Wellness & Mental Health Supports for Alberta’s Legal Profession

In recent years, mental health awareness has moved to the forefront of discourse in the legal community. This is due in part to recent reports revealing the rise of mental health issues within the legal profession.[1]

Research has shown that law students are particularly vulnerable to experiencing mental health challenges while in law school.[2]  The use of a bell-curve grading system, competitive environment for grades, competition for employment opportunities, and heavy workload were all found to be key contributors to the stress facing law students.[3] The stigma surrounding mental illness has further prevented students from reaching out to resources for support.[4]

Mental health concerns in the legal profession do not end at the conclusion of law school. The high demand and high stress nature of a career in law pose challenges for lawyers, legal professionals, and law students alike. Senior lawyers and partners also report suffering from exhaustion and mental illness. A recent study conducted by The Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the Canadian Bar Association and Université de Sherbrooke revealed that more than 35% of lawyers experience anxiety, more than 28% of lawyers experience depressive symptoms at a moderate to severe level, and almost 60% of lawyers have experienced burnout. Articling students experience anxiety, depressive symptoms, and burnout at even higher rates, 43.6%, 49.8% and 62.9% respectively.[5]

Legal professionals are held in high regard and viewed as intelligent, in control of their emotions, and able to work long hours without bending under pressure. Mental illness stigma is associated with the antithesis of these highly sought-after qualities. This stigma has the potential to prevent those who need support from reaching out. [6]

Despite these social pressures, it is important to recognize that seeking support and resources is a symbol of strength rather than weakness. Leaning on various mental health and wellness supports and seeking helpful resources contributes to destigmatizing mental health struggles in the legal profession and fosters a greater understanding of mental health overall.

We encourage you to check out the available mental health and wellness resources within the Alberta legal community.

Mental Health & Wellness Supports

Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society

The Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society (Assist) provides confidential programs to support mental health and wellness in the Alberta legal community. Its mission is to enhance the immediate and long-term well-being of Alberta lawyers, articling and law students, and their dependent families, through confidential and non-judgmental psychological assistance, peer support, education, and community. [7]

Assist provides four sessions per person per issue per year of free, confidential, and non-judgmental professional counselling to Alberta lawyers, articling students, and dependent members of their families. The Matched Peer Support program connects lawyers and law students with lawyers trained and experienced in peer support and confidentiality. Assist provides support for a variety of issues including addiction and substance use, anxiety, stress and depression, career transition management, assistance with cognitive decline, suicide prevention, isolation and loneliness, and other mental health issues.[8]

Assist’s vision is based on proactive intervention: Preventing stress from becoming distress, preventing distress from becoming crisis, and preventing crisis from becoming terminal or long-term debilitation. Practitioners can find an extensive collection of mental health and well-being resources for lawyers on their website. Community programs such as free weekly mindfulness sessions, yoga, Parents Practicing Law, and Elder Care are also available for Alberta lawyers to take part in.

Assist provides free professional counselling services to students at both the faculty of Law at the University of Calgary[9] and the University of Alberta[10] as well as peer support. Assist also hosts Green Mug Coffee Circles (U of A) and Gold Mug Coffee Circles (U of C) where students can talk about career and school issues with volunteer senior lawyers in a group setting. Red Mug Coffee Circles is one of Assist’s signature programs developed for articling students and junior lawyers. It arose following the Law Society of Alberta’s 2019 Articling Student Survey that found approximately one-third of articling students and junior lawyers experienced harassment or discrimination during either their articles or during the recruitment process. Red Mug Coffee Circles provide a space for articling students and juniors lawyers to engage in group discussions about career and life issues.

Law Society of Alberta

The Law Society of Alberta provides resources about mental health and wellness in the legal profession. Their website provides helpful articles outlining how to tackle addiction, burnout, substance use, and wellness at large in the legal profession.

“Ethically Speaking: Addiction” highlights the importance of a lawyer’s obligation in the context of mental wellness and accountability in the legal profession. The article notes that lawyers hold an obligation to ensure steps are taken to protect client interests. In this, they hold a duty to alert their law firm and law society of a colleague’s impairment, or of their personal struggles with mental wellness and addiction. Even where the firm believes that the lawyer has not made an error on a file, is functioning appropriately, and has not otherwise compromised a client’s interest, a key first step is to meet with the lawyer about the situation.

“Ethically Speaking: Competence and Wellness” similarly touches on how mental wellness can impact a lawyer’s performance and competence as a legal professional. The article notes that competence is a core tenant of legal practice and requires the ability to tolerate stress and manage the everyday demands of clients, partners opposing counsel and judges. When the mental wellness of a lawyer becomes impaired, their ability to manage these demands and cope with stress becomes compromised, and the lawyer is unable to practice competently. Some signs of impairment may include missed deadlines, procrastination, missed meetings, low motivation, failure to respond to communication, perpetual fatigue and irrational anger. In this scenario, the law society recommends that partners or lawyers at a firm step in to manage the impaired lawyer’s practice and assess whether they can practice without harming clients.

“Psychological First-Aid: Helping Stressed/Distressed Individual” speaks to how an individual may reach out and assist someone that is in a psychologically unwell state. The article explains how to assist a stressed/distressed friend or colleague by taking a Psychical First Aid approach. This non-therapeutic approach helps someone experiencing mental health challenges through supportive listening. This is accomplished by being empathetic, compassionate, non-judgmental, and empowering. This approach offers the individual hope and creates a calm environment to help the person obtain the support they may need. (Note: This resource is made available in partnership with Assist.)

“CPD Tips: Wellness” similarly speaks to how individuals can personally manage their own wellness and mental health through positive lifestyle changes. The article notes that while lawyers may feel the pressure to constantly work, it will eventually lead to burnout and deteriorate mental health and well-being. As noted above, part of upholding competency as a lawyer involves maintaining awareness of mental and physical health and identifying ways to maintain a healthy practice. This can include eating healthy, getting regular exercise, ensuring healthy sleep habits, and scheduling time for family, friends, or entertainment. These small changes can assist in the management of stress and lead to positive mental health outcomes.

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For more information on how to manage mental health and wellness in the legal profession, visit the Law Society of Alberta and Assist resource centers.

If you or someone else you know is struggling with mental health and wellness in the legal profession, please reach out for support at the below Assist contacts:

 Assist Contacts

 

[1] “Towards a Healthy and Sustainable Practice of Law in Canada,” pdf: Université de Sherbrooke, 2022 [https://flsc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/EN_Preliminary-report_Cadieux-et-al_Universite-de-Sherbrooke_FINAL.pdf] ; Stephanie Nemeth, Addressing the Elephant in the Legal Profession: The Lawyer’s Struggle with Mental Health, Sask L Rev (2019) [Table of contents not available | Addressing the Elephant in the Legal Profession: The Lawyer’s Struggle with Mental Heath | CanLII].

[2] Roza Milani, “Ethics and Wellbeing: How the Elevated Incidence of Mental Illness is Impacting the Profession” online: Canadian Bar Association (21 September 2021) [Canadian Bar Association – Ethics and Wellbeing: How the elevated incidence of mental illness is impacting the profession (cba.org)].

[3] supra note 2.

[4] supra note 3.

[5] Loraine Champion, “Letter from Assist: Insight Into Lawyer Well-Being Data” online: Law Society of Alberta, 13 December 2022, [https://www.lawsociety.ab.ca/letter-from-assist-insight-into-lawyer-well-being-data/] ; supra note 5.

[6] supra note 7.

[7] ”Vision & Mission” online: Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society, [ https://lawyersassist.ca/about/vision-and-mission/ ].

[8] ”What We Do” online: Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society [https://lawyersassist.ca/about/what-we-do/].

[9] ”Academic success and personal wellness” online: Faculty of Law, University of Calgary [https://law.ucalgary.ca/current-students/current-jd-students/academic-success-and-personal-wellness].

[10]  ”Mental Health & Wellness,” online: Faculty of Law, University of Alberta [https://www.ualberta.ca/law/campus-life/mental-health-and-wellness.html].

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