In his 59 years, Mark Levy, head of Kilpatrick Stockton's Supreme Court practice, achieved more than many lawyers ever hope to. But friends and former colleagues believe he felt the pressure to accomplish even more.
After spending the past five years at Kilpatrick, Levy was found dead in his office Thursday morning, in what police are investigating as a gun-related suicide. Friends describe Levy as an upbeat but reserved person, who always turned out top-quality briefs and often arrived at the office before the sun came up. His career included stints at some of the most prestigious law firms around, as well as the Department of Justice.
But friends say he wasn't satisfied. And just two days prior to his death, Kilpatrick laid off 24 associates and counsel, including Levy, according to a close friend of Levy. (Kilpatrick Stockton confirmed Levy's death in a statement, but declined to comment on whether he was let go, and what procedures the firm follows when laying off personnel.)
Levy, who joined Kilpatrick as a counsel in 2004, had struggled to establish his appellate and Supreme Court practice, according to lawyers that knew him. Levy, who argued a total of 16 times before the high court, won a case for DuPont last October in Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings. But prior to winning that employee benefits matter, Levy hadn't argued in front of the high court since 1989.
"I tried to help Mark in terms of his practice, in terms of referring clients, and so on," says E. Donald Elliott, a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, who had been friends with Levy since their days at Yale Law School. "I just noted that he had moved from firm to firm ... I wondered, but he always assured me that everything was okay."
A close friend, who asked not to be named, says Levy called her Wednesday afternoon after he was laid off, and the two chatted about his future for 30 minutes. Levy, the friend says, did not have a job lined up. "I was telling him his departure was an opportunity to find something he was excited about," she says. "He seemed like he was concerned about what he was going to do." Still, she says he was looking forward to an upcoming trip to Italy to celebrate his 60th birthday with his family.
Levy's age, however, may have been a factor in his unhappiness, according to psychologists.
"At age 60, you're starting to think of retirement. You're thinking that you should be immune to layoffs due to your prominence and your position," says Sherry Molock, a professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University, who studies suicidal behaviors. "You've paid your dues. You feel that you should have arrived by now."
In the course of his private-practice career, Levy spent time at Covington & Burling, Mayer Brown, Howrey and, finally, Kilpatrick Stockton. Friends and contemporaries point to his frequent movement between firms as evidence that he had trouble establishing a solid book of business.
Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider's Washington, D.C., managing partner John Briggs, who worked with Levy at Howrey, says Levy struggled to maintain an active appellate practice. "He wasn't getting as much work as he wanted to get, and he left because he felt he would be more appreciated, and get more work, at Kilpatrick," says Briggs, who previously chaired Howrey's antitrust group.
At Howrey, Briggs says he often turned to Levy for appellate work. Levy was a "hard-working and brilliant" lawyer who often got to work before dawn, he recalls.
Appellate practice, Briggs notes, is often solitary, and he says Levy's work habits reflected this. "I think he put himself under more pressure than perhaps others put themselves under," Briggs says. "This is a man of enormous background, talent and ability."
It's no secret that building a successful appellate practice can be tough. It's an area that depends heavily on an ability to network and get referrals from friends and colleagues.
"It's helpful to have a firm that's behind you as well, and be able to draw upon the other lawyers in the firm, and the clients that have strong relationships with the firm," says Jonathan Franklin, who heads Fulbright & Jaworski's Supreme Court group.
By most measurements, Levy's resume was an impressive one. After graduating from Yale Law, he landed a prestigious clerkship with the late Judge Gerhard Gesell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He became an associate at Covington & Burling before joining the U.S. Department of Justice as an assistant to the solicitor general.
In 1986, he became a senior associate in the Washington, D.C., office of what was then Mayer, Brown & Platt, now Mayer Brown. He showed promise there from the start. At the time, partner Stephen Shapiro, a former deputy solicitor general, said the firm was confident that Levy would soon make partner.
He eventually did, but the competition at Mayer was tough. The same year that Levy joined, the firm also brought on current partner Andrew Frey, who to date has argued a record-breaking 65 times before the Supreme Court; Kenneth Geller, now Mayer Brown's vice chairman; and Kathryn Oberly, now a judge for the D.C. Court of Appeals. Geller remembers Levy as "an excellent lawyer and a very sweet guy," adding, "We're all in a state of shock."
In 1993, Levy, a Clinton loyalist and classmate of Bill and Hillary at Yale Law, was tapped for an appointment at the Justice Department as deputy assistant attorney general of the appellate section in the Civil Division.
But friends say his aspirations exceeded that. Shapiro says, "Mark was the most proud of putting on the striped suit," a reference to the morning coat worn by many in the solicitor general's office when they argue at the Supreme Court. "He was certainly considered, and was interested in being solicitor general under the Clinton administration, and he never quite made it." says Willkie Farr's Elliott. "I guess my thought about it is that maybe he never attracted the same kind of client following that some of the people did who became solicitor general."
During Hillary Clinton's presidential run, Levy and his wife, Judith, continued to be big supporters. The Center for Responsive Politics shows Levy donated $4,600 to the campaign; his wife gave $2,300. Some friends believe he had aspirations to go into the public sector again. (Judith Levy declined to comment.)
A government job "might have been a better fit for him," says a friend and former partner who asked to remain anonymous. "The sort of rough-and-tumble world of private practice may not have been the right thing for him."