Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

News & Events

Look to Your Left, Look to Your Right, and Look Across from You

Today’s blog is about good news. As of the end 2022, Assist has provided counselling services to more than 29% of Alberta lawyers. This figure represents the period of time from 2008 through 2022, when our current service provider, Forbes Psychological Services Ltd. came on board.

This means that we will be updating our website, where we feature a graphic showing five of our signature barristers with the caption “one in five Alberta lawyers has used Assist."

Lawyer personality is interesting. According to American lawyer researcher Larry Richard, lawyers score high for the traits of urgency, skepticism and autonomy. We score low for emotional intelligence, resilience and sociability (except for rainmakers who have this trait in spades.) Once we get past our initial shock that these traits may suggest that we are something other than perfect, we start seeing the truth in this.

Here is my true confession--We actually exceeded 25% at the end of 2021 (27% of Alberta lawyers had used our services), but being a skeptical lawyer  and fairly autonomous, I worried about how awful it would be if  I changed the graphic on our website from one in five to one in four and then our usage level dropped and we had to go back to the one-in-five image. I could have addressed this concern by digging more deeply into exactly how this usage statistic is calculated to determine if this was even possible, but my senses of urgency dictated that I spend my time elsewhere. I like data like I like sausages—I appreciate them but am a bit scared about how they are made.

So, with a year under my belt working with this new fraction in presentations and communication, I am finally comfortable that we can make our 1 in 4 lawyers in Alberta graphic official on our website!

 What does it mean that more than one in four Alberta lawyers have used Assist since 2008? Here is one context: Do you remember that old law school bromide: look to your left, look to your right—one of the three of you won’t be here for third year?

We can now say look to your left, look to your right, and look to the person across from you—one of the four of you will access Assist’s counselling services.  That’s how common it is for lawyers to use our program.

We know that some lawyers also access employee assistance programs through their workplaces and that others prefer to pay for counselling privately.

And this is all good news! I suppose someone with a glass half-empty-viewpoint could focus on the fact that so many lawyers are seeking counselling, and it is a fair question. We have the National Study on Psychological Health Determinants for Canadian Legal Profession to provide data to answer this question. But, I am a glass-half-full person, and see it a bit differently.

If one in four lawyers are accessing counselling through Assist, it means that they are attuned to their psychological well-being and that when they notice that something is off, they seek help. Our law degrees, whether they are LLBs or JDs, do not confer immunity from stress and distress inherent in our practices and in our lives. Neither does being admitted to the Bar. Or becoming a KC.

Stress is part of life. We couldn’t live without it as we rely on our stress response system to detect risks and then activate our fight or flight (or freeze) responses to heighten our chances of emerging successfully post-stressor.

We know that practicing law is stressful in more ways than we can think of. Am I the only person who finds opening their email stressful? Sometimes I see a notification that an email from someone has arrived. I am trying to be disciplined and not to interrupt myself when a new email arrives so I should turn off notifications, I suppose. But when I see that an email has come in from someone, my lawyer brain goes into worst case scenario thinking. That email from my board chair? Maybe they are firing me. That email from a lawyer I talked to about peer support a few months ago? Maybe it is a complaint (even though that has almost never happened). I usually assume that I have done something wrong, and someone is calling me on it. This reflects another lawyer characteristic—negative thinking style.

As I said, I am a glass half full person. I don’t think I thought negatively before law school. Research into law students tells us that law students with a negative thinking style tend to out-perform positive thinkers, and that law students with a positive thinking style are much more likely to drop out or flunk out. People like me learned to develop a different thinking style in order to succeed, and sometimes mine is in over drive.

My point about emails is that I get 40 to 50 a day, and sometimes more. That is a lot of little stress triggers.

When I first started practicing—back in the last century, mail was delivered to your desk twice per day. If you were really concerned about something that was coming in, you made little trips to the mailroom to see if anything had come in. Faxes were handled the same way. So we had a lot fewer fears about our written correspondence but they were concentrated in two bursts!

And who hasn’t had a moment of panic after hitting the SEND button, thinking that we see someone’s name misspelled or the name of someone who should not be on the email chain as the email races into the ether? You frantically open your sent email folder to check and, 99.9% of the time, everything is as you intended, with people’s names spelled properly and no one on an email chain who shouldn’t be there.

And we have real stress in our lives as well as our nightmares of stress. Our work is challenging, and the hours are long. We struggle with finding time for our families, friends, and hobbies as well as sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. We focus on potential negative outcomes, and we sometimes extend this thinking to our personal lives, where our spouses and others do not appreciate our ability to fixate on what could go wrong instead of just enjoying the moment.

This is why I am so happy that 29% of Alberta lawyers—more than one in four—have used Assist’s counselling services.

According to our 2022 Annual Report on our Professional Counselling Services program, which was presented to Assist’s Board this week, we provided support to 859 individuals, primarily lawyers (with 19 family members as well.)

The primary presenting issue was overwhelmingly psychological (99%!)—which makes sense when calling a psychological services provider. Most callers identify a psychological issue or symptom when they call saying something like “I think I may be depressed” or “I feel anxious all the time.”

Psychological issues include depression, anxiety, and burnout but also stress, which is another common theme—lawyers call because they are concerned about how they are handling stress or the amount of stress in their lives. Sometimes people call at the first sign that stress is getting out of hand, which is great because our counsellors equip them with strategies in just a session or two. The earlier you seek assistance, the more easily an issue can be resolved.

While Assist’s program provides 4 sessions per person per issue per year, this is generally sufficient to meet all short-term counselling needs. The average number of sessions per new case in 2022 was 2.2, which means that there must be quite a few one session cases for each three or four session case.

More than 10% of lawyers who used our services in 2022 had more than one issue when they called. Our lives are not tidy and issues do not always present themselves sequentially. And an issue often permeates more than one aspect of our lives. A lawyer may call in saying that they are feeling burned out from their heavy workload and that their spouse is fed up with their inability to spend more time at home. Or the lawyer is experiencing a medical issue that is impacting their ability to work and they are sensing that their colleagues are resenting them or are perhaps actively looking for ways to terminate their relationships.

About 18% of lawyers using our program were dealing with marital or relationship issues, and about 15% were experiencing family problems (i.e., issues with someone other than their spouse or significant other.)

More than half the individuals who accessed counselling during 2022—55%--were experiencing work problems (or school problems if they were law students.) When you have a career that is as all-encompassing as law, problems in your work (or school) environment can be existential.

About 8 % of counselling services users were dealing with addictions or substance use issues. We know that alcohol and drug use is common in our profession. The recent National Study on Psychological Health Determinants for Canadian Legal Profession revealed that our profession’s substance use consumption is at a “worrying level.” Callers dealing with addiction issues receive personal counselling and connections to local lawyer 12 step groups, and referrals to treatment centres, where appropriate.

And about 20% of the population receiving counselling needed personal support.

Some of these issues are extremely serious, while others are at the milder end of the spectrum. If you aren’t sure whether you need counselling, please call and see a counsellor. The worst thing that can happen is that they will tell you that you are coping well with the stress in your life and perhaps provide a few strategies. On one hand, you might be forgoing an opportunity to bill a 1.0, but isn’t your peace of mind worth it?

Did you know that you can use Assist’s professional counselling program proactively? If you know that you will be facing a difficult situation, you can arm yourself with proactive strategies in advance. You can also invest an hour in yourself with an annual checkup with a counsellor, just like your annual physical and your annual dental checkup.

We will be updating our website with our new graphic and stats. I am still calling it our new website but it is getting close to three years old so we will be working on making it current. If you think of something you wish we had on our website, tell us! We want it to be a valuable and valued resource to you.

I am still smiling as I think about our new graphic—one in four Alberta lawyers have used our service since 2008! If you are struggling with an issue or are just interested in what counselling could do for you, call us at 1-877-498-6898 to schedule an appointment. Crisis support with a senior psychologist is available 24/7—please call if you need help in the dark hours.