Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Learning from Law Students

Learning From Law Students

This is that magical time of year when third year law students walk across the stage, flip the tassels on their caps, and become law school graduates. Over the summer, most of these new grads will undergo another metamorphosis, from law school grad to articling student.
I don’t want to denigrate the incredible hard work that goes into successfully completing law school; first, you have to get in, and then you have to perform consistently at a high level. It is stressful and exhausting—and it is a good thing that there are generally wonderful classmates who make being there worthwhile.
Articling may be even more challenging, and the articling system has many flaws that our profession is struggling to address. And then there is a final metamorphosis from articling student to lawyer.
Throughout our progression from first year law students—now called 1Ls--to law grads to articling students to lawyers, we will face stressful situations. While we hope that each stressful encounter will in fact help us to become more knowledgeable and “better” (whatever that means to you) lawyers, we know that stress, distress and crisis cause harm which can become chronic or permanent if not addressed correctly in a timely manner.
As lawyers, we look back on our student years, both law school and as articling students, with a degree of nostalgia and often say “I wish I knew then what I know now.” We invariably believe that we could have been the perfect law student had we just had our current level of insight. Sigh—we will never know for sure.
Today, I want to turn all of that on its head and talk about what we can learn from law students as we head into convocation season.
We know that lawyers have incredibly high rates of depression, anxiety, psychological disturbance and problematic substance use, more than double the rates in the general population. Historically, lawyers have been reluctant to seek help or to develop positive coping strategies. Some of us try the ostrich strategy of sticking our head in the sand and hoping that the problem goes away, while others reach for substances that ease their angst.
The National Study tells us that about 55% of Canadian legal professionals seek external help in dealing with professional stress. Psychologists were the most common professionals, followed by massage therapists and then physicians. At Assist, we provide professional counselling, using Registered Psychologists (and Registered Social Workers when appropriate), and while massage therapy may be helpful with aspects of how our bodies respond to stress, we urge lawyers to consult with our counselling professionals or family doctors (if you are fortunate enough to have one!)
Lawyers provide interesting reasons for not seeking psychological health support:

The most common reasons for not accessing supports are the belief that their feeling of distress will pass, not having enough energy to reach out and running out of time.
As a group, we are not very good at asking for help.
And this is a place where we can learn from our most junior colleagues, law students.
In the fall of 2023, University of Calgary law students launched a mental health awareness campaign called No Stress November. Now, we know that the month of November can be quite stressful for law students—regardless of where we went to law school, there is that point each semester when we look at where we are relative to where we need to be for exams, and in the fall semester, that is usually November. So, No Stress November, as a concept juxtaposes a stressful time of year with being stress-free, a coup of marketing excellence.
In this campaign, law students shared their stories about dealing with stress and distress in a social media campaign. Some students shared their names along with their stories! It is very refreshing to see students who are being open about mental health and the strategies they learned.
 I would like to share a few examples to highlight wisdom and self-knowledge (and I am not including students’ names since it is up to them when and how to share):
My first year of law school hit me hard. I quickly got overwhelmed trying to balance school, a social life and my own mental health. I started burning the candle on both ends, struggling to keep up academically and to navigate a new social experience.
Instead of reaching out for help, I ignored the warning signs of my own health and employed unhealthy coping mechanisms. It seemed everything was going wrong and I was making the wrong decision. I would often make a joke about my life but in reality it was a call for help.
Therapy is like dating and unfortunately my first therapist and I were not a great match. Fortunately, when I told Assist this they quickly referred me to a second therapist. I have been seeing my therapist for over a year now and my mental health has improved more in that year than I thought possible. Assist was able to continually give me free session to process and address new issues and to continue my mental health journey. I owe so much to Assist and the therapist that they provided for me.
Would the story be the same if this story said “My first year in practice hit me hard. I quickly got overwhelmed trying to balance work, my personal life and my own mental health?” Anecdotally, we know that many young (and older) lawyers will subjugate their mental health to the demands of their work, and that the tension between work and personal/social life is usually out of whack.

How would this story translate for lawyers:

I’m a 1L who’s found the transition to Law School more difficult than expected. The uncertainty and competitive nature of 1L was starting to get to me, so I reached out to Assist and recently had my first ever therapy session.

I was nervous at first, but the counsellor was very kind and I’m already putting some of her coping methods to work. I never thought I was someone who would need/use therapy but I am very glad I’ve started on this process rather than let the negative thoughts that come with 1L hold me back.
Would a story say, “I’m a first-year lawyer (or a thirty-year lawyer) who found … more difficult than expected… so I reached out to Assist and recently had my first ever therapy session?” or would negative thoughts continue to hold them back?
And how many lawyers would seek assistance without thinking they might have a diagnosis?

I used to feel guilty accessing counselling because I didn’t have a specific mental illness or disorder. I felt like I didn’t belong at counselling and that I was taking away services from other who needed it more. Since then, I have had experiences that helped me realize counselling is for everyone. I got to talk through the hard things in life, like issues with family or friends and stress. Putting my experiences, thoughts, and emotions into words provides emotional and mental relief and helps me to figure out my path forward.

Or this one:

Over the course of year, T [the Assist counsellor] helped me mange my panic attacks through EMDR therapy, he recommended seeing a psychiatrist for sleep and anxiety, and helped me create a plan to complete my work. In second semester of 2L, I could see a significant improvement in my mental health due to the counseling. I strongly believe I would not have been able to complete 2L without T’s help.
I am very proud of lawyers-to-be who shared their stories.

Those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth can learn from them—there is no shame in recognizing that someone—a professional—can help us feel better, practice better and be better.

Most of us are comfortable talking about our physical health. Why should talking about our mental health be different from talking about our physical health? I can imagine we have all been participants in conversations with our colleagues that include something like this:

When I first started running, I had a lot of pain through my heel. I went to my doctor who realized I had plantar fasciitis and I now have orthotics that I wear inside my running shoes. I don’t think I would be able to run without this help.”
Or like this:

I found that lack of flexibility and tight muscles made some pickleball shots challenging. I talked to my physiotherapist, and I now have a warmup routine that involves stretching and I go to two yoga classes a week.”
Our incoming members of the profession are going to be wonderful colleagues who will usher in winds of change in how we—institutionally and professionally—approach mental health. Just as someone may leave the office to go for physio after spraining an ankle, lawyers working on their mental health can leave the office (or close their door and log on) to meet with their counsellor.
Stigma and shame have not helped the mental health crisis in law. We know that continuing to do the same thing and hoping for a different result is Einstein’s definition of insanity. If doing the same thing doesn’t work, then it is time for a different strategy. Let’s try lauding lawyers for their positive mental health efforts!
Between 8 and 10% of Alberta lawyers use Assist’s services each year. More than one-quarter of Alberta lawyers have met with our professional counsellors since 2008. The incoming articling students aren’t the only ones in our profession who seek counselling, but they are the most open about it.
Here’s to the law grads of 2024! We are proud of you, and we want to welcome you to the team.