NEW YORK -- Charles Ford McKenzie, a promising 1990 graduate of Yale Law School, began practicing at a major Wall Street firm and two years later leapt off the roof of an 18-story hotel. The coroner blamed his death on "massive blunt trauma." His parents, however, saw an underlying cause: the law firm itself.

They sued the firm -- Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton -- saying that in the intense competition for lucrative partnerships, the firm had made impossible demands of their son, leading to his humiliation and breakdown.

"He was set up by being overworked," his father, Gene, said. "He was spending 20 hours a day at the office, couldn't go home at night."

The suit, citing "the intentional and outrageous conduct" of lawyers at the firm, has drawn widespread publicity in the legal press and contributed to a longstanding debate in the profession: Do firms drive their young associates too hard? What is the toll?

McKenzie's father and friends say this was a man who had no history of mental illness, depicting him as just one of thousands of young lawyers struggling to rise to the top of their field.

"Charles exemplified the problem of a large law firm that tries to extend its attorneys' performances beyond all human boundaries," said attorney W. Robert Curtis, whose firm filed the Cleary suit for the parents.

"It's a heightened problem in New York City, which is more fierce, more combative," than places like Washington, Curtis said. "But the underlying process of moving associates along and working these unbearable hours, testing their mettle, is done universally; it's part of the overall system."

No one suggests that overworked lawyers are being driven to leap off buildings at every turn, but the McKenzie case touches on some of the hottest issues in legal circles today -- and comes at a time when lawyers are looking critically at their profession and what it does to personal lives.

The American Bar Association, for example, held a recent panel discussion in New Orleans called "Life in the Fast Lane: Dealing With Stress, Crises & Burnout," where lawyers talked about the pressures of big-city practices and the potential stigma associated with seeking professional help.

Recent books also have examined the issue. In "The Lost Lawyer: Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession," Yale University law professor Anthony T. Kronman argues that the sheer increase in the number of billable hours demanded of corporate attorneys has had a huge and detrimental effect on the quality of their lives.

"The work itself is so draining and so exhausting that it leaves little emotional and intellectual reserve behind," Kronman said in an interview.

Suicide Risks

Suggesting that the problems are not confined to Wall Street law firms alone, a 1990 study of 1,184 Washington state lawyers found that 19 percent suffered from depression, compared with 3 percent to 9 percent of individuals generally in Western industrial nations, and that most of the depressed lawyers had had suicidal thoughts.

"It is our clinical impression that, unless lawyers enter treatment and end their isolation, they are at much greater risk of not only acting upon their suicidal ideation but of also being lethal during an attempt," the authors wrote in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.

A Chicago psychotherapist and lawyer, Benjamin Sells, author of the recent book "The Soul of the Law," has argued that much of the problem can be attributed to how lawyers are trained.

"This kind of abstract, detached, objective, impersonal approach to life in general is what lawyers are taught and expected to do," Sells said in an interview. "The number one thing they complain about is a sense of inferiority and inadequacy in interpersonal relationships -- which is basically loneliness.

"The reason suicide is especially a danger for lawyers," he said, "is because of the detachment between the legal imagination -- the legal mind -- and the everyday world."

Lawyers at Cleary say they are confident that the family's lawsuit has no merit, that as tragic as his suicide was, McKenzie was in no way mistreated by his colleagues.

"All of this stuff about being beleaguered by excess work, by being set up -- it's all a total and utter and absolute fabrication," managing partner Ned Stiles said. "I don't think his experience at Cleary, Gottlieb had anything to do with it."

In court papers, the firm denied the allegations raised by the lawsuit and asked a judge to dismiss them. Last spring a judge agreed, ruling that the alleged conduct did not reach the strict legal threshold for a claim alleging emotional distress by one's employer. McKenzie's parents have appealed the dismissal of the suit, keeping the matter alive.

"I don't know whether this is a shakedown or whether it is a case of a father who is plagued by a mixture of understandable grief and perhaps guilt," Stiles said.

While there is disagreement over whether the law firm should be held responsible for McKenzie's suicide, many of those interviewed for this article thought that his complaints of overwork, feelings of being trapped and isolated, and his growing exhaustion at least symbolize a broader problem. But others pointed out that thousands of lawyers thrive in this high-stress environment.

McKenzie's widow, Janice, a former New York schoolteacher, said she tried repeatedly to persuade McKenzie to leave Cleary and return to Memphis, their home town, where he could practice law at a slower pace or follow his dream of becoming a teacher.

But her husband, his hopes set on a coveted and lucrative partnership, could not walk away from the prestigious firm.

"The whole idea," said Janice McKenzie, who married Charles while he was at Yale, "was that we were just going to go there ... and when it wasn't fun anymore we were going to get out. Then things changed.

"He just told me that it was something you couldn't understand, once you got sucked in ... it was like a black hole."

Straight A's, Scholarships

The son of a retired Navy pilot and Memphis schoolteacher, McKenzie was a high achiever at Memphis State University. "Chuck is a straight-A student who takes only substantive courses, has won scholarships in the past, and has good personal relations wherever he goes. He is serious and sensible. He already has career plans for training as a lawyer," wrote his mentor, history professor Marcus W. Orr, in a letter of recommendation.

McKenzie graduated in 1987 summa cum laude with honors in history, and for a while considered following in Orr's footsteps as a history professor. He chose law reluctantly, his wife said, because it seemed more financially secure.

Scoring high on his LSATs, McKenzie selected Yale over Harvard University and the University of Chicago. At Yale, he again did honors work, making the law journal and drawing praise from his teachers. His favorite professor, Bruce Ackerman, teacher of the popular justice course, remembers McKenzie as a consistently well-prepared student whose papers were "outstanding and genuinely thoughtful and lively throughout."

Prof. Geoffrey Hazard, who taught McKenzie civil procedure, remembers a smart loner who had great difficulty engaging. McKenzie's classmates agree that he was a bit of an outsider, but not necessarily to his detriment.

"He didn't seem to buy into a lot of the common wisdom that goes around law school either about how he or his classmates were the best and the brightest or how he wanted to be a big, powerful partner," said one classmate, Steven Hartmann, now a civil division lawyer in the Justice Department.

Some recommended against his going to New York after graduation. His best friend at Yale, Eric Klopfer, said he worried about McKenzie's decision to apply to Manhattan firms, "not because it was some sort of Babylon on the Hudson," but because McKenzie just didn't seem "equipped to compete in the large law firm environment."

"He was very competitive, and at the same time constantly surprised by those people in the world with sharp elbows," Klopfer said.

But McKenzie, who had school loans of about $40,000, did not feel he could pass up Manhattan and its first-year salaries, the highest in the nation.

Into the Pressure Cooker

The New York legal scene still was a heady place in the late 1980s, fueled by mergers and acquisitions work -- with the heavy lifting left to the associates, who are expected to generate billings of about three times their salaries.

McKenzie was hired full time in the fall of 1990. Given his choice, the allegations in the lawsuit are somewhat ironic: Cleary has long been regarded in New York legal circles as a relatively humane place to work. Established in 1946 by a group that included Henry J. Friendly, who later served as a U.S. appeals court judge, and George W. Ball, the former U.N. ambassador, the firm's decision-making historically has been done on a democratic basis -- one partner, one vote -- while many firms give more power to partners based on their billings.

At the same time, the 460-lawyer firm is highly competitive and rich: Its $263 million gross revenue in 1993 ranked eighth nationally in annual tabulations by American Lawyer magazine, which also placed the average annual income of the firm's partners at close to $900,000. As with many firms, only a handful of the 40 or 50 junior associates hired annually will become partners. But the salaries compensate: In his first year out of law school, for example, McKenzie earned roughly $83,000.

McKenzie started in the corporate department, working on financial transactions. One supervisor recalled McKenzie spending 10 minutes one night in a taxi apologizing for having been of so little use to him in a certain deal. "He put a lot of pressure on himself, but he did just fine," the lawyer said. "I guess he was a little insecure in some ways."

His hours grew longer, and Janice McKenzie said she saw him less. According to the suit, he began to complain about the stress of his workload. He became irritable and restless, telling his father that in the first six months in 1991, he had worked about 1,500 hours overall, about twice as much as other associates, Gene McKenzie said.

William Gorin, who heads Cleary's personnel committee and originally recruited McKenzie to the firm, said McKenzie's billable hours for all of 1991 were 1,850, which was not out of line.

"He certainly was a hard-working, contributing guy," Gorin said, "but by no means working vast hours more than a lot of other people. He was in the normal range. We were happy with how he was doing. ... Chuck was busy and being productive because people liked working with him and thought he was doing a good job."

The lawsuit alleges that in October 1991, McKenzie, who was by then reaching the point of total exhaustion, was told by an unidentified colleague that two senior lawyers -- acting "out of malice" and to "teach him a lesson" -- had given him more work than he could ever complete in the required time, work that demanded greater competence than he possessed.

According to the lawsuit, McKenzie was devastated, telling his wife he felt tricked, no longer secure at the firm. He became suspicious and was unable to sleep, believing that lawyers at the firm "wanted to make him a 'back office boy' by wearing him down to the point where he would lose his ambition." He became depressed and told family members he was convinced lawyers "were trying to drive him out of the firm."

On Saturday, Oct. 26, there was a dramatic confrontation at the law firm, as Janice McKenzie showed up and interrupted a meeting of some of the partners. A note was sent in, and Gorin and another senior lawyer, who supervised junior attorneys, were called out.

According to Gorin, Janice McKenzie said her husband thought he was about to be fired. Gorin said he told her that wasn't true: "There's obviously some huge misunderstanding."

They went to the McKenzies' apartment, where they found Chuck nervous and crying. They convinced him to go with them to an emergency room, where he was seen briefly by a psychiatrist. Gorin said his impression at the time was that McKenzie's problems were personal, not work related, and he was given a paid leave of absence.

But Janice McKenzie, according to the suit, sensed "a lack of sincerity or any concern for Chuck" by Gorin and the other lawyer, and said recently that "Chuck just had this look on his face the whole time: 'I hate you people.' "

Over the next three months, McKenzie spent time between Memphis and New York. When he was with his family, he seemed to improve. When he returned to the office, even after transferring to a new department, he seemed to worsen, according to the lawsuit. McKenzie felt "branded and insulted when attorneys prefaced new work assignments with questions about whether any particular assignment was 'too much' for him."

On Jan. 25, 1992, while stopping over in Charlotte, N.C., on a flight back to New York, he was found passed out from intoxication in an airport lounge and taken by medics to a local hospital.

He showed up again at the airport the next day, and was arrested for "being intoxicated and disruptive in public," according to a police report cited in court records. He was detained overnight.

After his release, McKenzie checked into a Marriott and around 2 p.m., rushed to the roof where, as the Charlotte Observer reported the next day, he was found by two security guards. They called to him, and for an instant, he stepped back. Then he took a running dive.

Decisions and Demons

The suicide stunned the firm: A meeting was held, at which lawyers, secretaries and other staff members talked about their sadness and shock at his death and asked what, if anything, might have been done to prevent it.

Gene McKenzie, who has saved his son's law books and studies them intently, insisted that he is seeking not money as much as the "truth" about what happened inside the firm. "We could win the case and get awarded $1. That would be justice as far as I am concerned," he said.

Meanwhile, others continue to debate the case. Curtis, who no longer represents the family because the father can't afford to pay him, said he remains convinced McKenzie was the victim of a brutal "hazing" at Cleary -- a problem that must be addressed by the profession at large.

"He didn't survive it. I don't think it's a fair test for anyone. It's not the kind of screening we want for future partners," Curtis said. "Chuck is symbolic of a whole lot of people who are dying inside, who are being torn apart by this system."

But Hiram Chodosh, a classmate of McKenzie's at Yale who also joined Cleary -- then departed after three years to teach at Case Western Reserve law school -- said, "Chuck had a choice. He could have gone back to Tennessee, to another city, to another firm. He could have left Cleary. These are all decisions he made."

One Cleary associate who worked closely with McKenzie said that despite his own attempts to reassure him, to calm his fears, he is convinced that whatever motivated McKenzie to take his own life is a mystery that no lawsuit will ever unlock.

"I tried several times to persuade him that as one so young, he did not have an insurmountable problem with the firm," the lawyer said. "It was a humane place. But he created his own demons."