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November 15, 2011 4:06 PM

Autopsy Can't Say What Caused Skadden Associate's Death, But Puts Some Rumors to Rest

Posted by Sara Randazzo

When 32-year-old Lisa Johnstone was found dead in her Redondo Beach, California, condominium on June 20 after failing to arrive at work, hers was the law firm death heard around the Internet.

That the Los Angeles County coroner's department couldn't immedietely say what killed Johnstone, a sixth-year corporate associate in Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom's Los Angeles office, didn't stop the speculation—especially once legal blog Above The Law used Johnstone's death as the peg for a June 30 post reflecting on the rugged working conditions endured by associates at large law firms.

While acknowledging that official autopsy results weren't yet available and that "[w]e can't be sure of what happened to Lisa Johnstone," the mostly thoughtful post by blogger Elie Mystal nonetheless helped feed the rumor mill.

Mystal's post stated, among other things, that "reports indicate that [Johnstone] died while doing legal work from her home office on a Sunday," that she had been "pulling 100-hour weeks and was under intense pressure," that "she was suffering from hair loss," and that—in a thinly veiled reference to drug use—she had "turned to 'the lawyer-version of performance enhancers,' just to stay awake."

Other blogs—from Practicing Law Sucks and University of Cincinnati College of Law professor Paul Caron's TaxProf Blog to Law and More and former Kirkland & Ellis partner (and regular Am Law Daily contributor) Steven Harper's The Belly of the Beast—soon picked up the thread, either by republishing or linking to the Above the Law post or by using it as a jumping-off point for additional commentary about the brutal nature of life as an associate at a large law firm.

But did the rigors of working at Skadden actually contribute to what killed Lisa Johnstone? Nearly five months later, the official cause of her death remains undetermined. A full autopsy and toxicology report—prepared by the Los Angeles County coroner's office because of Johnstone's relative youth and the lack of a clear cause of death—suggests possible causes without arriving at a definitive conclusion. Still, the 18-page report, released in September, sheds some light on the circumstances surrounding her death—and dispels some of the Web-fueled rumors that sprang up in its wake.

Born in Scotland on September 6, 1978 to John and Julie Johnstone, Lisa Johnstone moved to the San Diego area with her family during grade school. She stayed in Southern California for college, attending the University of California, Los Angeles, where she joined the Kappa Delta sorority and graduated magna cum laude in 2000 with a degree in history. A 2004 graduate of Northwestern University School of Law, she began her legal career at Sidley Austin in New York before returning to California to join Skadden in 2007. Amid the recession, Johnstone took advantage of Skadden's Sidebar Plus program, which allowed associates to take a year's sabbatical while drawing an $80,000 salary, according to a source familiar with her work at the firm.

While it is unclear what specific matters Johnstone was working on in the weeks prior to her death, her corporate practice focused on residential mortgage-backed and other asset-backed securities transactions, public and private structured finance deals, mergers and acquisitions, leveraged buyouts, and ongoing public company representation, according to a Daily Journal story in June.

Speaking to a reporter at the time, friends noted that Johnstone was a history enthusiast—particularly with regard to events related to World War II and the Holocaust—which led her to do pro bono work on behalf of the Bet Tzedek Holocaust Survivors Justice Network in Los Angeles. Colleagues, meanwhile, remembered her as a hardworking, upbeat attorney who took the time to mentor associates coming up the ranks.

"She had a very open door," Kristen VanderPas, a Skadden associate in Los Angeles who began looking up to Johnstone while a summer associate at the firm, said in June. "She was always someone you could talk to if you were having a hard time with anything."

The last time anybody spoke to Johnstone, according to the coroner's report, was Saturday, June 18, at about 4:30 p.m. when she contacted a friend to arrange dropping off her white Labrador retriever, Dakota, over the weekend because she was planning to be at work at 4 a.m. Monday.

According to the coroner's report, that friend asked her boyfriend to go to Johnstone's condo after hearing from someone at Skadden that Johnstone hadn't shown up for work as expected. After finding Johnstone unresponsive on her bed, the boyfriend called 911. A description of the scene contained in the coroner's report characterizes Johnstone's home as "very clean, upper scale, and organized." The television in her bedroom was on, and a single law firm document was sitting atop a hope chest at the foot of the bed.

As far as health issues that may have contributed to Johnstone's death, the report says, "[s]he had a slight heart murmur but no other major problems." Johnstone's friend didn't have much more to add, saying Johnstone "had headaches the last few days, but was otherwise a secretive person," according to the report, which also notes that Johnstone "was not suicidal and has never had any suicide attempts."

The responding officer interviewed Johnstone's mother at the scene. Julie Johnstone said her daughter "worked herself very thin" and "worked over 80 hours a week." She also told the officer that Lisa was recently treated for being dehydrated and had an ulcer in the past and that she "was not known to smoke, drink, or use drugs." Johnstone's brother told the investigator that his sister "sounded more frazzled than usual" when he'd spoken to her a few weeks before and "was getting off work extremely late."

Nothing in the report suggests that Johnstone was losing her hair, as Above the Law suggested. As for drugs, a full toxicology study found no traces of alcohol or drugs of any kind in Johnstone's system. The report did note that a Redondo Beach detective retrieved two prescription medicine bottles—one for Clonazepam, which is frequently prescribed to treat anxiety, and one for the painkiller Hydrocodone—from the condo. Both were more than a year old and contained a single pill. 

While a county coroner concluded that "based on the history and circumstances, as currently known, the manner of death could not be determined," the report says that based on a consultation with UCLA cardiac pathologist Dr. Michael Fishbein, "a sudden cardiac death due to a cardiac arrhythmia most likely occurred in this case." The report does suggest one other possibility: "Though a direct anatomic cause cannot prove this, a syndrome such as Wolff-Parkinson-White cannot be excluded. Further family testing of siblings or perhaps relatives may be warranted." (Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is a sometimes fatal disorder that causes heart ventricles to contract prematurely.)

Contacted through a longtime friend, those close to Johnstone, including her family, declined to comment for this story. In a written statement, Rand April, the head of Skadden's Los Angeles office, said, "Lisa was well liked by her colleagues, and all of us have been deeply saddened by her passing. Our thoughts go out to her family."

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The law firm killed her with their brutal inhumane work requirements. Very sad.

This is a very sad sad thing to know :(.. this is not how its supposed to happen

It sounds like she did not take care of herself and literally worked herself to death. It's a shame.

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