Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Fighting Despair and Isolation

Fighting Despair and Isolation

We are on the cusp of the May long weekend, an annual spring rite of passage, regardless of whether we are heading out on a weekend adventure or using the extra day off to catch up on areas of life we have fallen behind on. Like sleep.

The smoke that has descended on Alberta communities this week is troubling. It triggered a migraine for me on the day it arrived in Calgary. My thoughts and prayers go out to those of you who haven been living under these conditions for longer.  Please remember that Assist is here for Alberta lawyers, students and family members who are facing trauma as a result of forest fires, evacuation and returning to a devastated region. You can access our professional counselling network by calling 1-877-498-6898 (which includes 24/7 crisis counselling with a senior registered psychologist by pressing “0” when the automated system picks up your call.)

This spring may not be exactly what we were hoping for during a long (and seemingly endless) winter. But it is what we have, and we will have to find joy and fun where we can as Spring 2023 becomes more brutal than Winter 2023.

Several weeks ago, in a blog celebrating the first signs of spring, I mentioned that I was looking forward to the arrival of birds other than magpies as a sign of spring. Note to self: be careful what you ask for. Shortly after I wrote the blog, the crows arrived. I am not a fan of either crows or magpies. My sister, who lives in the US Midwest, photographs magpies because she thinks they are beautiful. They are—on the outside. I’m told that they, like crows, are extremely intelligent and I have to agree. Groups of magpies used to divebomb my old cat sunning himself on my deck, knowing precisely how close they could get to him yet still be out of reach. While my cat passed away a few years ago, I still keep a pool bazooka on my deck just in case the magpies decide to terrorize any of the rest of us.

I was outside chatting with my neighbours on one of the first beautiful spring days (before the wildfires) and we noticed both magpies and crows swirling in the sky above another neighbour’s roof. Groups of crows are called “murders,” as in a “murder of crows” as a collective noun, and not because we want to murder them, and there are many terms for groups of magpies: they can be called conventicles, gulps, mischiefs, tidings, or tribes.

So, a murder of crows had arrived, along with a gulp of magpies, and both collectives were clustering on the roof of another neighbour’s house. The crows were collecting near the front of the second storey roof, where two sections of roof joined, while   while magpies were strategically placing themselves around the outside of the crow cluster. In military terms, I think this is called outflanking.

Both sets of birds were screeching, and additional birds of both cadres were arriving. I told my neighbours that it looked like we had our own version of West Side Story unfolding as the crows and the magpies sorted out who were the Sharks and who were the Jets. My neighbours laughed, because we live in the West Side of Calgary, and then one neighbour pointed out that one of the crows seemed to be injured, providing context for the rumble which was about to occur--the crows appeared to be trying to protect their companion, while the magpies seemed eager for fresh meat. One particularly aggressive magpie hopped within centimetres of the injured bird and poked at it. I didn’t like how this was looking. I suggested that we could perhaps get a very long ladder and try to rescue the bird. My neighbours looked at me strangely, and no one offered to fetch a ladder.

One neighbour concluded that the injured bird had gotten its foot stuck between two tile shingles. And as several magpies moved menacingly closer, we braced ourselves for witnessing the ugly side of nature. But the trapped crow managed to extract itself just in time and, after a few tentative extensions of its wings, it flew away. My neighbours and I cheered for Team Crow!

I tend to avoid wildlife shows or videos because I relate more to the prey than to the predator and find them stressful and sad. But when animals work together to save a vulnerable member of their collective, I think about the power of belonging and how we, as lawyers and students, can work together and be stronger than we are when we are alone.

It is easy to become isolated when practicing law. I practiced on my own for several years and I experienced isolation and loneliness. Eventually, I would up my practice and opted to return to the employed workforce where I was able to engage with colleagues, making lasting friendships that survived our co-worker status.

But lawyers who work in sole practices are not the only ones who experience isolation and loneliness - you can feel isolated even when you practice in a firm or a corporate law department. In my first inhouse role, we each had our own portfolios and client groups so I didn’t really work much with my colleagues, but at least people were generally friendly. Subsequently, I had other roles where no one suggested going out for coffee or lunch and it was intimidating-- not all workplaces are friendly, and many thrive by pitting lawyers against each other in twisted versions of The Hunger Games.

I was reminded of my favourite wildlife video, on YouTube, in which three lionesses managed to hive off a baby water buffalo from its herd. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but I will add that because this happened on the edge of a body of water, crocodiles got involved. But like the crows on my neighbours’ roof, the water buffalo organized themselves and poetic justice ensues.

You can watch the video on YouTube, filmed by tourists who were in the area . I think it should be a Disney movie!

If you find yourself feeling isolated and lonely, please consider joining our herd of water buffaloes (or murder of crows if you like that analogy better) that meets on Monday at noon, called Red Mug Coffee Circles. We get to know each other and chat about issues impacting our profession, and we provide personal support for individuals facing challenges, including those seeking articling positions or lawyer roles. When you are unemployed, you can feel like a lion is tugging on you while a crocodile tightens its grip on you. You need some peers to come and kick butt, staving off the lions and crocodiles while welcoming you within the fold. Everyone is welcome at Red Mug Coffee Circles. You can come because you want support, or you can come because you want to be part of our herd of helpers. Just request the meeting link from Eileen.

And I hope that I don’t offend anyone by likening articling students to our young water buffalo. Like the smaller members of a herd, articling students are particularly vulnerable—they cannot set out on their own but must stay with the herd for the duration of their articles, even if the herd itself is not particularly pleasant, with individual members acting more like lions and crocodiles than supportive peers or mentors. Lest anyone think that poor treatment of articling students is an Alberta issue, check out this article from Law Care’s website of a trainee solicitor in London dealing with the same issues.

Because articling students can be vulnerable, Assist engaged in its fourth annual articling student callout this winter. In this initiative, we mobilize volunteers to call all articling students in Alberta, to be a friendly voice, and to let them know that we care how they are doing. This year, a team of 85 volunteer lawyers called 540 articling students! We helped a few who were in active distress, more who needed support, and we spread Assist’s message to all that we are here for them.

We are so grateful to the lawyers who placed these phone calls. Let’s be honest—most of us don’t like telephoning complete strangers. I always worry that my call won’t be received the way it is intended, even though my worries are generally unfounded, and I have learned to tame them through positive self-talk. Out of 540 calls, only one student was annoyed by our outreach. I can live with a 99.8% success rate. And many of our lawyers are developing longer term relationships with the students they have called.

In my thirty-seven years in this profession, I have been the baby water buffalo and a grownup water buffalo. If I am being honest, I have probably been the lion and the crocodile, too, since our profession pits us against each other—or at least conscripts us as part of a murder of crows or a gulp of magpies waging war. But nothing makes me prouder than being a member of a herd of caring water buffalo who will stick up for the underdog, even when the underdog is a crow.

To kick off this long weekend which may have its own intrinsic stressors, I am going to link to a favourite song from my kids’ childhood: The Water Buffalo Song from Silly Songs with Larry: VeggieTales: The Water Buffalo Song | Silly Songs with Larry - YouTube. We may not all have a water buffalo, but we can sure pull together when one of our water buffalo is in trouble. And sometimes, as parents, we need a silly song to divert our children from boredom or destruction, so if your May Long plans include a road trip, you may want to add this one to your arsenal!
Have a wonderful long weekend,