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Can Lawyers with Mental Health Stories Achieve Professional Excellence?

Can Lawyers with Mental Health Stories Achieve Professional Excellence?

When we think about lawyers, our images are often reflective either of popular culture or perhaps of a person we know. As a child, when I thought about career options and became interested in law, it was due to fictional characters like Carson Drew (Nancy’s father for those who weren’t pre-teen fans of the young detective and I am referring to the novels and not the heretical recent TV series!), Atticus Finch and Perry Mason. They were all middle-aged (to young me), male, and successful by the standards of the day. I was fortunate that the fact that they were all male did not dissuade me from my interest in law—I just assumed that women were moving in, and things would change.

Lawyers do not fit this stereotypical pattern anymore, thankfully. Law school enrollment has been close to evenly split among male and female students, with non-binary students as well and greater diversity of race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, gender identity, family status, sexual orientation and able-bodiedness. *Today’s blog does not address issues encountered by lawyers of diversity. That is a topic for another day, and I may not be the right person to write it—volunteer writers are welcome!

When I entered the profession in the 1980s, my image of lawyers was that they wore very nicely tailored suits, and that women lawyers strove to dress very conservatively. Pearls were a go-to accessory. If you had told me then that we would have lawyers with visible tattoos, piercings and non-natural hair colours, I would have been shocked because lawyers were expected to dress in a uniform of conformity and, I would have argued that personal expression was inappropriate. Just as enrollment in law school and admission to the bar diversified, so did the way lawyers present themselves.

 But one old-time stereotype of lawyers remains strongly entrenched: this is the myth that “good” lawyers do not experience mental health challenges. I hear, and our professional counsellors hear, from lawyers who are experiencing psychological distress, depression, anxiety, burnout, addiction, and other mental health challenges, whose physicians have recommended a medical leave of absence but whose firms tell them not to take the leave or their prospects in the firm, and in the practice, will be compromised. The firms suggest that experiencing mental health challenges is the kiss of death in the legal profession because lawyers are expected to be strong and stalwart at all times, kind of like Carson Drew and Atticus Finch, widowed fathers raising children on their own and who wore their lawyer personas at all times. Not only were lawyers who faced adversity, like being a single parent when that was less common, expected to be strong, they were expected to be practically perfect at all times—the Mary Poppins of legal practice.

This viewpoint is rooted in outdated beliefs that mental health challenges are rooted in weakness and shame. The National Study tells us that less than 4% of lawyers think that lawyers with mental health conditions are to blame, and only 6% think that mental health issues are a sign of weakness. So, as individuals, we have low levels of stigmatization of mental health issues.

But there is another component of mental health stigma—perceived stigma, which is what we believe others in our midst believe about mental health. Thirty-eight percent of lawyers believe that others in our profession believe that lawyers are to blame for their mental health challenges, and that more than half of us believe that our colleagues (53.8%) see mental health issues as signs of weakness.

The belief that other lawyers, especially those within our workplaces, have negative views of lawyers with common mental health challenges like depression, anxiety and burnout has a chilling effect on how we approach personal disclosure and requests for accommodation. Research shows that obtaining help at early stages usually results in easier resolution, but many of law culture’s responses to mental health issues cause lawyers to hide their vulnerabilities and to avoid seeking help until they are highly distressed or in crisis.

Why do so many lawyers believe that our profession has unaccommodating views of mental health? Probably because we equate using our brains to do our work with mental health challenges negatively impacting our intellectual function, our ability to respond to crunch times, and our ability to interact successfully with clients.

I could cite dozens of research studies, but instead I want to share a personal story with the hope that personal stories resonate better and are retained longer than pages of data.

When I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and anxiety more than twenty years ago, I thought that I would never practice law again. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to trust myself to do what I had been able to do going forward. In short, I viewed myself as damaged goods, and I was sure that no one would ever want to trust a lawyer who had taken a mental health leave of absence with important legal issues.

I didn’t return to the Senior Corporate Counsel role I held prior to my leave of absence as my job had effectively morphed to a different jurisdiction while I was gone, and this was okay with me. Instead, I entered a business venture with two colleagues to provide an integrated employment law and human resources consulting services to clients who did not have these services in-house. My colleagues were friends, and they were willing to take a chance on me when I wasn’t sure that I would take a chance on me.

We spent the first few months developing our business plan and strategy, and I was putting in about ten hours per week. I had worked closely with disability management teams and knew that successful return to work plans often involved a gradual return to full duties. By the time that we officially launched, I was finding that I could do more than I thought, and we built a successful consulting practice on a flexible and part-time basis.  In time, all three of us pursued other ventures, and after running my own small practice for about ten years, I returned to full-time “regular” work at the Law Society of Alberta, before becoming Assist’s Executive Director six years ago.

In March, I was honoured to be appointed King’s Counsel. My application was based on the work I do educating and supporting the Alberta legal community about mental health issues, responses and proactive strategies, as well as my own history of overcoming mental health challenges to lead a province-wide organization. So, when someone suggests that a lawyer who has experienced a mental health challenge is not capable of performing high-level legal work, you can use me as an example. I didn’t believe in myself at first, but my colleagues did, and I rebuilt my career to the point where I have been recognized for excellence. I am not unusual or exceptional—I am just one lawyer in a secure position who can share my story from struggle to success. I am happy to come to your workplace—or to send one of our equally-qualified volunteers—to talk about mental health realities in our profession.

When lawyers suggest that a lawyer should hide their mental health concern and work through it in silence in order to keep their career prospects intact, please consider the following:

  • A lawyer who has experienced and overcome a mental health challenge generally develops insight into themselves in terms of causation and their responses to stress. We are acutely sensitized to our reactions, so we know at an early time when we start to feel the way we felt when the crisis hit. We have learned strategies, and we know how to ask for help. I believe that we are more likely to develop a transition plan or an accommodation plan that works for both us and our firms/clients. No one—especially us—wants to leave anyone in the lurch so we plan ahead. And wouldn’t firm management want to know as early as possible that a lawyer needs an adjustment to their commitments? We are desirable colleagues—not “snowflakes” who can’t be counted on for challenging assignments.
  • Some lawyers (and students) who are working through mental health challenges do not require much, if any, accommodation, especially if they seek help early. They may need to meet with their counsellor periodically which can be done via Zoom behind a closed door. They are NOT incapable of delivering quality legal services in any way. So, when more senior lawyers tell these lawyers that a lawyer who is using Assist’s services shouldn’t be practicing, they are expressing an opinion without a full understanding of the nuances of well-being issues. Isn’t this the definition of a stereotype?
  • Other lawyers may need leaves of absence while they adjust to medication or participate in more intensive programs. The fact that they are off work does not necessarily mean that they are incapacitated—they are taking time off to ensure that they are not incapacitated while providing legal services, which is what prudent legal employers should want. The model of telling lawyers to “suck it up” and not address their challenges is more likely to result in lawyers who are temporarily unfit to practice continuing to work or experiencing a full-blown crisis while at the office.
  • Many lawyers who take relatively short leaves of absence (sometimes hidden as extended vacations or other less stigmatizing leaves) continue to practice safely and effectively. Why does acknowledging a mental health leave of absence inherently make a lawyer more unfit?
  • There are mental health conditions that increase risk of unfitness to practice—think psychosis as an extreme example. But we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Psychosis is very rare, and an employer who openly collaborates with a lawyer experiencing anxiety, depression, burnout or a similar form of psychological disturbance is more able to assess whether a lawyer is entering a danger zone. Dr. Brian Forbes, the head of Assist’s professional counselling program, is available to help firms develop individualized strategies and plans.
  • I am not an expert in addictions (although I know many wonderful lawyers who are!) Some lawyers experiencing addiction will require a residential treatment program, but others do not. We should all avoid playing amateur psychologist and let experts, like Assist’s professional counsellors, determine whether residential treatment is appropriate. I find so much inspiration in the lawyer 12-step recovery community that I have often wished we had a Lawyers-with-Depression Anonymous program. There are incredibly talented and successful lawyers in the recovery community, and I am personally thankful that their firms and colleagues realized that lawyers in recovery can be excellent lawyers.

It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any other individual’s history of mental health challenges or addiction, but suffice it to say that I am not the first lawyer in Alberta with a mental health history to be appointed KC. You might be surprised to learn how many prominent members of our community have overcome incredible challenges.

In 2019, Assist hosted a Hand-to-Hand gala featuring retired Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon whose battle with anxiety and depression unfortunately became a media story. I think we can all agree that being appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada involves recognition of excellence, so he is a wonderful example of a lawyer who dealt with mental health challenges while achieving a stellar standard of practice.

This week, Assist launched its KC fundraising campaign where we invite newly appointed KCs to express their gratitude for their professional success by donating to Assist. A group of new KCs in 2006 initiated this innovative campaign. I had occasion to review different versions of our request letter, signed by a group of KCs each appointment cycle, and I noticed that our language has evolved as our profession has improved its understanding of the complex relationship between professional success and well-being. In its earlier iterations, new KCs were asked to donate because of their good fortune on the basis that those who had good fortune should help those lawyers who are less fortunate. But over the last few campaigns, the language evolved to asking lawyers to make a donation as an expression of gratitude, no longer hinting at a differentiation between successful lawyers and those who might need or use Assist’s services—because the two are not only not mutually exclusive, and they sometimes even go hand in hand.

Every lawyer’s situation is unique. If you are a lawyer who has achieved professional success, however you define it, please consider if you can safely share that you faced challenges—by being open that we have overcome issues, we can help disprove the myth that lawyers who access professional counselling are unfit to practice and we can shine a light on paths for others. And if you are in a position where disclosure is not appropriate, please consider paying it forward by, well, paying it in the form of a donation to Assist.

I am grateful to the newly-appointed KCs who have already donated to Assist’s just-launched 2024 KC Fundraising Campaign, with a special shout out to Aaron Bickman and Shelley Waite from Macleod Law for being our first donors—they donated before the campaign officially launched.  And a huge thank you to the anonymous KC who donated $2500! Since mailing out letters earlier this week, with email versions sent to those whose email addresses we could find, we have received donations from 11 KCs-in-waiting, totalling $7,500.

When leaders in our community donate to Assist, they are acknowledging the reality of lawyer mental health challenges, and they are helping to dispel harmful myths about blame and shame. Thank you to all who have donated and all who will be making donations as we head in Mental Health Week/Well-Being in Law Week, May 6-th. Please join us as we raise awareness in early June!