Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

News & Events

Empathy is the Word

I admit to being a bit of a Jeopardy geek. I struggled through Alex Trebek’s diagnosis and illness, critically watched the potential hosts, and was appalled by the story of Mike Richardson, the chosen successor who turned out to be a creep. My two favourites of the potential hosts were Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik, so I am really enjoying the current shows hosted by my two favourites, especially since young Canadian Mattea Roach has been owning the game.
The Final Jeopardy question in one of her early games was “Oxford’s Word of the Year for 2021 was this three-letter one, short for a word that goes back to the Latin for “cow".”
 The other two contestants tried to develop answers based on “bovine,” but Mattea nailed it: Vax was Oxford’s Word of the Year, and she advanced to the next game. I was happy because I was calling out “Vax! Vax” while the contestants wrote their questions, and even happier when the Canadian beat the American opponents again.
As a language geek as well as a Jeopardy geek, I love trivia about vocabulary development and usage. I‘ve noticed that being immersed in pandemic living, the impact of the virus, restrictions on our lives and the impact on our well-being have all been reflected in what we talk about and the words we use.
Oxford isn’t the only source for words of the year—"vaccine" was popular, as was "pandemic" with other dictionaries and magazines. And one word that I heard a lot about was "resilience"—we needed resilience to get through the pandemic, we talked about ways we could build resilience, and we celebrated resilience where we could find it. People used it in a positive sense, but I also heard people saying they were tired of being told to be resilient and that resilience was the answer. However, resilience is what got us through two years, and if it took hard work to stay resilient, it was just what we had to do.
It looks to me as if the emerging word for 2022 may be “empathy.” Empathy is the theme of Mental Health Week (, and the theme for National Volunteer Week ( is “empathy in action.”
National Volunteer Week is April 24th to 30th, and Mental Health Week is May 2nd to 8th, overlapping with Lawyer Well-Being Week. We are going to be talking about empathy a fair bit over the next few weeks!
The shift from resilience (part of how we take care of ourselves) to empathy (how we respond to others) reflects our progress through the pandemic. We spent two years living under restrictions and focused on our own needs and self-care. Now that our society is reopening, we are beginning to focus more on our interactions with others. Hence the need for empathy.
Empathy is one of those words that most of us understand well enough to use conversationally, but what is empathy, really?
The Canadian Mental Health Association’s website outlines empathy this way:
  • When someone is struggling, you don’t have to fix their pain. Tune in and see through their eyes. This is empathy.
  • We may be different but we’re not on different sides. See the world as others do. This is empathy.
  • You can understand even if you don’t agree. Understand someone’s feelings. This is empathy.
These three simple statements really moved me: trying to see what someone else sees without trying to fix them, and understand their feelings, even if you don’t agree.
They also reminded me of Assist’s peer support program. Our volunteers are not here to fix anyone’s pain or problems but to express empathy and support. They will relate their similar experiences and share what helped them, and the program participants’ feelings are paramount (subject to reasonable boundaries to protect the safety and needs of the volunteer.)
Peer Support is empathy embodied in a program.
Professional counselling is an excellent resource for anyone who is dealing with stress, distress, or crisis, as well as psychological symptoms (anxiety and depression, for example). Our professional counselling services was used by more than ten times as many lawyers and students as peer support (more than 800 individual counselling cases versus 57 peer support matches in 2021.) But lawyers and students often want to talk to a lawyer who has experienced what they are going through—anything from considering a career change to practicing law with a medical or psychological condition. Peer support can give hope and inspiration.
Peer support has really taken off at Assist over the last couple of years. In 2021, we made 57 matches, our highest number ever, and in the first five months of our fiscal 2022 (November 1, 2021 to October 31, 2022), we made 30 matches, which puts us on track for another high usage year, possibly a new record! We are so happy that Alberta lawyers and students are accessing this incredible resource.
We are able to provide peer support because we have so many wonderful and compassionate volunteer lawyers who have trained in peer support principles and want to help others within our profession. So as National Volunteer Week and Mental Health Week arise, I want to give a shout out to Assist’s volunteers.
We have 130 peer support volunteers who have completed our in-person training, and we have another 30 who have completed our online training and are waiting for the chance to do our in-person training which involves role playing. We match these trained volunteers with lawyers and students seeking help based on their life experiences as well as other factors like practice area, geography (which was irrelevant during the Zoom years) and common interests.
This group also formed the pool for our articling student telephone outreach. In 2020, our incredible volunteers placed personal calls to more than 450 articling students to let them know about Assist and to ask how they were doing. Most of the students were surprised to receive a call (even though I had sent an introductory email, but we know how busy they are) and were appreciative. Many of our volunteers enjoyed these calls.
However, we are not all the same, and when we launched the 2021 program, we had trouble recruiting enough lawyer volunteers. Some told us that they didn’t like the telephone tag and getting past the receptionist components (we only had main reception phone numbers) and did not want to participate again which is just fine—we deploy people based on what works for them.
So, if this is something you would like to do, let us know. We will be offering the one-hour training for the law student outreach before the fall.
And if making phone calls isn’t your cup of tea, please consider taking our full peer support training. We hope to hold in-person training, as soon as we can be sure people will be comfortable gathering in a (large) room for five hours.
In addition to making a difference in the life of a lawyer or student who is struggling with a personal or career situation, you can also access advanced training to build your skills. In 2021, we offered Indigenous Cultural Peer Support training (two sessions about Indigenous culture and how to approach an Indigenous lawyer with cultural sensitivity) and suicide prevention training.
Thank you to all 160 of Assist’s peer support volunteers—we truly could not do peer support without you. Through simple interactions, manifesting empathy and caring, our volunteers show lawyers and students that they can overcome challenges, and that helps us create a community of caring within our profession.
We also have volunteers who teach yoga and mindfulness, run our fundraising campaigns, serve on committees and serve on our board. Our volunteers write articles, host coffee circles, review resumes and happily take on whatever work needs to be done. They are all inspirational people, and I am so grateful for all that they do.
I practiced on my own for about ten years as a corporate lawyer, and I didn’t feel like I was part of a lawyer community. I talked to my clients, but I got isolated. In time, I realized that I had to make a career change and be part of a team of lawyers again, and I have no regrets about winding up my little practice. Despite the adversarial nature of some aspects of the profession and the bad press we occasionally get, there are incredible communities of lawyers who truly care about each other. If you are not in a lawyer community where you feel cared about, please call us.
And if you are worried that your empathy skills are low after two years of social distancing, empathy, like resilience, can be built.
How do you start? According to Very Well Mind, there are simple steps to develop empathy in relationships.
Step one is to listen. Sounds easy, but fully engaged listening takes energy and attention. You must listen to the emotions being expressed, paying attention to the speaker’s signals.

Sometimes, we focus on what we are feeling, and what we think the other person is feeling because no doubt they are feeling what we are feeling. However, we don’t all react the same ways. Assuming that the other person is feeling what you are feeling undermines empathy—find out what they are feeling. We teach active listening skills in peer support training, and these skills can come in handy in practicing law generally.
When you experience empathy, you are feeling what the other person is feeling, and it can include experiencing painful emotions. Doing this shows that you care enough to feel painful emotions along with them.
Step two is to show your own vulnerability, which can amplify your own empathy. The person to whom you share vulnerability will reflect empathy back towards you, and you also become more comfortable dealing with emotions in your interactions with others.
When I was a lawyer in private practice and as corporate counsel, we tended to hide our vulnerability. I would go so far as to say that I donned a suit of armour for interactions with many of my colleagues and only shared vulnerability within a small group of friends. Hence my decision that I would rather work alone. I don’t think this has changed, from what I hear. But instead of being frustrated and angry with the colleagues who make you armour-up, focus on the caring relationship with the small group you trust. Look for ways of expanding your circle to include newcomers who are often, by virtue of being new, vulnerable. You can usually tell pretty quickly whether a newcomer will share true vulnerability and be a friend—trust your instincts.
Step three is finding a way to act, offering help. When we experience empathy, we are sharing the emotion, but we are not in the difficult situation that gave rise to the emotion. This generally empowers us to help, as we are not weighed down by the situation itself.
This concept is key to peer support. We listen, we feel the emotion, and we offer to help, based on our own experiences. We don’t give advice or tell the person what they should do. We ask how we can help.
Step four is to continue to build your empathy skills. You can do this through talking to people you encounter and paying careful attention to what they are feeling. Notice their body language, the tone of their voice, their shifts in energy. Focus on them rather than planning your response, and manage your own emotions. And then take action to show support. Just listening can be meaningful, but asking how you can help shows a deeper level of care.
The theme of Volunteer Week this year is Empathy in Action. Can you incorporate empathy in your daily activities, strengthening your “empathy muscles,” and then can you challenge yourself during Mental Health Week to show empathy?
Lawyer Well-Being Week overlaps with Mental Health Week. Assist is partnering with CBA-Alberta to communicate an assortment of activities on Monday to Friday, featuring a presentation by Ellie Krug about diversity and inclusion ( and a complimentary session of Psychological First Aid with Dr. Brian Forbes. We will be hosting our Red Mug Coffee Circle on Monday May 2nd, yoga and mindfulness on Tuesday and yoga on Wednesday that week (May 3rd and 4th),, and a drop in coffee circle with a Star Wars theme on May the Fourth Be with You Day. Please join us—you will experience friendliness and empathy, and we all benefit.