An Intern’s Death Wakes Up Wall Street, But Too Late To Save Jeff

5 May

Wall Street banks have issued directives to ease up the workload and overbearing schedules of summer interns for fear that they are losing the best and the brightest to jobs in Silicon Valley.

Many former interns said that their average workdays lasted for 13 to 14 hours, and it was not unusual to stay in the office until the early hours of the morning at least one or two days per week.

In the Hong Kong office of Barclays, their schedules were so demanding that many began taking naps in the toilets in order to sustain themselves.

The so-called ‘toilet naps’ were reported to The Wall Street Journal with multiple former interns telling the paper how they would go into the toilet stalls, plug their headphones into their cell phones and set an alarm to wake them up a short while later.”

                                                http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2539286/Wall-Street-banks-cutting-interns-weekend-work-harrowing-schedules-force-junior-staffers-TOILET-NAPS-creates-backlash-industry.html

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On a weeknight in late July of 2010, Jeff met me at my office so that we could travel to Queens together to attend the wake of Carey’s first cousin Vivian, who had just died of cancer. It was a particularly painful tragedy given her relative youth. Jeff and I met at around 6 p.m. that night, and he had needed to get permission to leave work that early. He explained the circumstances to his bosses, and of course permission was granted.

At approximately 8 p.m., while still at the wake, Jeff’s blackberry started buzzing non-stop, and I watched him reply as fast as he could to the flood of incoming emails from his office. I quickly became uncomfortable that this was happening in the middle of his Aunt’s wake, and so I asked Jeff what exactly was going on. He said that the attorneys to whom he was accountable on a certain project were demanding that he get back to the office right away to help them meet a client’s deadline (an artificial one, no doubt) with respect to whatever they were working on.

I have spent my entire 31 year career working for the two largest Wall Street banks, and I have seen a lot of appalling things during that time. But the heartlessness that the attorneys at this major law firm demonstrated by instructing Jeff to leave his Aunt’s wake early set a new standard for egregious behavior. I told Jeff to remind them where he was and to let them know he would head back to the office when it was over. But he felt too intimidated to do that, and despite our mutual disgust, Jeff called the law firm’s car service to send someone to pick him up at the funeral home and take him back to work.

When the car arrived, I walked Jeff outside, because I saw clearly that he was shaken. I hugged him hard and reminded him that he had been here before with this job and that this current project was just another temporary fire drill that would soon be over. But the pained look in Jeff’s eyes as he stared back at me told me that he didn’t believe that for a minute. This time was different.

I will never forget that look in his eyes as I said goodbye that night. I asked Jeff if he knew how late he’d have to work. He laughed sarcastically and told me he had no idea. I knew that and don’t know why I asked. I closed the car door after he got in, and I then had to stay outside to compose myself for a minute before going back to the wake. Jeff was in pain, and as all parents know, you feel it as if the pain was your own.

Jeff was never the same after that night, and his hours continued to get longer, the stress greater, and his resolve weaker. On July 28th, after Jeff had not arrived home by 11  p.m., I texted him asking again how late he’d have to stay and how early he’d have to go in the next morning. His terse response containing the worst possible answer made it clear to me, as I’m sure it was to him, that he needed to get out of that place soon.

Jeff really late text

I told Jeff that it’s always better to look for a new job while you still have your old one. However, I also told him that, at the very least, the right thing to do is to give your employer reasonable notice before resigning so that they can transition your responsibilities smoothly to someone else. But Jeff was being buried with work, and he was non-committal on the latter point.

The saving grace during this time was that Jeff had been mostly spared from having to work on weekends. But in early August, he received the following email from his firm’s staffer:

Jeff Staffer email

Jeff did not take this email well. Despite the fact that they only asked for volunteers, Jeff was sure he would be called in even if he didn’t come forward voluntarily:

Jeff email about staffer request

Though it was now crystal clear that it was time for Jeff to move on, he was so swamped that he had no time to even think of pursuing other things. The next punch to the gut came when he had to work an all-nighter shortly thereafter. The day after he did, he made it clear he was ready to go, with or without another job:

Jeff all nighter email

Jeff no shame email

Dear God, OF COURSE there is no shame in that. I just wanted him to do it in a way that would enable him to hold his head high and preserve his ability to get a good reference from the firm for his next employer.  I felt the way to accomplish these objectives was to extend the professional courtesy of giving them notice. But Jeff closed the email above by addressing me and that very point directly:

Jeff ample notice email

In the end, though, I firmly believe that Jeff’s decision to simply quit on the spot on or about August 11th, 2010– when he became so overwhelmed that he couldn’t take it anymore—did, in fact, embarrass him and cause him three weeks later to seek relief from a psychiatrist and his anti-depressants. Eight days after ingesting his first pill, he expressed suicidal thoughts for the first time. The meds fueled thoughts that the way he had walked out on his job was evidence that he would never be able to hack it in the real world. I told Jeff repeatedly that a big New York law firm does not even remotely resemble the real world. The real world was full of opportunity for him, and that is where he should have headed next.

Jeff maroon sweater

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On August 15th, 2013, almost exactly three years after Jeff quit his job, a 21 year old summer intern, Moritz Erhardt, who worked at the London office of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, was found dead in his London home after reportedly working 72 consecutive hours without sleep (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/german-banking-intern-died-natural-coroner-article-1.1526142).   According to the article,

“The pathologist Pete Vanezis said the position in which Erhardt’s body was found suggested that he had been unable to breathe after a seizure.

Vanezis said that common triggers for seizures include exposure to flashing lights, stress, drugs, alcohol and exhaustion, but that a fit could also be brought on without any of those factors present.

Coroner Mary Hassell said that exhaustion was the most likely of those triggers to have affected Erhardt…”

Wall Street has long been known for a culture that encourages their youngest workers to work grueling hours through the lure of a lucrative and high-powered career. Long hours are believed to demonstrate dedication to one’s firm. The law firms that serve these banks are even farther down in the pecking order. Banking clients dictate work deadlines to the banks, who then dictate to their law firms the deadline for documents to be generated. Jeff saw firsthand how that all worked.

Firms on Wall Street have not always learned from their mistakes, but Moritz Erhardt’s death sparked an immediate reaction at several major banks, and they have led the way in putting in place formal policies restricting the hours that their interns, analysts and associates can work. Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Citigroup and a few others have each come out with their own versions of a work restriction plan, but they all share a focus on reducing the number of weekend days these young bankers are allowed to work.  By not addressing weekday hours and all-nighters, these plans have not gone nearly far enough, but at least it’s a start for an industry that would have previously considered any such action to be unthinkable.  The table below summarizes the actions that have been announced by various banks:

Although it’s too late for Moritz Erhardt, such measures are bound to save other lives and ease the job-related anxiety and depression that countless others suffer from. The saddest part for me is that I have not read about one major law firm that has done anything similar.   Law Associates and paralegals put in as many or more hours than their banking brethren, and tragically, it will almost surely take a similar highly publicized death at a law firm before they too fall in line. Jeff’s horrible job experience as a paralegal was a contributing factor to his ultimate death, but it was not the only one, and his death did not cause any law firm to change its behavior toward its junior workers.

Until recently, that is, when one individual attempted to change the trend.

On November 9th, 2013, the third anniversary of Jeff’s death, I received a most poignant and meaningful email from a lawyer at one of New York’s largest and most prestigious law firms, and it is one that gives me great hope that real change can start to take hold. The following is the crucial excerpt from that email:

“…While it is impossible to see much good come out of such a tragedy [Jeff’s death], I know that it has made me more aware of mental health issues and more apt to reach out to others if I think that they are having any problems. In particular, at my firm, I have seen the type of pressure that paralegals are under at a large law firm and always try to make myself available to discuss any issues that they have and try to make their lives a little easier.

Just last week, I pulled an all-nighter with the rest of my deal team, and in the morning we realized that the paralegal had made a mistake on a few documents that went out to the client. It wasn’t a very big mistake and was easily fixable, but the senior attorney started screaming at the paralegal. Afterwards, I made it a point to pull the paralegal aside to tell him that he had been doing a great job on the deal (which was true) and that we appreciated that he stayed up with us all night, and offered a tip for how to avoid making the same mistake the next time.

While I like to think that I would have done that anyway, Jeff’s experience at his firm has certainly opened my eyes to the fact that paralegals work incredibly long hours working for demanding associates and partners, and that a small gesture of kindness can hopefully go a long way to reassure a 22 year old right out of college that they are doing a good job. Even earlier tonight, I was stuck at the office with one of our paralegals until midnight and, after I thanked her for staying so late on a Saturday, she said that I was the first associate to express any appreciation for working late since she started in September.

I wish I knew these things back when Jeff was working so that I could have passed along the fact that he was certainly not alone in feeling stressed out and overwhelmed working as a paralegal at a large law firm, but I will have to settle for trying to do my small part to make sure that our paralegals have someone they can approach with any issues.”

I will never, ever say that there is a silver lining or anything good that has come out of my precious son’s death. He was a beautiful young man in all ways, and he should be here with us right now continuing to touch lives directly with his positive energy and compassionate nature. Instead, I prefer to say that there is much that we all can learn from his story. I believe that through such education and awareness, lives have and will continue to be improved or saved. The lawyer who wrote the email above is living proof that this can happen.

And if his behavior is contagious and others in his firm and elsewhere follow his lead, the work environment in these firms will improve and people’s outlooks will become brighter. The number of cases of anxiety and depression will decline. Productivity should then increase. The ripple effect can be huge, not just in law firms and banks, but In every type of organization. You get the idea.

The sea change that has begun to occur on Wall Street comes too late to save either Jeff or Moritz Erhardt, but it no doubt has the potential to save many others. And there is probably nothing nobler I can do with the rest of my life than to use vehicles such as this to try to further raise awareness of these and other issues that can be matters of life and death. And over time, I’m confident that I’ll find an even broader platform through which to reach more people.

Prior to his last two months, Jeff lived his life with a passion that was contagious. I believe that we each need to exert that same level of passion to remove artificially-created pressure from our world’s youth and to treat these young adults in a kind and respectful way that helps build their confidence and reduces their stress.

Don’t get me wrong–I firmly believe in the importance of hard work.  However, I am vehemently opposed to the old ego-driven Wall Street culture that allowed managers to drive their workers, and those workers to drive themselves, beyond reasonable limits with no intervention.  Jeff didn’t need to leave his Aunt’s wake early to go back to his office, he didn’t– and others don’t–need to pull all-nighters to meet artificial deadlines, and Moritz Erhardt didn’t need to work 72 consecutive hours without sleep as part of his internship.

Anyone who manages people in the workplace can learn from what happened to these young men, and if we change behavior accordingly, we will make peoples’ lives better and more productive, and we will potentially prevent future tragedies. And in the process, we’ll also be honoring Jeff’s life by continuing to learn from his tragic and unnecessary end.

–Rich Klein

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One Response to “An Intern’s Death Wakes Up Wall Street, But Too Late To Save Jeff”

  1. Susan McClanahan May 5, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    there is so much we can learn from Jeff’s story and many young lives will thank you for raising awareness to this. Thanks Rich. xoxo, Sue

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