Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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A*S*S*I*S*T Plus

This week, I read an interview with Alan Alda, star of the 1970’s ground-breaking TV show, M*A*S*H. Somehow it is fifty years since M*A*S*H first aired, and Alan Alda—the actor who played the irreverent Dr. Hawkeye Pierce—is  in his eighties. Time passes quickly.

You may not be familiar with M*A*S*H—I don’t know how it has fared in terms of twenty-first century pop culture. M*A*S*H was set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (hence the acronym) during the Korean War. The surgeons, nurses and support staff tended to wounded soldiers, and sometimes civilians, frequently patching up soldiers so that they could be sent back into battle to be shot at afresh. M*A*S*H was a different kind of TV show for its time, more black humour and irony than mid-century viewers were used to, but it quickly became a cultural icon, highlighting the ridiculousness of war while the US was still fighting in Vietnam.

I started watching M*A*S*H when I was younger than I should have been. I would tune in every week, watching helicopters medevac the wounded in and out of the small surgical camp while the haunting opening theme—ironically called “Suicide is Painless in yet another ironic juxtaposition. M*A*S*H was irreverent and funny—and you could enjoy it on that level—but it was also scathing social and political commentary.

After reading that it had been fifty years since M*A*S*H played its part in the evolution of TV comedy shoes, I began to think about similarities between M*A*S*H and what I am going to call A*S*S*I*S*T. Assist’s crisis counselling, and most of our counselling services programs, are somewhat similar to a M*A*S*H unit, except that there are no helicopters (and, thankfully, usually no blood.) Lawyers come to us of their own volition, or occasionally as a result of an employer-mandated process. Our counsellors employ a very effective short-term counselling approach which involves identifying presenting issues (rather like triage being performed among the wounded medevac’d in). They then assist the lawyer in developing and deploying strategies and resources (a bit like surgical repairs to the wounded) and then they may make referrals to longer-term resources (the equivalent of getting sent back State-side to recover) or back to the battlefield, only our battlefield is courtrooms, boardrooms and offices.

But Assist is more than a M*A*S*H (or A*S*S*I*S*T). Our professional counselling program is the gold standard when it comes to supporting lawyers (or family members) who are in stress, distress, or crisis. We do, like M*A*S*H, patch up the wounded to enable them to return to battle, but unlike M*A*S*H, we can employ proactive strategies to reduce stress, distress, and crisis and, whenever possible, obviate the need for patching up the wounded by helping them to avoid the wounds outright. Maybe we are a M*A*S*H that issues bullet-resistant vests and helmets.

Assist deploys its proactive resources in four ways:

  • Encouraging lawyers to consider pre-emptive counselling, like an annual check-up or as an inoculation before an encounter or experience that we know will strain our well-being. Periodic refreshers of strategies can be helpful, too.
  • Connecting lawyers with peer support volunteer lawyers who can share their strategies around a common issue (although peer support and professional counselling can be complementary and contemporaneous)
  • Education and Awareness activities, like webinars, presentations, our website, booths at lawyer events (since we are starting to do that again!): forewarned is forearmed, and if we educate lawyers both about mental health challenges and strategies for avoiding them—teaching them how to dodge bullets!-- we won’t have as many lawyers needing repair
  • Assist Community since loneliness and isolation are precursors to poor mental health.

We help at the micro level, assisting individual lawyers when they are vulnerable, and at the macro level where we hope to effect change to the way law is practiced as part of a conscious strategy to reduce our high rates of mental health challenges and substance misuse.

Lawyer well-being is the current terminology being used for encouraging positive culture change and the development of proactive, healthy strategies, focusing on the positive side of the continuum from good mental health and poor mental health.

Assist is pleased that we are not alone in the lawyer well-being movement. In less than two weeks, we are jointly hosting the Well-Being in Practice Summit along with the Law Society of Alberta, Alberta Lawyers Indemnity Association and Canadian Bar Association-Alberta.

Assist has enjoyed working both with CBA-Alberta and CBA’s National Well-Being Subcommittee for many years. The Well-Being Subcommittee worked closely with the provincial and territorial lawyer assistance programs, and we were all stronger from working together.

Working jointly with our regulator and our indemnifier about lawyer well-being is new but we are happy to see their recognition of the importance of these issues.

ALIA sees firsthand the devastation suffered by lawyers with untreated mental health and substance use issues. Many—but certainly not all—claims against lawyers involve sad stories made even sadder by the fact that losses could have been minimized or avoided if a lawyer had received help. ALIA is invested, in more than one sense of the word, in improving well-being in our profession.

And we know that the Law Society sees the worst-case scenarios, where lawyers whose skills or practice management are disrupted by poor mental health and addiction are investigated, reviewed, and disciplined by our regulator. Some of you may be cynical about the Law Society playing a positive role in lawyer well-being, but even though the Law Society is charged with disciplining lawyers who fail to meet professional standards, they have also developed intervention programs designed to help lawyers before serious incidents occur. The fact that the new education framework includes a well-being competency speaks volumes.

I want to share two important messages today.

First, please register for the Summit if you are interested in lawyer mental health and proactively improving law culture. And now here is my counterintuitive request: register if you are interested, even if you aren’t sure you can make (or even if you are sure that you can’t.) If you register, you will have the opportunity to view the recording of the presentations, but due to platform and technology realities, you must register to avail yourself of this option.

Secondly, Assist is partnering with three other organizations to facilitate delivery of excellent information to lawyers across the province in a single, unified message of support. However, this educational cooperation in no way impacts Assist’s assurances of confidentiality.

Confidentiality is one of Assist’s cornerstones—we could not operate a credible lawyers’ assistance program without assuring confidentiality. If you call to book an appointment with an Assist counsellor, your call is answered by a confidential employee of our psychological services provider in one of the psychologist’s offices. As the Executive Director of Assist, I do not see the names of any individuals accessing our counselling office. When you first arrange to see a counsellor, you are assigned a unique four-digit code. All that I see when I approve invoices is the date on which various four-digit codes saw counsellors. I have some internal control processes that I use, but I do not know who the individuals behind those codes are. This is how seriously we take confidentiality.

Our peer support program has a slightly different confidentiality protocol that involves minimal information being requested and retained about lawyers who seek peer support. We record only a first name (and we do not independently verify identities so I suppose you could call yourself anything you want as long as you are consistent), and we securely protect these records.

We have not, do not, and will not be changing any of our confidentiality practices as a result of this educational endeavour. Assist periodically reports aggregated data to the Law Society which is the same as the data reported on our website (although we do provide detailed budget information in the context of our application for funding under the Law Society’s Third-Party Funding Program.) No personal information is shared with anyone.

I am emphasizing this because one of the presentations at the Summit will discuss factors which prevent Canadian lawyers from seeking help. Many studies, in addition to the current one, identify the fear that others will find out and stigma associated with mental health issues as two of the most common reasons.

But, in reality, more than one-quarter of Alberta lawyers have used Assist’s counselling services since 2008. We have never had a confidentiality breach, and the fact that one in four Alberta lawyers are accessing counselling through us (and we know that some lawyers use employee assistance programs while others prefer to pay privately) is the most powerful anti-stigma tool that we have.

Please help us continue to be A*S*S*I*S*T Plus, an organization which not only patches up lawyers but also keeps them out of the line of fire through proactive interventions, education, and strategies. Attending the Summit is a way that you can learn more about issues faced by other lawyers along with resources and coping tools.

You can also help us continue to be A*S*S*I*S*T Plus by supporting our silent auction. If you missed last week’s newsletter, you can view our blog about Doubling Down with Gratitude here. Please consider whether you would like to sponsor our auction, donate an item, or bid once the auction goes live.

We truly are stronger when we work together.