Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Myth Busters 2.0

Assist Myth Busters 2.0
Did you ever watch the PBS show called Myth Busters, where Adam and Jamie and their cronies would use science to debunk common myths? Like whether a gunslinger in a Western movie can shoot a cowboy hat off another person? (No). Or whether a vehicle in a car chase can drive through a chain link fence or under a big rig? (Yes, to both.) I wrote a blog called “Assist Myth Busters” in January of 2021, nearly three years ago, and I want to update our ten myths with more current information.

Not all myths need science experiments, often involving demolition, to be debunked. Some just need evidence. But if you are curious about Myth Busters, you can check out Top 20 Myths Busted by Myth Busters.

Assist is an evidence-based program. Our professional counselling program utilizes Registered Psychologists, a regulated profession whose members have Masters’ degrees or PhDs. The ones who work in our network have, on average, at least ten years of clinical experience before joining our program, and they tend to stay long-term so that lawyers can develop ongoing professional relationships.

I may not have cool experiments—and certainly not demolition—to bust myths but I do want to debunk myths about Assist that may interfere with people’s comfort in accessing our services. I am going to apply some evidence to these myths that I have heard since joining Assist five and a half years ago. Here’s my Top Ten List of Assist Myths.

#1 Assist will tell my firm or the Law Society or my law school that I am seeing a counsellor or disclose confidential personal information.

This one is truly FAKE NEWS!

Assist’s operations are structured to ensure confidentiality. When you book an appointment to see a counsellor, your call goes to our psychological services provider directly. The phone is answered saying “Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society” but the person who is speaking is a confidential employee of our provider.

All of our psychologists are registered members of the College of Alberta Psychologists and must comply with the Colleges’ Standards of Practice and the Canadian Psychologists Association’s Code of Ethics. Like lawyers, psychologists can face professional discipline for failing to maintain confidentiality except in limited circumstances enunciated in these documents. Just as you, as a lawyer, are not going to put your career at risk by disclosing confidential information, neither is the psychologist you see through Assist.

Our psychological services provider, Forbes Psychological Services Ltd., reports only on aggregated demographic data, which forms the basis for our annual reports displayed on our website, and general information regarding trends.
Assist may use Registered Social Workers for certain issues and therapies as well. Registered Social Workers are members of the Alberta College of Social Workers, which also has standards of practice who also have a Code of Ethics. Like Registered Psychologists, Registered Social Workers face discipline for confidentiality breaches.

Forbes Psychological Services does not provide any information to your employer, the Law Society or a law school about an individual who is seeking counselling without informed written consent because this would be a breach of their professional duties. And while I may interact with legal employers, Law Society staff and law school administration, I am bound by our Code of Ethics and disclosure of information about an identifiable individual would be a breach. I have been practicing for 36 years and have no intention of exiting my chosen profession by sharing information inappropriately.

If you have your fiscal responsibility lens out, you may wonder how we oversee a services contract if we don’t know who is using the services. We have that covered--everyone who books an appointment with a counsellor through Assist is assigned a unique four-digit code for internal purposes. Each month, I receive an invoice that discloses services rendered, with line items by four-digit code, along with date of services and length of appointment. I do not know the identity of the lawyers, students or family members behind each code, but I can still perform appropriate testing, like whether a code is receiving more than 4 sessions (and when this happens, the answer is that there is more than one issue.)

We are so serious about maintaining your confidentiality that I, as Executive Director, do not see your name.
The issue of fearing that program use is not confidential is widespread. The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Legal Professionals found that fears that  information would not be held in confidence was the most common reason legal professionals gave for not using a members’ assistance program. The National Study Recommendations includes:

  •    6.3  Where applicable, improve the perception of confidentiality to increase trust in the law society’s lawyer/member assistance program. 

We like to think that Assist’s independence from the Law Society ensures Alberta lawyers trust our confidentiality, but please help us share this message!

You can read more about our confidentiality practices here.

#2 Assist is a puppet of the Law Society

This is a pernicious myth that refuses to die (a zombie myth, perhaps?). Assist was incorporated as a society under the Societies Act (Alberta) with an independent board of directors in 1996 after many years of supporting lawyers informally. We apply for funding from the Law Society of Alberta under the Law Society’s Third Party Funding program, and our application is reviewed by a committee of benchers along with those of other applicants. About 80% of our funding comes from the Law Society and we fundraise the remainder from within the profession.

The Law Society nominates a Bencher to serve on our board of directors, and we include their nominee in our slate for election. This Bencher serves as a liaison for high-level issues. Assist’s board is a policy board and is not involved in operational issues.

In my first year at Assist, we introduced a new program which was going to change how we allocated funding dollars internally. I contacted the Law Society because this was a change to the budgets and schedules that we had submitted in our Funding Application, but they were completely hands off. Their Third Party Funding program is truly third party.

#3 Only small firm lawyers use Assist because bigger firms have their own EAPs.

Employee Assistance Programs, like most things in life, come in different sizes and shapes. Some are bare bones while others are more fleshed out.

As I mentioned above, Assist’s program uses only counsellors with Masters’ degrees or PhDs and who have, on average, at least 10 years of clinical experience. They work extensively with lawyers (as well as accountants and members of other professions) so they understand the dynamics at play in legal environments and they understand common terminology used in law (like what a chambers application is or billable hours.) So, many lawyers who have access to EAPs prefer to come to Assist.

In 2023, almost one-third of the lawyers using Assist work in firms with more than 40 lawyers. Another quarter of lawyers accessing counselling services work in firms with between 11 and 40 lawyers, some of which may have EAPs.

Our standard demographic reports do not break down usage by lawyers who work for corporations, governments or other non-law firm employers, but about 9% of new individuals seeing our counsellors work inhouse or for government.

We believe that lawyers choose to access Assist’s professional counselling services rather than an EAP because our program is excellent and is much more attuned to lawyer and law student issues.

#4 Assist only sees a couple hundred lawyers per year so the program has minimal usage.

I was baffled the first time I heard this statement and then realized that the person expressing it had misunderstood the meaning of new cases and continuing cases in our annual reports.

Our annual report shows the total number of individual cases, broken down into new cases and carried forward cases per year. In 2023, for example, we had a total of 938 individual cases, consisting of 268 new cases and 670 carried forward cases.

Because the number of carried forward cases was higher than the previous years’ carried forward cases in most years, it was possible to assume that “carried forward cases” was a cumulative measure consisting of all of the cases ever—making the total case number a running total (if you only looked at one year’s data.)

But this is not how this measure works. On November 1st each year, the first day of our fiscal year, there are a number of active files open where lawyers, students and family members are seeing counsellors and they continue to see those counsellors into the new fiscal year, or previous users return to use services again. And in each fiscal year, we have individuals who are new to counselling or who are seeking counselling for a new issue. In 2023, our case count consisted of 670 where individuals had accessed our program previously along with 268 cases involving new individuals and issues.

There are about 11,00 active lawyers in Alberta, plus about 1000 law students and 500 articling students. Our programs are well-used. In fact, according to the data maintained by our professional counselling provider, more than one in four Alberta lawyers have used our counselling program since 2008, and 8-10% of Alberta lawyers use our program each year. We have deep saturation and penetration in our market.

#5 Assist only provides services in Edmonton and Calgary, and cares more about Calgary than Edmonton.

As the mother of three children, I am quite sensitive to fairness issues. I am happy to report only one instance of “you love (insert name) more than me” that arose out of a Scholastic Book order being sent with the wrong child who then not unreasonably thought it was for him. It was my fault and I apologized profusely (and then drove to the bookstore to provide the crying child with his own copy of the Captain Underpants book whose order I messed up.)

Assist’s office is in Calgary and, unfortunately, this means that we have more contact with Calgary lawyers than lawyers in other parts of the province. The reality of the situation is that it is easier for us to set up activities in Calgary because we are here, while we have to rely on volunteers more in other centres. I took feedback from a lawyer who felt that one of my blog posts displayed a Calgary-centric bias. I apologized for this and assured them that I would be more sensitive to this issue going forward. I hope that I have done so.

We have professional counsellors throughout not only Alberta but across Canada. Regardless of where you live in Alberta, we can connect you with a counsellor in your region. But the pandemic ushered in the era of online counselling, and even though our counsellors have been seeing clients in their offices for quite some time now, lawyers have embraced the model of closing their doors and logging in to meet with their counsellor. Not only does this save valuable time, but it also opened up our entire Alberta roster of counsellors to everyone!

Walks for Wellness, our province-wide signature events, were held in 5 Alberta communities in 2023 (Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Grande Prairie and Medicine Hat.) We hope that Fort McMurray and Red Deer will resume holding Walks in 2024. If you want to help host a Walk for Wellness in your community, call us!

Like a parent, I care that no group of lawyers feels slighted. If you would like to see more of an Assist presence in your community, please call Eileen at 1-877-737-5508. We would be glad to help make it happen.

#6 While Assist provides support for a range of issues, it really has an addictions/substance use focus.

This is a myth rooted in history but is not true in the present. Assist is proud of our founders, a group of lawyers in the recovery communities in Edmonton and Calgary. This group excelled at bringing lawyers with addictions and substance use issues into their communities and to provide supportive resources, but they saw the harm that untreated mental health issues caused in our profession. They wanted to ensure that lawyers dealing with mental health issues and other challenges had access to professional counselling and other supports. So, we have provided professional counselling services, apart from addictions support, for almost 25 years. Almost all callers—98% in fact—report experiencing psychological issues, like depression, anxiety, burnout or stress.

Please don’t think that Assist is only for lawyers with any particular issue—we are resourced to help you with a range of issues both through professional counselling and peer support.

#7 A lawyer who has used Assist’s professional counselling services cannot practice law safely and effectively

Occasionally we hear of a lawyer who needs a mental health-related leave of absence but is told them that using Assist’s services will mean that their career is over. This myth has it absolutely backwards. Lawyers with active addictions/substance use issues or psychological issues who are not receiving counselling may not be able to practice law effectively, depending on the extent of the issue. But literature shows that lawyers in recovery who are not using substances and lawyers who have been treated for psychological issues can practice as effectively post-treatment as before the issue.

This myth reflects stigma and seeks to shame lawyers who are struggling with issues.  You can learn more about how stigma keeps lawyers from accessing help here.

#8 You pay a co-pay fee when you see a psychologist

Sessions with Assist’s psychologists are free to you within the 4 free sessions per person per issue per year framework. We are not an insurance plan so there is no co-pay and there is no deductible. When you book through our counselling services office (1-877-498-6898), you do not have any financial transactions with the psychologist. Some lawyers choose to continue to see our psychologists for additional sessions (we cover 4 sessions per issue per person per year which allows us to cover a lot, but sometimes people choose to work more deeply on an issue), in which case they will have to pay the psychologist at the psychologist’s hourly rate.

But if you are seeing a counsellor through Assist and the counsellor asks for any sort of payment which is within our coverage, please call our counselling office at 1-877-498-6898 so we can investigate this and ensure that there aren’t any misunderstandings.

Four sessions per person per issue per year can be quite extensive coverage. And the average number of counselling hours to resolve issues has hovered between 2.2 and 2.25 hours over the last two years, which means that many issues are resolved in one or two sessions. generally around 2 hours (which means that some issues are resolved in one hour.)

#9 Assist’s Peer Support Program can’t really be confidential, can it?

I hope that I put your mind at ease about confidentiality and our professional counselling program. But confidentiality of our peer support program has been questioned too. Fortunately, there is a quicker answer to whether our peer support program maintains confidentiality, and the answer is yes!

Our peer support program is structured to ensure that confidentiality is in the hands of the lawyer who calls us. This is how the process works. When a lawyer or student calls us (the caller for ease of reference), we review our peer support lawyers’ profiles to find a volunteer who can assist with the issue faced by the caller, ideally with a few points of commonality. When we identify the best match, we call the volunteer to ask if they are able to take on a peer support match. Sometimes lawyers are having a busy period at work, or they have a personal matter that is occupying all of their energy, and we only want to match the volunteer if they are in a strong headspace. If the volunteer indicates that they are able to take on a match, we tell them that they may receive a call from a lawyer dealing with a type of issue (e.g. coping with anxiety while practicing law, seeking to connect to the 12-step community, or having a difficult articling experience.) We do not disclose any personal or identifying information about the caller whatsoever.

We then call the caller back and provide them with information about the volunteer including the volunteer’s name. The caller then has the opportunity to explain that they have a conflict with the volunteer—they don’t have to share any information about the nature of the conflict. We then go back to our volunteer roster to source another appropriate volunteer. The caller then reaches out to the volunteer on their own terms and timing, remaining in control of their identity until they contact the volunteer.

Peer support volunteers are all lawyers and they are bound by our Code of Conduct with respect to confidentiality. You can learn more on our website.

Did you know that Assist is referenced in the Code of Conduct? The Code of Conduct requires lawyers to report breaches of conduct (Rule 7.1-3), but Commentary [4] specifically addresses how this duty interacts with Assist’s Peer Support program:

  • [4] The Society supports the ASSIST Program in Alberta and similar agencies in their commitment to the provision of counselling on a confidential basis. Therefore, a lawyer who is making a bona fide effort to have another lawyer seek help for such problems is not required to report to the Society non-criminal conduct of that lawyer that would otherwise have to be reported under the rule. However, the lawyer must advise the Society if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the other lawyer is encouraging or will engage in conduct that is criminal or is likely to harm any person or of any other conduct under the rule if the lawyer refuses or fails to seek help.

Assist’s Peer Support volunteers are trained in applying both the Rule and the Commentary, and Assist’s Executive Director is available for support in situations where this Rule may be applicable, as are the Practice Advisors.

You can also read a statement by a Practice Advisor on how this works.

Peer support volunteers are trained in our confidentiality protocols, and we wouldn’t match a volunteer with a caller unless we were confident that they understand their Code of Conduct duties. But this is a theoretical issue—our volunteers want to help their peers, but the volunteers are lawyers first and foremost. We suggest that volunteers inform callers at their first meeting how we ensure both confidentiality in our program and compliance with the Code of Conduct. It can be as simple as informing the caller that they shouldn’t disclose anything that could be criminal conduct which they would be obliged to report.

Our peer support program is confidential, and we believe to manage the theoretical risk that a caller would disclose that they have stolen money from the trust account!

#10 Lawyers are problem solvers—they aren’t the people who have problems

This may be the biggest myth that we need to bust so that lawyers are comfortable asking for help when they need it. Statistics show that we suffer from depression and experience substance issues at much higher rates than the general population:

  Lawyers Articling Students General Population
Major depressive disorder 28.6% 43.6% 15%
Generalized Anxiety Disorder 35.7% 49.8% 13%
Suicidal Ideation 24.1%
(Since beginning practice)
(Since beginning their practice)
(Through their lifetimes)
Psychological Distress 57% 72% 40%
Burnout 55.9% 62.9% Not stated

We can be problem-solvers even when we are struggling with our own issues. But that is where Assist comes in: we help lawyers manage their personal challenges while still providing quality legal services to clients.
Check out the Knowledge Hub on our website for more information about lawyers and mental health.

If you are experiencing stress or distress, please call us. We offer 24/7 crisis support at 1-877-498-6898 (listen to the prompts for instructions after office hours.) We can help you with professional counselling but also with peer support ant community groups to decrease feelings of isolation. Please call us at 1-877-537-5508 for peer support, community and education and awareness activities.

All of your interactions with us are confidential. You will not be alone. And our office phone will be answered by a kind person who is a good listener. This is no myth—it is just how we do things.