Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Lawyer Well-Being 2021


Monday marks the start of Lawyer Well-Being Week. It is also Mental Health Week in Canada, and it has one of my favourite days of the year—May the Fourth Be With You Day.

Both our society in general, and our profession in particular, have been looking at mental health and well-being in a new light over the last several years, and our experience of COVID-19 and societal lockdowns has intensified this examination.

At Assist, we use the term “well-being” (and I was pleased to see that the CBA has renamed its Wellness Sub-Committee  the “Well-Being” Sub-Committee.) People often use well-being and wellness interchangeably. I was drawn to the term “well-being” because many pseudoscientific programs have engaged the “wellness” terminology—think Gwyneth Paltrow. But the more important distinction is that “well-being” is active; it is a process that we engage in, continuously if we are able, that results in being well, while “wellness” is the state of being well without incorporating the activity and process that we need to use. While I envy people who were born with magical wellness that stays with them through life’s twists and turns, the reality is that many of us have to consciously engage in well-being in order to be well.

We know that well-being is a multi-faceted concept. The American Bar Association’s 2016 research into lawyer well-being resulted in the creation of a toolkit of resources for different sectors in the legal community, as well as a model of lawyer well-being.

In the ABA model, the only model that relates specifically to lawyers, well-being has six components: Intellectual, Spiritual, Physical, Social, Emotional and Occupational, and all the components of must be present and be in balance in order for a lawyer to thrive.

I know that when I was a young lawyer, my life was anything but balanced. Against all of my instincts and my stated preferences, I became a uni-dimensional lawyer and human being: my life was about work, and being available for work, and I let all other dimensions take a backseat. Law can provide great intellectual challenge and occupational satisfaction (so maybe I was more bi-dimensional?), but when you place your career in the centre of your life and don’t recognize other aspects of well-being, you run the risk of burning out, depression, anxiety, substance use and a plethora of other undesirable outcomes.

When I had my first child, I wanted to be a high-achiever in terms of my professional life and my motherhood life and my approach was to become a reduced-hours associate so I could excel in my work and in meeting my target without becoming unable to function as a mother, which was a big worry to me. I had given my all to my job and I knew that I had to cut back my work hours, so I had something left for my son. The fact that maternity leaves were four months at that time was definitely a factor—when I went back to work, my baby didn’t yet sleep through the night and I was exhausted. I couldn’t create more hours in the day or live without sleep, so reducing my job commitment seemed like the only way to achieve balance. I ended up being diagnosed with a postpartum thyroid problem eventually, but I discovered that I loved being able to let other dimensions in my life grow.

So, what are these six dimensions?

Let’s start with Occupational Well-Being, which involves having personal satisfaction, growing, and finding enrichment in your work and sustaining financial stability. But this harder than it sounds.

A study on stress-hardiness in 2017 linked having a strong sense of purpose with resiliency and cited many examples of how lawyers found  meaning in their work even when their work didn’t involve being on the side of angels saving orphans. But it was heartbreaking to read one lawyer’s response:

There aren’t any meaningful aspects of practicing law to me. I picture myself as being able to have a “Shawshank Redemption” moment one day where I can shed this uniform of monotony and do something worthwhile.”

If you feel like this lawyer, please talk to Assist.

The second dimension is Intellectual, which can be defined as continuous learning and pursuing intellectually-challenging and creative activities.

Practicing law regularly involves intellectual challenges—this is what drew most of us to this career! I suspect that most lawyers feel that they get enough intellectual challenge so perhaps individuals can grow personally through creative activities. But we often neglect our creative dimension which can actually support our intellectuality.

Third is the Spiritual dimension, one that lawyers don’t talk about much because we live in a world of what can be proven. However, the spiritual dimension involves having a sense of meaning and purpose in all aspects of life. Spirituality is not the same as practicing a faith or religion, and it can vary with the individual. What makes you connect to something larger than yourself and your work? It is a good way to start exploring this dimension.

The Physical dimension is next. This is the connection between physical health and our overall well-being, and it includes getting adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise, and recovery and minimizing usage of addictive substances. If you find yourself saying that this just isn’t possible in a legal career, let’s talk.

The fifth dimension is Social—feeling connected, feeling that you belong and having a support network, as well as feeling that you are making a contribution to your community.

And the final dimension is Emotional well-being. Here is how the Task Force describes it:

Recognizing the importance of emotions. Developing the ability to identify and manage our own emotions to support mental health, achieve goals, and inform decision-making. Seeking help for mental health when needed.

Lawyers’ quest for rationality can undermine our emotional well-being—we tell ourselves (and sometimes our colleagues) to just suck it up and get over it. This works in the short-term, so that we can complete work that has to be done, but it doesn’t work in the  longer-term. Buried emotions have a way of resurrecting themselves—it’s better to name them and come to terms with them as they arise.

Assist’s Lawyer Well-Being Week doesn’t align perfectly with other Well-Being week models because we build on our existing programs rather than abandoning our programs to do something special for Well-Being Week. So, this week, we will have the following activities each day:

Monday, May 3: Enhance your social dimension for joining our discussion about the future of the legal profession with young lawyers and lawyers-to-be. All you need is an interest in meeting other lawyers and the zoom link, which Eileen will send to you (
Tuesday, May 4: Come to our Mindfulness Break from 12 to 12:15, and you will be amazed at how a 15-minute focused activity can refresh and restore you. You may find benefits in your spiritual, emotional, social, and physical dimensions.
And because Tuesday is May 4th, as in May the Fourth Be With You, we want to celebrate our favourite movie franchise with a bit of fun. Join Glen Hickerson and me for a half hour of coffee (bring your own) and conversation about how Star Wars—a scene, a character, a line—impacts your well-being.  Don’t be surprised if costumes appear!
Wednesday, May 5: Explore the physical dimension at noon at our free on-line yoga class. Enhance your social dimension by inviting a friend to join the class, too! If yoga isn’t for you, try a walk or a bike ride at lunch or after work. Try a day without an alcoholic beverage to take the edge off the pandemic monotony.
Or join me at the DC Bar’s Spring Wellness Fair—free and online! Check it out at Great topics, and I will be thinking about a fall wellness fair for us….

And you can abandon Assist’s activity calendar, make Wednesday your Intellectual Well-Being day and sign up for the CBA’s Anti-Racism Education for Legal Professionals webinar at 1 pm. This program is free for CBA members (and $129 for non-members.)
Thursday, May 6
: we are celebrating Emotional Well-Being. The CMHA’s Mental Health Week theme is #GetReal about how you feel. Name it, don’t numb it. Learn more at

The first step, naming your emotions, is important. Acknowledging how you are feeling—even if you don’t like it—is the first step in coming to terms with your emotions. And if you feel like numbing what you are feeling, with alcohol or another substance, or gambling or shopping, make Thursday a day when you just let yourself feel what you feel.

 If you are experiencing negative emotions—and we all have negative emotions at times--consider practicing gratitude (in a list or in your head—whatever works best for you) or doing something for someone else. I received a note today about the growing COVID crisis in India stating that the Indian Red Cross is in the best position to assist. Making a donation counts! Here is the link for the contact information for the Indian Red Cross if this appeals to you.
Friday, May 7: Join us for our annual Anti-Anxie-Tea party at 12:30, just a chat with new friends. Or, if you have noticed that we haven’t built in a creative activity and you need something more in this area to balance your intellectualism, block off time to challenge yourself to draw something, write a haiku or whatever tickles your fancy.

If our activities don’t appeal to you, check out the CBA’s new Well-Being Hour, with three programs described as on-demand conversations called
  • Change Your Brain, Change Your Results
  • Belonging at Work, and
  • Lawyers in a Dangerous Time.
These programs are free for CBA members (so you see how a CBA membership can pay for itself….)

The ABA has a full program of daily activities supported by excellent resources. See below.

 Please think about what you need to enhance your well-being next week. We all approach well-being in different ways and my suggestions may not work for you. But please don’t abandon lawyer well-being week because I haven’t presented something that works for you.  Send me an email and tell me what works for you so that we can build on our small repertoire for next week. Or perhaps I can help you source something that interests you—I have a large library of resources!

Be well!

WATCH THIS: Dr. Wendy Suzuki talks about how exercise transformed her life and her research about the interconnection between physical activity and peak brain functioning, 6:28 mins.
READ THIS: Deborah Grayson Riegel (2021). Don’t Underestimate the Power of a  Walk. Harvard Business Review.
DO THIS: The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise (Yep, Breathing!). The way you breathe may be making you anxious. Try out the stress-calming 4-7-8 Breath- ing Exercise Activity Guide, and post about your experience using the hashtag  #WellbeingWeekInLaw.

Exercise is the key not only to physical health but to peace of mind.”  - Nelson Mandela

WATCH THIS: Practicing Spiritual Well-Being: Voices From the Legal Profession. 7 mins. Fellow professionals in law share how they integrate their personal spirituality into their work lives.
READ THIS: Jessie Cohen (2017). Ways to Incorporate Your Spirituality at Work.

DO THIS: Try an Awe Walk. Boost the meaningfulness of your everyday stroll by following the instructions in the Awe Walk Activity Guide. Post about your experience using the hashtag #WellbeingWeekInLaw.
Buddhists advise us to act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Psychologist and author of Flow

WATCH THIS: Flow: An Animated Book Summary, 5:20 mins. A short, entertaining video summarizing the best-selling book, which proposes that fostering more “flow” (a state of complete absorption in engaging activities that are optimally challenging) in our daily lives is a key to growth and happiness.
READ THIS: Leo Babauta (2012). Nine Steps to Achieving Flow in Your Work. Greater Good Magazine.

DO THIS: Try Out Job Crafting, which is a continual activity in which we seek to create a bet- ter fit between our strengths, values, and preferences and our work. Follow the Job  Crafting Activity Guide and post about your experience on social media using the hashtag  #WellbeingWeekInLaw.
“Passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.” - Angela Duckworth, psychologist and author of Grit

WATCH THIS: Shawn Stevenson (2019). The Model Health Show With Dhru Purohit. 1 hr, 15 mins. How deep and meaningful friendships can help you thrive, support your well-being, and help you reach your goals.
READ THIS: Nelson D. Schwartz (2020). Working From Home Poses Hurdles for Employees of  Color. New York Times. “Without the networks and encounters that offices provide, companies must foster the visibility of Black and Hispanic workers.”

DO THIS: Try out the Loving-Kindness Meditation Activity Guide, which guides you through a practice of mentally sending warmth towards others that is linked to many psycho- logical benefits. Post about your experience using the hashtag #WellbeingWeekInLaw.
That which isn’t good for the hive, isn’t good for the bee.” – Marcus Aurelius

WATCH THIS: Practicing Emotional First Aid. TEDx, 17:15 mins. Dr. Guy Winch advocates for better emotional hygiene — taking care of our emotions and minds with the same diligence as we take care of our bodies.
READ THIS: Alice Boyes (2020). Feeling Overwhelmed?  Here’s How to Get Through  the Workday. Harvard Business Review.

DO THIS: Learn to Retrain Unhelpful Thoughts. Review the Retraining Unhelpful  Thoughts Activity Guide and start practicing science-based skills to curb the negative effects of dysfunctional thoughts that can lead to poor mental health. 

“Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.” -Vincent van Gogh