Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Happy 2024! What 2023 Showed

Happy 2024! What 2023 Showed

We are a bit off season at Assist—our yearend is October 31st, so today is the first day of the second month of 2024. Happy New Year!
We don’t make a big deal out of our new year’s eve. There is another event going on that evening that eclipses ours, and I don’t get “presents,” in the form of my preliminary yearend reports, until mid-November. But having opened my presents, both financial and program-related, I want to share the contents with the Assist community.
We finished 2023 within our budget parameters. I have to project our yearend program usage and expenses, and prepare our next year’s budget mid-August, using July 31st data each summer. Many of you who are responsible for budgets will recognize that this is a tedious and exacting process, but there is an extra complication at Assist: we have absolutely no control over our largest expenditure, professional counselling usage. We want as many lawyers, and articling students, law students, and dependent family members, to use our service as need them. But we don’t want to run out of money, so it is stressful dance.
Budgets matter--you have to have enough money to pay for whatever expenses are occurred. Assist requests funding from the Law Society for a substantial part of our expense budget. We fundraise (and seek donations in kind) for the remainder. Our application to the Law Society, as part of its Third-Party Funding Program, is submitted before the Labour Day weekend, and no opportunity exists for us to apply for additional funding if we run out of money due to higher than anticipated program usage.
So, I breathed a sigh of relief when I received the program usage reports and our preliminary yearend financial statements: program usage was up (which we will talk about below) but we are both within budget and within our funding request to the Law Society. Whew!
But enough about me. I want to address what the Alberta legal community wants to know about how Assist is doing.
First, we helped a high number of individuals in our counselling program, 938 individuals to be precise!

Most of the people who use our professional counselling services are lawyers and students: only 5.6% of our new cases are spouses and family members. We hope that this is because other family members who are using our program are seeking counselling support, when needed, from other resources, but please communicate to your families that they can use our program without going through you. Their usage of the program is confidential!
Lawyers throughout the province use Assist’s services, although the largest user groups are in Edmonton and Calgary. More new program users (individuals who use our program for the first time) are in Calgary as opposed to Edmonton (142 versus 106) but this is roughly in line with the number of lawyers in Alberta’s two largest cities (3909 versus 2208 per the Law Society’s Annual Report.
Anecdotally, we have been told that in-person visits to counsellors’ offices in smaller communities could be tricky—no lawyer wanted to be seen going into the building where the counsellor’s offices are! Many lawyers in smaller communities booked counselling appointments in Edmonton or Calgary when work took them to the larger centres. But since online counselling emerged during the pandemic lockdowns, it has been embraced by lawyers across the province. The vast majority of all counselling appointments continue to be online—lawyers have embraced the model of closing their doors and logging on with their counselors without any travel time.
We hear different things about what lawyers think Assist does. There are still some lawyers who think that supporting lawyers with substance use issues is most of what we do. This is because of the excellent work that our founders, from the recovery community, did in setting up Assist! But most of our counselling and peer support matches relate to other issues, with only about 4% of our counselling issues and 9% of our peer support matches involve a substance as the primary issue (although it can be a secondary issue).
So, if addictions aren’t our primary area of support anymore, what are we seeing? Well, almost everyone—about 98% of individuals who call our counselling service—indicates that they have psychological symptoms, like anxiety, depression, burnout or stress, for example. This makes sense. People who are calling a psychological services provider are likely to mention their psychological symptoms. But often individuals are also having other problems, in addition to their psychological symptoms, that cause them to call.
The most common types of problems are Work/School Problems (being work issues for the lawyers and articling students, and school issues for the law students) as more than half of our callers cite these issues as a reason for calling. Whether work/school problems are the chicken and psychological symptoms are the egg is open to debate. A lawyer who is experiencing high levels of anxiety may have trouble completing work, spending many hours at the office trying to ensure that their work is of sufficient quality. The lawyer’s firm may become frustrated because work is not moving off the lawyer’s desk, which may cause more stress for the lawyer.
And the more time that the lawyer spends at the office being less productive, the more likely it is that their family will express frustration. Relationship and family issues are common issues in our profession as well (almost one in three individuals who used our service in 2023 identify them.)
In 2023, we saw more harassment-related work issues—about 3% cited workplace harassment as a primary purpose for their call. We began tracking harassment as a category after I joined Assist, since we know it happens in our profession, unfortunately. But we don’t think 3% shows the full extent of the issue. It may be that concerns about harassment and/or discrimination are not raised in the intake call, but it is important that we monitor for changes in reporting.
Issues do not have to be related to practicing law to be covered. This is another myth about our program which will be bust in an updated Assist Myth Busters column! Lawyers, students and family members can use our counselling service for any issue they are experiencing. About 30% of our service users are seeking personal support.
What kind of lawyers use our service? I am restraining my smart Alec voice to avoid saying “smart ones!” Historically, more litigation lawyers access our program than any other practice area, but this is not because litigation is necessarily the most stressful area. We also know that more lawyers self-identify as litigators, as opposed to other practice areas, so we need to steer away from making that assumption. But in the last few years, lawyers in general practice have bumped litigators from being our highest using group. Again, while it is tempting to conclude that staying on top of so many areas of law must be inherently stressful, we need to compare our list with how lawyers disclose their practice areas to, for example, the Law Society.
General Practitioners are followed by litigators, then family lawyers, then criminal defence and then corporate/commercial lawyers. This is the same top five we have been seeing for many years.
I wish I could identify the least stressful practice area, but our data doesn’t lend itself to that interpretation! As much as many of us would like to find the least stressful area, the reality is that we find different experiences stressful. Only 3% of our counselling users are wills and estates lawyers, but many lawyers would find the meticulous details and meeting with bereaved clients stressful. The best we can all do is find something that works for as much as possible.
We have seen a trend that lawyers in firms of 2 to 10 lawyers are increasingly using our services. We will continue to monitor this trend and will see if we can learn if more lawyers are practicing in firms of this size—stay tuned for more information over the coming months.
What can we conclude about use of Assist by Alberta lawyers? Well, almost one in ten Alberta lawyers used our service in 2023, so if you were one of them, you are in good company. And more than 30% of Alberta lawyers have used our program since 2008. This tells me that many Alberta lawyers (and students) identify times when they are experiencing stress or distress and that they reach out for counselling support because they know it helps.
We know that stigma about mental health remains strong in our profession, but when one in four lawyers have used Assist over a fifteen-year period, it means that a lot of us ask for help when the going gets tough.
The best anti-stigma tool we have is our one in four statistic! Please share it to show that many of us are open to and supportive of lawyers investing in their mental health.