not think about what this would do to his wife and family?  My heart breaks for them.  This is an awful, awful, awful day.

UPDATE: First, I added a link to this brief, which was one of my favorite projects with Mark. I do so conscious of the slightly macabre irony involved; after all, the case that went to the Supreme Court as Swidler & Berlin v. United States, 524 U.S. 399 (1998), arose out of the high-profile suicide of another Washington, D.C. lawyer. Second, although I’m always suspicious of such armchair psychoanalysis, this investigative followup to Mark’s story struck me as worrisomely plausible. If their explanation is true, however, it seems to multiply the tragedy—hard times come and go, but shattered lives can never be completely rebuilt. If it is true that the economic downturn is producing more suicides, it becomes that much more important for each of us (especially those in high-risk, high-reward, high-stress professions) to recognize the warning signs (hopelessness, depression) and act to correct them before it is too late.

2 Responses to “The Downturn’s Worst Effects”

  1. Tim, I am very sorry to hear this. It’s also sad because Mark clearly had many friends – you among them – who would have leaped to help him had he asked for it. My thoughts are with his family, and with you.

  2. I’m sorry for your loss. In all the other reports Mark was a stranger; thanks for changing that.