It’s rare to see a top partner at a law firm come clean about battling mental health issues.
That’s exactly what Simon Malko, the managing partner of Morris, Manning & Martin, a 200-lawyer firm based in Atlanta, did last fall at a firmwide meeting.
“I told everyone that I’ve struggled, and how it took me months to find [a therapist] to talk to,” Malko said to me during a Zoom call. “When I became a managing partner [in 2019], I had a lot of anxiety. I was dealing with a lot at work and the stress of raising two kids at home. I had an awful lot on my plate, and I was struggling with managing it all. Most lawyers, if they’re honest, have these issues.”
He explained, “My goal is to make it easy to seek help and get rid of the stigma,” adding that “people don’t need to wait until they’re diagnosed with clinical depression or in need of hospitalization to get help.”
And to put money behind those words, Malko’s firm is delivering help right to people’s office doorstep. It hired an onsite therapist who’s available for one-hour sessions—free of charge. “So far, we’ve had 150 sessions with a wide cross-section of people—partners, associates, and staff.”
When it comes to mental health, Morris Manning is either way ahead of the curve, or Big Law is ridiculously behind. Though some major firms now offer onsite therapists—among them, Latham & Watkins, Akin Gump, and Linklaters—most don’t. And having a leader who talks about feelings? Well, that’s not the stereotype of the take-no-prisoner leader we expect in Big Law.
To be quite clear, Malko doesn’t give the vibe of a New Age proselytizer of touchy-feely treatments. Quite the opposite. The youngest managing partner in Morris Manning’s 42-year history, he also chairs the firm’s litigation practice and serves as its general counsel. He seems the sort of ambitious lawyer who’d be at home at most firms—which is why it’s striking that he’s speaking so openly about his own struggles.
“I wasn’t raised to see a therapist,” he said. “I was 48 years old when I started, and it took me months to find one that I clicked with.”
Because it was such an ordeal, he wanted to make it easy for others, particularly during Covid when mental health reached crisis mode. “During the pandemic, we could see people were struggling. We’ve always had good benefits that covered mental health, but people weren’t using them. A big part of that was stigma.”
As for being a poster child of law firm leaders with mental health challenges, Malko admitted he did have a moment of doubt about coming out. “There was a little voice that asked, why are you doing it?” Quickly, though, he decided “it was the right thing to do.”
In a profession where the mantra is “bill, bill, bill,” it’s a given that no one joins a major law firm expecting a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Stress, exhaustion, and depression are inevitable at some point in every lawyer’s life.
According to Bloomberg Law’s Workload and Hours survey, lawyers reported feeling burned out 49% of the time in 2022, while 72% reported disrupted sleep, 65% anxiety, 35% physical health issues, 35% personal relationship problems, and 29% depression.
And in another report published in February, lawyers were found twice as likely as the general population to contemplate suicide; 8.5% of lawyer respondents also reported having thoughts that they’d “be better off dead.” (Interestingly, though, another study finds lawyers suffered less serious mental illness than those with less education.)
Leading by Example
Malko’s willingness to discuss his approach to mental health coincides with the unusual openness of freshman Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who addressed his hospitalization for depression last month.
“I want everyone to know that depression is treatable, and treatment works,” Fetterman said in a statement. “This isn’t about politics. Right now, there are people who are suffering with depression in red counties and blue counties. If you need help, please get help.”
“I think [Fetterman] showed a lot of bravery and was incredibly impactful,” Malko commented, though he’s much more modest about his own contributions. “I don’t want to sound self-aggrandizing. I think Morris Manning has done something special here. This was a group effort. Without the support of senior management, this wouldn’t have been possible.”
A leader who speaks out on these issues can be a game changer, said Patrick Krill, a consultant who advises firms and corporations on mental health and addiction issues. He called Malko’s actions “outstanding,” adding that his move will open the door for others: “If the leader of the firm struggles with mental health issues, maybe I will seek out help too.”
So will we see other Big Law leaders following Malko’s footsteps, offering stories about their own struggles and humanizing the profession? And will rank-and-file attorneys feel comfortable opening up about their mental health challenges?
I’m not holding my breath. At a minimum, though, firms can at least provide relief that’s more immediate and easily accessible, like onsite therapy. Given that law is a relentlessly demanding profession, why not offer support that might actually be useful—something with more impact than yoga breaks, aromatherapy sessions, and exquisitely designed meditation rooms?
“Not all firms are there yet,” Krill said about standardizing onsite therapists. “Maybe they don’t have the resources.”
Top firms with profit per equity partner in excess of $2 million not having the resources? Seriously?
“You’re right, if you’re a prosperous Am Law 100 firm, you probably have the means,” Krill said. “Though there’s a growing mental health movement, that message hasn’t registered fully yet. Perhaps it hasn’t emerged as a priority as it should be. They’re more focused on business metrics.”
But Malko thinks other firms will follow—eventually. “I’m hopeful,” he said. “I think there’s a strong business case for it. It helps with retention and signals that we care about people.”
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