Oct 22. 2019
Lawyer Wellness: More than a trend?
Mental health. Wellness programs. Lawyer well-being.
These phrases are becoming common in the legal industry. At all levels of the profession—from legal regulators to law associations and law firms—initiatives are being put in place to address mental health and lawyer wellness.
Why now? A mental health crisis
A landmark 1990 Johns Hopkins study found lawyers to be 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression when compared with those in other professions. More recent studies also point to a mental health crisis among lawyers.
- A 2016 study of almost 13,000 American lawyers found that “levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among attorneys were significant, with 28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.” In addition, 6% screened positive “for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.”
- In a Canadian Bar Association survey published in 2013, 94% of respondents reported experiencing stress/burnout and 68% reported anxiety.
- A 2018 Canadian study “found that higher-status lawyers in large firms report more depression than their lower-status colleagues” and that “over-work and work-life conflict” were significant stressors.
Working to make change
The legal profession as a whole has taken these findings seriously.
In its 2017 report on lawyer well-being, the American Bar Association asserts that “the benefits of increased lawyer well-being are compelling and the cost of lawyer impairment are too great to ignore.”
But real change depends on removing the stigma associated with mental health.
Among practicing attorneys, concerns about privacy create a barrier to seeking help. Law students worry that acknowledging mental health struggles will jeopardize their academic standing or job prospects. In both groups, the risk associated with getting help is often seen as worse than trying to deal with the issue alone.
Fortunately, the profession is getting better at addressing this issue at all levels, working to “reduce the stigma of mental illness and help lawyers who are experiencing a mental issue.” In Canada, there have been several approaches to this issue:
- In 2016, the Law Society of Ontario approved its mental health strategy, which has led initiatives such as the Member Assistance Program.
- In 2018, the Mental Health Task Force of the Law Society of British Columbia released a report of recommendations, including “a review of ‘stigmatizing’ language in its admission program and code of conduct.”
- In 2019, the Canadian Bar Association hosted its first Health and Wellness Conference
- The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society has developed “diversion programs for discipline cases where mental health is an issue.”
- Many wellness courses and workshops are now eligible for Continuing Professional Development
Will these programs make a difference?
Perhaps the best way to evaluate changing attitudes is to compare the treatment of two Supreme Court Justices dealing with mental health issues.
In 1988, Justice Gerald Le Dain was refused a leave of absence that had been requested for “mental strain and depression.” Instead, Le Dain was forced into early retirement—with no acknowledgement of his mental illness—and his contributions to a landmark Supreme Court decision were removed from the record.
In contrast, in May 2019 Justice Gascon briefly disappeared after announcing his own early retirement from the Supreme Court. He then made a public statement explaining the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, openly acknowledging his struggle with depression and anxiety.
Justice Gascon received support from Chief Justice Richard Wagner. The current and former Justice Ministers also commended Gascon for speaking out about his personal challenges with mental health, showing a significant change in approach to mental health issues from thirty years before.
Law firms, legal associations and regulators are all taking an active role in acknowledging the importance of mental health, and ensuring that lawyers—”their greatest assets”—have the support they need.
If this continues, lawyer wellness will truly be accepted as more than a passing trend.