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Continuing the conversation and action on the mental health  of legal professionals

Continuing the conversation and action on the mental health of legal professionals

By: Teresa Donnelly, Treasurer | April 27, 2022

By Teresa Donnelly and Beth Beattie

In the spring of 2021, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada launched the National Well-Being Study, the most comprehensive study on the mental health of legal professionals to be done in Canada.1 In Ontario, the Law Society, legal organizations and individual lawyers and paralegals are advocating for legal professions that prioritize the mental health of legal professionals. Why does the mental health of lawyers, paralegals and students matter?

It matters for many reasons – individually and collectively, at a personal and a professional level.

Mental illness and addictions issues are present in significant numbers within the general Canadian population. There is increasing evidence suggesting that legal professionals are at an even higher risk than the general population of experiencing career and life challenges as well as struggles with mental illness and addictions.2

Mental health in the legal professions must be considered broadly. A lawyer or paralegal who does not have a mental illness or addiction issue, but experiences the death of a loved one, separation, caring for a sick child or aging parent or other issues may find their ability to do their work is impacted. Major life events can throw anyone off course. Lawyers and paralegals need to be aware of that for themselves and for their colleagues.

The culture in which we practice law can contribute to mental health challenges. Law is a demanding, fast-paced and competitive profession; from expectations we impose on ourselves, to those imposed by others. It can feel like we are simultaneously expected to solve all problems, meet billable hour targets, spend necessary time on client development and undertake complex legal analysis, sometimes while serving difficult clients and even being exposed to vicarious trauma. Added to this challenging legal landscape are the stresses of the global pandemic and additional pressures imposed by technology, globalization, competition from other sectors, specialization and the rapid rate of change.

In extreme circumstances, if a lawyer or paralegal is unwell and not receiving adequate support or treatment, they may be unable to harness the skills to properly serve their clients, manage their practices or perform their important functions in the justice system. This could have negative impacts on the client, colleagues, employer, employees, the Law Society as regulator and public perception of the legal professions.

It is in the public interest that lawyers and paralegals be well enough to comply with their professional obligations to clients. We need to engage in open, frank and constructive dialogue about the mental health of lawyers, paralegals and students to reduce stigma associated with disclosure of lived experience, to understand the supports available and to seek help when needed.

Mental Health Week
May 2 to 8 is Mental Health Week, organized by the Canadian Mental Health Association. This year’s campaign challenges us to #GetReal about how to help someone experiencing mental health challenges. Through a number of helpful articles, the campaign provides a toolkit for learning how to pause, listen to understand and  employ the power of empathy to support those in need.

Mental Health Week 2022 Graphic

Mental Health for Legal Professionals Summit
Together, during Mental Health Week, we will chair the Law Society’s second Mental Health for Legal Professionals Summit. The program will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, May 3 and is accredited for four hours of EDI Professionalism content. We will also have live interpretation available for French-speaking licensees.

The keynote address will be delivered by the Honorable Clément Gascon, retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. He is a role model, leader and inspiration for legal professionals for sharing his lived experience including struggles with perfectionism, anxiety and depression as a lawyer and a judge. Later, panelists will speak about their own experiences being open about mental health, supporting colleagues, the power of peer support and practicing law differently – mental health by design. Incorporating mental health considerations into legal practice design encourages us to challenge the existing system and expectations and to advocate for systemic and structural changes that are needed to ensure that well lawyers and paralegals are able to continue their important work in the justice system.

Mental Health Summit for Legal Professionals 2022

At the 2021 Mental Health for Legal Professionals Summit the Chief Justice of Ontario opened with a powerful and deeply personal speech about growing up in a home with a parent with mental illness. The keynote was followed by lawyers and paralegals sharing their lived experiences, insights and strategies. That 4,300 people registered for the inaugural summit demonstrated to us the need for these timely and impactful conversations.

Mental illness is inconvenient at best and devastating at worst. It is part of the human condition and should be recognized and addressed head on. Mental health struggles need not define a person nor prevent a legal professional from having a successful career.

We need to accept and address that there are barriers for lawyers and paralegals seeking help for their mental health. Some of the barriers to disclosing the truth about mental health challenges include fear of job loss, loss of status at work, perfectionism, stigma, stereotyping, adverse reactions of others, gossip and lack of role models who openly discussed being a legal professional with a major mental illness.3  It is essential that individuals facing challenges know that they are not alone and that support is available. By normalizing the mental health experiences of legal professionals, we will feel less isolated and be more likely to get help if needed.

The Litigator and Mental Health
George R. Strathy, the Chief Justice of Ontario has released a paper on mental health in the professions. In support of Mental Health Week, the Chief Justice has shared his thoughtful and compassionate paper, The Litigator and Mental Health, here on the Gazette. Inside, Chief Justice Strathy calls for top-down change in our approach to mental health in the legal professions and ask leaders of law firms and the bar to consider four actionable strategies for change.

CJ-Strathy-Quote


Supports from the Law Society
The Law Society recently launched the Well-being Resource Centre on LSO.ca to help ensure mental health supports and resources are easily accessible to legal professionals. Available at LSO.ca/well-being, the resource centre shares a variety of supports for lawyers, paralegals and students available through the Law Society, including the confidential Member Assistance Program (MAP) operated by Homewood Health. In addition to professional counselling, coaching and on-line resources, MAP has a peer support program which is an effective means to reduce the isolation faced by legal professionals living with mental health or addiction issues. The program matches a lawyer or paralegal to one who has personally experienced a relevant disorder creating a connection that lends credibility and combats isolation and stigma.4

The Law Society has several practice supports and resources to help lawyers and paralegals navigate their careers. A coach from the Coach and Advisor Network can assist with challenges that include returning to work after a leave, work-life balance, time management, career development, feeling overwhelmed, discussing mental health struggles with an employer; and managing the stress of building a practice.

The Law Society’s Practice Management Helpline can assist with pressing ethical or practice management issues. Discrimination and Harassment Counsel can assist those who have witnessed or experienced discrimination or harassment on human rights grounds by an Ontario lawyer, paralegal or student member of the Law Society. The Practice Management Guideline on personal management, which is also available online, provides strategies to recognize sources of stress and signs of mental illness.

Well-being Resources Centre screenshot

By building a community of support as we saw with the inaugural Mental Health for Legal Professionals Summit and by providing mental health services, the needs of individual lawyers and paralegals can be met, clients well-served and the public interest protected. The legal community is well-positioned to make great strides forward in ending stigma and isolation. It begins by recognizing that the mental health of lawyers, paralegals and students matters.
 

References
[1] A collaboration between the Federation, all the Law Societies in Canada, the Canadian Bar Association and Sherbrooke University.
[2] Mental Health Strategy Report to Convocation, 2016, Law Society of Ontario; Ethics and Wellbeing:  How the Elevated Incidence of Mental Illness is Impacting the Profession, Canadian Bar Association, 2021, Roza Milani; Study of Factors Affecting the Mental Health of Québec Lawyers in the Workplace, Barreau du Québec and Sherbrooke University; U.S. National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, 2017; International Bar Association Report Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study, 2021.
[3] Hypocrite, Heretic or Heroine, Why I believe senior lawyers should disclose their mental illness at work, Beth G. Beattie, 2019 Lexpert.
[4] National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being: Creating a Movement To Improve Well-Being in the Legal Procession (August 14, 2017) at pg. 12 citing P.Ws. Corrigan, S. B. Morris, P. J. Michaels, J. D. Rafacz, & N. Rusch, Challenging the Public Stigma of Mental Illness: a Meta-Analysis of Outcome Studies, 63 Psychiatric Serv. 963 (2012).

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