Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

News & Events

Pandemic Peer Support

If you would have told me in February that on July 10, Assist staff would have been working from our own homes for 17 weeks, that we would be busier than ever and that such exciting things would be happening, I’m pretty sure I would not have believed you. But, read on.

I am excited to announce that Assist will be launching our new website on July 20th! Thanks to a generous donation from Icona Inc, website designers, we were able to use our work-from-home time to create a great new resource for Alberta lawyers, articling students, law students and their families. Watch for more next week!

There was just one hiccup in this plan—it was premised on the theory that we would not be as busy while working remotely and I would be able to devote large chunks of time to the project. That has just not been the case.
We saw many opportunities to provide resources to our community members using new tools like Zoom and webinars, we’ve moved many groups to online forums and developed new ways of connecting the Alberta legal community. However, somehow, the website is nearly done, in spite of the pandemic.

We have all been impacted differently by the pandemic. I am one of the lucky ones—my kids are adults now and I thoroughly enjoy working from home. When my resident son returned to his office several weeks ago, I took over the dining room (where he had been set up) and said goodbye to my cramped and dark office. I now have light and space, and my little canine companion is usually curled up a few feet away.

But I talk to lawyers and students—it is important for Assist to know how lawyers and students are doing and what types of issues they are facing—and I know that people are still struggling with challenges.

Many people, even a reporter, have asked me if lawyers are feeling more stress and distress due to COVID-19 and physical isolation. My unscientific answer was “of course”—we were in the midst of a pandemic and people were cooped up in their homes, trying to work under some very challenging situations. We had a lot of anecdotal information, but we know that the plural of anecdote is not data (to borrow a line from Dr. Raj on the CBC morning show). However, we are beginning to see enough data to answer this question somewhat empirically.

Data about professional counselling services has a lag time. I am currently waiting for June stats, but May of 2020 was the busiest May in our history—up 12% over 2018 and 2019—after March and April lagged behind 2019 usage rates. It takes more than one month to develop a trend, so we will see what the June data tell us. I will share where we are in the next week or two.

Our data for March and April suggest that people were hunkering down, tending to more basic needs like safety from the virus and security of supplies—very much on the first tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

As we flattened the curve in May, and entered Phase 1 of reopening, people were able to turn to their well-being, or were able to confront issues that were arising with respect to their family and work lives.

Peer support usage, however, continued steadily through the year. March, April and May were all close to average.
2019 was our busiest year to date for peer support. We made 33 support matches.

In the 8 months ended June 30, 2020 (our year runs from November 1, 2020 through October 31, 2020), we made 24 matches, so we are on track for matching or exceeding our busiest year.

Lawyers and students are reaching out, and Assist is here to support them.

So what types of issues are we seeing? On the professional counselling front, we are seeing COVID-19 related issues, along with family issues and work-related issues.

In terms of peer support, though, work-related issues continue to dominate. We can’t always talk to our colleagues about issues we are facing—especially when these issues are rooted in the workplace, so it is not surprising that lawyers reach out for peer support when encountering workplace or career issues.

This category includes lawyers who are considering job changes or leaving law, who are dealing with interpersonal relationship issues, who feel they have been bullied or harassed, and who are concerned about work-life balance. Because we have more than 135 trained Peer Support volunteers, we have depth and bench-strength in workplace issues.

In 2019, 42% of peer support matches were work or career-related, and in 2020 to date, this has increased to 62.5%. We are providing support to people who have lost jobs, feel insecure in their jobs and are enduring unpalatable situations because of the poor job market.

The second most common issue in both 2019 and 2020 to date is articling-related issues, which is largely work and career-related issues for articling students. In 2019, 27% of peer support presenting issues were regarding articling. In 2020, this slipped to 22%, but we are providing support to articling students in our Red Mug Coffee Circles.

In 2020, we have heard from articling students whose articles were terminated when our society locked down or who have finished their articles and few legal employers are currently hiring, given the uncertain times we living in. We partnered with LESA to address concerns from unemployed students and junior lawyers, called the Career Development Webinar series, on networking, what recruiters look for and how to set up your own firm. These webinars will be available on our new website.

If we add the lawyer work-related issues to the articling work-related issues, almost 85% of our peer support matches are connected with the practice of law, rather than people’s personal circumstances.

If you are a lawyer or articling student who would perhaps like to be a peer support volunteer but aren’t sure that you have relevant experiences, you are likely selling yourself short!

While I am pleased that so many lawyers and students are coming to Assist for peer support, I am concerned about what we aren’t seeing in 2020.

We haven’t had anyone seeking peer support for psychological issues (anxiety, depression, burnout) and we haven’t had anyone approach us for peer support related to substance use. We know that lawyers face much higher rates of mental health and substance use issues than the general population (three times and two times, respectively.

It may be harder for lawyers and students dealing with issues like anxiety, depression and burnout or substance use to come forward, or to reach out, right now, so I want to reiterate that we have well-trained and experienced volunteers who are on deck to help.

If you are concerned about a friend, call us about how to have a conversation with your friend about how Assist can help.

My take on the high proportion of peer support calls in 2020 relating to career issues (whether as lawyers or articling students) shows that when we have job or financial insecurity, everything else takes a backseat. But we can only postpone other issues for so long before they become unmanageable or require more intensive intervention.

Yesterday, we trained new peer support volunteers who will help us in some non-traditional peer support programs. This fall, we will be telephoning all articling students in Alberta to ask how they are doing. Calling out for help can be scary, but what if a caring person called you to ask how you are? The Law Society articling student survey indicated that one-third of articling students experienced harassment or discrimination in either recruitment or articling, so we want to build a connection with students to make it easy for them to talk to a peer support volunteer if they are in a difficult situation.

There are usually about 500 articling students per year in Alberta, so we will be asking all of our peer support volunteers to join us, and we are training some new Assist Ambassadors—new volunteers who have had the first stage of training.

We have one more training session for new peer support volunteers on July 25th. This is a level 1 training—equipping lawyers to be Assist Ambassadors to reach out to articling students. If you would like to participate in this, please email Eileen at program-manager@lawyersassist.ca to reserve a spot.

We will provide full peer support training for these new volunteers once we are able to train together as a group and do role playing, an important way of core developing peer support skills.

If you aren’t able to do Assist Ambassador training, please consider if you would be willing to serve as a mentor to internationally-trained lawyers new to Canada who are in the process of having their law degrees evaluated by the National Committee on Accreditation or who have completed the NCA process and are seeking articling positions. Both the Calgary Regional Immigration Employment Council (CRIEC) and the Edmonton Regional Immigration Employment Council (ERIEC) need lawyers who are willing to have a one-hour virtual coffee per week for 16 weeks with a lawyer who is new to Canada. Call us if you would like to connect to these groups.

Thank you for being interested in the well-being of other lawyers (you took the time to read this, so I know you care).

Loraine