Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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The Kids Aren't Alright*

The Kids Aren’t Alright*

(*with apologies to The Who, as well as to The Offspring, and Fallout Boy and everyone else who has riffed off Pete Townsend’s lyrics)

I often begin presentations about lawyer well-being with a cartoon that I found on an open-source website a few years ago:

Having passed that first 30 year hurdle a few years ago, I agree with the sentiment—practising law does eventually get easier, but it takes a long time.

And now we have data, courtesy of the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada, that articling students (and lawyers in the first ten years of practice) have higher rates of depression, psychological distress, and burnout. Being older and with longer service in the profession may help mitigate the impact of negative aspects of our profession.

At Assist, we are poring through these data to ensure that we understand the demographics within our profession who are suffering more than others and that we have appropriate support mechanisms. The Study breaks out responses by gender, ethnicity, disability, LGBTQ2S+ community membership, Indigeneity, practice area, practice setting, age, years in practice—a plethora of potential diversity. You will be hearing more about how Assist is responding to concerns identified in the Study, including the work to be done by our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee in the new year.

One of the groups which is experiencing a high rate of distress is articling students, almost half of whom (49.8% of articling students across Canada who participated in the Study) have had a mental health diagnosis since beginning their legal careers. More than one-quarter of the students often considered leaving the legal profession and more than half would be slightly to highly likely to accept another occupation at the same compensation level if it were offered.

This is why I titled todays’ blog “The Kids Aren’t Alright.” I hope I haven’t offended anyone by referring to articling students as “kids” as part of my callout to lawyers in management roles. It has been thirty-six years since I was an articling student—the same period of time between the Canadian Men’s soccer team’s appearances at the World Cup. So, even though many articling students had legal careers in another country or a different career before going to law school, you are all younger than me, and in the legal profession “family,” you are the junior members. And saying that “the kids aren’t alright” is my light-hearted way of drawing attention to those of us who know The Who better than The Offspring and Fallout Boy to the fact that we need to work together to improve conditions both for incoming cohorts of articling students and for the conditions they will continue to face as junior lawyers where things are still much less than rosy.

Let’s start by looking at what the Study tells us about how lawyers and articling students are doing. The Study included Quebec notaries and Ontario paralegals as well as lawyers and articling students, but the data below relate only to Canadian lawyers and articling students. The picture isn’t happy for lawyers, either: Canadian lawyers have high rates of major depressive disorders, psychological distress, and burnout, and the rates at which articling students experience these conditions is even higher.

  Lawyers Articling Students General Population Page Reference
Major depressive disorder  28.6% 43.6% 15% 36
Psychological Distress 57% 72% 40% 30
Burnout 55.8% 62.9% Not stated 47

There is one psychological health measure where articling students had a lower rate of occurrence: suicidal ideation since commencing legal practice. Twenty-four percent of lawyers disclosed having had suicidal thoughts over the course of their careers, while only 19% of articling students reported suicidal thoughts. However, given that articling students’ legal careers have been less than one year in duration, this does not in any way suggest that articling students have better mental health than lawyers.

The Study also reports that consumption of alcohol and drugs in our profession is at a “worrying level”—we will be looking at this, too.

That articling students are struggling should not come as a surprise to lawyers. While all of Assist’s programs are open to both lawyers and articling students, we have two programs that focus on articling students.

We know that law practice stress begins during the articling term, and that steps we take to support articling students may help reduce distress over the course of a career. Assist believes that an investment in articling student well-being will pay dividends for many years—but while there may be a pragmatic reason for doing this, supporting people at vulnerable points is simply the right thing to do.

When the 2019 Law Society of Alberta Articling Student Survey was released, indicating that about one-third of articling student and junior lawyer respondents experienced harassment or discrimination during either articling or the recruit, Assist developed two strategies.

First, we created Red Mug Coffee Circles, drop-in coffee times where an articling student or junior lawyer could sit down with a senior Assist peer support volunteer, removing the potential barrier of having to telephone to schedule an appointment. Do not dismiss this barrier lightly—in reality, small steps can be weighty for those who are down-trodden. We kicked off our drop-in coffee circles in Calgary and Edmonton in early 2020 with our volunteers having red coffee mugs for ease of recognition, and then we moved online (thanks, COVID.)

Red Mug Coffee Circles thrived during the lockdown as lawyers and students looked for meaningful ways to connect. We now have RMCCs for discussing issues of general interest to the legal community as well as RMCCs with topics designed for those finding their way into our profession. We may need a new colour for our volunteers’ mugs if we return to in-person drop-in times at or near the courthouses!

Secondly, we developed an articling student outreach program. In 2020-21, a team of more than 80 Assist peer support volunteers telephoned about 500 articling students to ask how each student was doing and to ensure that students were aware of how Assist could provide help. This was a massive undertaking. In 2021 we had fewer volunteers making personal phone calls so we offered a mix of telephone calls with an articling student peer support team who students could call or email at any time.

There is no doubt that the in-person phone call was more meaningful and successful, so we are returning to the original model this year but will only ask volunteers to make one phone call, in January, rather than one in November and one in March. Please consider if you would be willing to join this initiative. And consider inviting a friend or colleague to volunteer as well—we will provide a short, recorded training video.

Feedback we received from lawyers who chose not to participate last year was that they liked calling students, but they did not like interacting with gatekeeper receptionists who asked intrusive questions about who they were and why they were calling. To address this concern, Assist’s staff will be doing our best to get direct telephone numbers for as many students as possible. So, if not having a direct telephone number for students was a barrier for your ongoing participation, please consider volunteering again.

There have been more than 500 articling students per year over the last five years, so we need something in the range of 100 volunteers each making 5 telephone calls, or 50 volunteers each making 10 calls, or 250 volunteers each making two or three calls. Please consider what you can do and help us reach out to all Alberta articling students to show them that there are members of our profession who care about them and that there are resources to provide support to them.

Our memories of painful times often fade over time, but I doubt that there are many lawyers whose articling period was stress-free, with no caustic senior lawyers or judges, no evening and weekend work, and no demeaning opposing counsel. The 24/7 availability cycle has added a new dimension that most of us didn’t experience. Please considers if you can step up to reach out to the current crop of students.

We know that the articling student callout may not appeal to everyone, so please consider dropping in to our Red Mug Coffee Circle on Monday. RMCC isn’t limited to articling students or junior lawyers—everyone is welcome to come. But our discussion is often focused on connecting students and juniors with support, resources and strategies. This week, we will be looking at two key skills identified in the Study as mitigating factors against well-being challenges in our profession: assertiveness and psychological detachment.

“Assertiveness” is defined as “confidence in interpersonal relationships manifested by the ability to express their emotions spontaneously and the ability to set boundaries that respect their rights, thoughts, and feelings without denying those of others.”

“Psychological Detachment” is defined as the “ability of individual to disengage oneself mentally from work during time off the job.”

We know how difficult it can be for articling students to set and enforce boundaries (or to acknowledge, let alone express, their emotions with respect to their working conditions and stressors). Assist will be exploring and sharing strategies on Monday. But if you are a senior lawyer in a management position, please consider how your organization could encourage assertiveness (in a reasonable model) and detachment both through policies and by walking the walk.

Of course, pressing work has to get done. We all know that there are peak times when an all-out effort is required. But is there recovery time for your articling students and junior lawyers between peak times? Can articling students and juniors turn off their email and enjoy an evening or weekend while still being seen as team players? Can those of us who are senior recognize that we could modify our own behaviours in relatively small ways to allow students and juniors to thrive and stay in their positions and in our profession?

Please consider joining us for our articling student outreach (email  and for Red Mug Coffee Circles. We break off into smaller groups (breakout rooms!) if we have more than about 15 people at RMCC.

Let’s show our articling students that we care about their well-being as they get through what will likely be the most challenging year in their careers while helping make our profession a healthier place to practice.

And to all of the articling students out there, please know that there is a community of lawyers who volunteer with Assist who care about you and how you are doing. Visit our website to learn more about our programs, or call me (587-779-7205) or Eileen (1-877-737-5508) to talk about how we can help you. Professional counselling is confidential and free (1-877-498-6898) and we provide 24/7 crisis counselling (1-877-498-6898 and press “0”) with a senior psychologist. We can help you through peer support—sometimes talking to someone else who has been through a challenge you are facing helps, and you can practice talking about your needs (assertiveness plus psychological detachment) with a lawyer who understands where your principal or senior lawyer is coming from to help you frame your conversation most effectively.        

Many of our strategies to support articling students, and lawyers in general, are reactive—people call in as a result of something they have experienced, which is very important—but we believe in proactive support, helping you head off issues before they become fully manifested. It is in this spirit that we will be putting together resources and learning opportunities about mitigating strategies. Stay tuned.