Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

News & Events

Assist - Your Partner in Lawyer Well-Being Competencies - Part 1

Alberta lawyers have enjoyed a sabbatical from filing CPD declarations for the last three years or so while the Law Society of Alberta created a new Continuing Professional Development program. The new Professional Development Profile was released in April, and this week saw the introduction of the new CPD Tool online. How are you feeling about the new CPD regime and filing a new plan by October 1st?

The new terminology and the extensive documentation (the profile, the tool, the guide, the FAQs) can feel daunting. Many lawyers are new to the concepts of “continuous improvement” and self-evaluation, depending on the philosophy of their workplaces, and having our regulator unfolding these concepts as part of our required continuing education is inherently stressful. You are not alone if you are viewing the new CPD regime with trepidation.

Codification of the concept of well-being with a clear definition and specific components is an important development in our profession’s development. It reinforces the reality that lawyers must attend to their physical, mental, and emotional health so that they can deliver quality legal services to clients..

Oh, how the world has changed in the thirty-seven years (as of earlier this week—how did that happen since I became a student-at-law in Alberta. I have seen the shift from “don’t ask, don’t tell” to a culture that recognizes that lawyers, like all other humans, have mental health that moves on a continuum from excellent to poor, and that we can implement strategies to recover and sustain our mental health so that it stays on the positive end to the greatest extent possible.
Today, I want to look at how Assist can support you in developing your Well-Being competencies and to reduce the stress that you may feel as you work through the new process, and if you see how easy it is to develop your Well-Being objectives, then perhaps you can feel more confident as you look at other domains as well.  
Let’s face it: no one ever said that practicing law would be easy, and it isn’t. As law students, taking our first tentative steps toward lawyer-hood, we learn to think like lawyers and hone our critical analysis skills, but sometimes this is at the expense of our well-being. And law school doesn’t really prepare us to practice law—we are expected to learn the “how to” part of the practice on the fly, while we are articling and practicing. While we start out naively hoping that we will pick up everything we need to know through osmosis, learning to practice law doesn’t really work that way. We must learn the nuts and bolts of running a practice, dealing with clients, and taking care of ourselves so that we can practice law successfully, and this usually takes a carefully designed strategy (or a very patient senior lawyer), and it is inherently stressful. And this doesn’t even factor in how we learn to take care of ourselves, which is often at the bottom of our priorities. 
As the Beatles sang many years ago, “I get by with a little help from my friends.", when it comes to practicing law, we may have individual friends—helpful principals, peers, and mentors—but we also have organizations who are here to help to us, like Canadian Bar Association—Alberta, the Legal Education Society of Alberta, and Assist, among others, who offer programs and resources to help us smooth out our rough spots.
Please remember that you have friends and friendly organizations to help you sort your way through the new CPD program and your initial plan and that many, if not most, lawyers will find the new CPD program intimidating and stressful at first blush. We are all busy, and this is one more thing to add to our lengthy to-do lists, requiring us to learn new terminology—like competencies, proficiency scales, performance indicators and domains—as well as concepts like continuous improvement. You are not alone if you feel overwhelmed.
I have worked with many objective-setting and self-assessment programs over my career. When I was in private practice, the objectives were straightforward: meet your billing targets and don’t screw up your files. When I moved in-house, I encountered my first corporate-wide goal-setting structure, where all employees had to identify Key Results (essentially outcomes) that they wanted to achieve in the context of their roles, and then we had to scope out both Indicators and Objectives, which were in turn supported by Behaviours. This structure may have worked well for some roles, but as lawyers we struggled to use the terminology correctly: was “Return all telephone calls within 24 hours” a Behaviour? Or was it an Objective? I am not sure that I was ever 100% sure if I was using the categories correctly!  
This process was not intuitive to me and most of my peers. We thought that our primary goal was to do a great job on all legal matters that arose during the year which often could not be predicted in advance. But we were informed that doing a great job on legal work that arose wasn’t a Result or even an Objective because it wasn’t measurable, and we could only include Results, Indicators, Objectives and Behaviours that were measurable. Most members of the legal group concocted measurable Results, Objectives, Indicators and Behaviours which didn’t relate to most of what we did. How do you quantify and measure engaging in effective risk management strategies? And how do you anticipate the transactions you will engage in over the coming year, let alone know in advance how to measure their success?
It was easy for processes like this to become box-checking exercises where you defined a few elements of your job to fit into the structure, knowing that it didn’t really reflect what you did and how you added value, but such was life in a large corporation.
So, I am pleased that our new CPD program allows lawyers to tailor their learning needs to reflect their own practices, strengths, and needs. The CPD framework has nine domains (areas of competencies), and within each domain, there are specific competencies. Lawyers may quibble about the fact that actual legal knowledge in your practice area is not a competency in the CPD program, but once you accept that CPD is about the “how” rather than the “what”, it makes sense. And Well-Being is a domain within the CPD world such that lawyers can, over the course of their careers, develop learning objectives relating to enhancing their well-being. We know that a lawyer who is not well may manage to practice law for awhile but can rarely sustain effective practice for an entire career, and we know that no one is guaranteed perfect physical or mental health, nor are we exempt from the vicissitudes of life like family conflict, loss, and trauma. Isn’t it better to identify risks and develop strategies to manage them, kind of like what we do for our clients, only based on our own health and well-being?
Continuing on the education theme, did you know that education about lawyer well-being is at the core of Assist’s objectives? Here is some legal trivia: Assist is a registered charity (we are not a Law Society program but an independent society) and we obtained charitable registration status since we fundraise within the legal community to support our operations and programs (in addition to generous support from the Law Society and CBA-Alberta). Obtaining charitable status in Canada involves convincing the Canada Revenue Agency that your organization’s objectives are, in fact, charitable. This sounds easy, but charitable organizations must fall within four heads of charitable purpose, and there is a complex body of law and Charities Directorate interpretations with which you must comply.
The four heads of charitable purpose in Canada are:

Providing professional counselling and peer support to a stressed profession doesn’t neatly fall into any head of charitable purpose so building our programs within the mantle of education was the secret sauce. Building our programs around education allowed Assist to be proactive as opposed to merely reactive, stepping in once help was needed, so Assist has been in the lawyer mental health education business for a long time!  Our objectives, filed both under the Societies Act and with the CRA, are rooted in education:

  • to educate Alberta legal professionals and families about alcohol and drug use, mental illness and emotional distress,
  • to provide professional counselling and peer support, and
  • to reduce the incidence of addiction, mental illness and emotional distress through education and coping strategies.

While many in our profession may not know this, Assist is not exactly a new kid on the block with respect to educating Alberta lawyers about well-being issues—we have been doing this for many years and have a plethora of evidence-based resources and activities that you can access to flesh out your CPD Well-Being domain goals. You can check out our Knowledge Hub.
I logged into my Law Society portal earlier this week and, in spite of the fact, that I am not always comfortable with online technologies, I was able to map out a basic plan fairly quickly after finally finding the downward carat beside my name that houses the CPD dropdown menu! As I worked my way through the Well-Being competencies, I saw that there is a CPD competency which reads “Assist others in obtaining supports for well-being” and I came up with an activity to give effect to this competency: I prepared a Well-Being CPD Cheat Sheet for Alberta lawyers who want to enhance their well-being as part of their CPD plans but are feeling intimidated by the new program. I linked Assist programs and activities to each of the well-being domain competencies as a starting point for lawyers and not as a cut and paste exercise. I didn’t actually put this in my CPD plan, but I think I probably could—that’s how easy and flexible this program is. I hope that if you look at the Cheat Sheet, you will see that activities which can support the Well-Being domain and competencies are accessible and simple, and that you can use my Cheat Sheet as a springboard to preparing your own activities.
Without further ado, here is my CPD Well-Being cheat sheet. Please feel free to borrow from it and share with your peers—we really want to ensure that learning about lawyer well-being helps you reduce your stress rather than magnifying it!

Competency Performance Indicator Assist Program You Can Access
Build Resilience Develop flexibility and adaptability in the face of adversity or stress
  • book a session with a professional counsellor to assist you in assessing your flexibility and adaptability
  • attend an Assist webinar—our fall webinar schedule will come out soon!
  Mitigate effects of stress and trauma, accessing supports as needed
  • book a session with a professional counsellor to discuss your stress and trauma management strategies
  • attend an Assist event like Red Mug Coffee Circles where lawyers provide support
  Approach challenges as opportunities to learn, grow and improve, where appropriate
  • Learn more about yourself and develop personal growth strategies by working with a professional counsellor
  • Share strategies as a peer support volunteer
Maintain Personal Health Practice physical, mental, and emotional self-care and health management
  • Attend Assist’s free weekly mindfulness break on Tuesdays at noon
  • Attend Assist’s free weekly yoga class on Wednesdays at noon
  • Meet with an Assist peer support volunteer to talk about stress management in your practice area
  • Join Assist’s Walk for Wellness in your community in September
  • Help organize an Assist Walk for Wellness in your community
  Strive to consistently use healthy coping skills
  Identify and seek out resources for support for personal problems that might interfere with one’s own ability to practise.
  • Professional counselling
  • Peer support
  • Connect with Lawyer 12 Step Groups in your community.
  • Join Assists’ Parents Practicing Law or Elder Care webinars (or both!)
  • Attend Assist’s Red Mug Coffee Circles on Monday at noon to share strategies and resources
Demonstrate Self-Awareness Recognize one’s own stressors and how they manifest.
  Recognize impact of one’s own behaviours on others’ well-being
  • Work with a professional counsellor
  • Work with an Assist peer support volunteer
  Take concrete steps to ensure work-life challenges do not have an adverse impact personally and professionally
  • Work with a professional counsellor
  • Work with an Assist peer support volunteer
  • Join Assist’s Parents Practicing Law or Elder Care groups (or both!)
Support Well-Being of Others Encourage adoption of healthy coping skills and stress management practices
  Demonstrate empathy toward others in professional settings
  • Train to become an Assist peer support volunteer.
  • Volunteer to place calls to articling students as part of Assist’s Articling Student Outreach Initiative (after completing peer support training)
  Strive to foster optimal health and well-being of others in professional settings
  • Become a peer support volunteer
Recognize signs of distress/struggle in others
  Assist others in obtaining supports for well-being
  • Contact professional counselling for coaching on individual situations.
  • Become a peer support volunteer.
  • Prepare a well-being education list for your friends and peers

There are many other great resources in our community, and there are other ways that you can address your Well-Being competency goals. CBA-Alberta has a few great resources you can check out including the Well-Being Hour, the Mental Health and Well-Being course, and Dear Advy. Personally, I think that every lawyer (and student) should pursue training on dealing with high conflict personalities, and I see that LESA is offering a session this fall —staying healthy while practicing law is challenging enough without factoring in difficult people!
As a lawyer, I suppose I ought to include a disclaimer about this resource: it is my opinion about how you can explore the Well-Being dimension in your CPD plan, and it has not been reviewed or endorsed by anyone. It is not intended to be something you would just adopt holus bolus and is primarily an illustration of how easy and accessible achieving your Well-Being competencies can be. Sigh—I hate disclaimers, but this is the first time that I have gotten to type “holus bolus” into this blog! 

So, please know that the actual CPD tool and program are not scary. The Law Society has a webinar to provide an overview of the new CPD program and using the online tool which I attended today. There will be a link to a recorded version of this webinar, but I do not yet have the link. Perhaps try this link to the live webinar registration page.
As you explore the online tool, you will discover that there are drop-down menus for each competency. You can select one of the listed activities or you can click on Other and then add your own activity. Next week, in Lawyer Well-Being Competency Part 2, we will explore ways that you can engage in other well-being activities, both within Assist and beyond, and I will scope out further how activities that Assist runs can be linked to activities listed in the drop-down menu.
Don’t be afraid of the new CPD tool and have a great week!