Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Why We Love Peer Support

Why We Love Peer Support

We love peer support at Assist! Last week, we blogged about how Red Mug Coffee Circle, our Monday at noon online Peer Support/Community group, participants could learn more about how lawyers get into trouble in our province. Assist instituted its Community programming in 2018 as a step to address the isolation and loneliness epidemic in our profession. Isolation and loneliness are precursors to more serious mental health conditions, including depression, and Assist’s philosophy, rooted in research, is that the earlier an intervention occurs, the more easily the issue is resolved.
We began by holding in-person lawyer and student coffee circles in both Edmonton and Calgary, and then we created our Pop-Up Peer Support coffee circles where articling students and junior lawyers could drop in and have coffee with senior peer support volunteers. The coffee circles were named Red Mug Coffee Circles because our volunteers had red mugs for identification purposes. Community was off to a good start in 2020, and then the pandemic hit. Once we realized that Working-From-Home was going to be long-term, we moved Red Mug Coffee Circles online, and we developed an effective supportive online community which continues to thrive today.
All lawyers and students in the province are welcome to come to Red Mug Coffee Circle. At Red Mug Coffee Circles, we have a pre-set topic, but we can pivot to discuss issues of concern to whoever is attending. We recommend RMCC as a good forum for discussing career and job-finding issues, but that highly personal issues are better suited to our matched peer support program.
Peer support is a process in which one lawyer (the peer) shares their story and strategies with another lawyer (the caller) with respect to a common issue. Assist has about 130 lawyers who are trained in peer support and confidentiality based on our Code of Conduct, and they have a range of personal experiences they can share. Peer support is never advice (legal, financial or otherwise!), and it does not involve solving someone else’s problems for them. It is personal support and encouragement, through sharing one’s own journey, to help another lawyer see that there is a viable path forward.
I have a tendency to define peer support in terms of what it is not to provide helpful boundaries for our volunteers. But it is also possible to define it positively: this is how Peer Support Canada (, a not-for-profit organization that supports peer support programs, defines peer support:
Peer support is emotional and practical support between two people who share a common experience, such as a mental health challenge or illness. A Peer Supporter has lived through that similar experience, and is trained to support others.
There is nothing happenstance or casual about a well-designed peer support program. Assist conducted research on best practices in peer support when our program was implemented in 2011, and we continue to follow research and tweak our program as needed. Confidentiality is paramount—both participants and volunteers must feel safe and confident before sharing personal experience. And we match callers with lawyers carefully based on multiple points of contact to enhance comfort.
Did you know that not all Canadian lawyers have access to a peer support program, and that the authors of the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals recommended that peer support programs be set up? Breakdowns of National Study data by province will be released later in 2024, and I will be interested to see how Alberta, the only province with an independent full-service lawyer assistance program offering both professional counselling and peer support, does.
Here is Recommendation 3.4 to the National Study:
Lastly, training offered to professionals can be improved by strengthening mentoring program structures and by promoting informal training.
The “informal training” referenced in this Recommendation is flushed out with this explanation:
A peer support line would provide support to legal professionals, even if they are not necessarily in a problematic situation, by providing an outlet for talking about their mental health issues.
Here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Peer helpers should be members of the profession in various role and sectors (e.g., judges, criminal law, private/public sector)
  • Peer helpers who volunteer to listen to their peers or participate in informal virtual meetings should be trained by the law society and be bound by confidentiality.

How does Assist’s peer support program stack up vis-à-vis the National Study recommendations?

  • We have peer helpers who listen to their peers
  • Our peer helpers participate in informal volunteer meetings
  • Our peer support volunteers are trained both in peer support principles and in confidentiality by Assist. We believe that peer support and professional counselling programs are best provided by an independent organization since many lawyers express concerns that personal information might be shared with the Law Society (but I want to reinforce that neither lawyer peer support volunteers or professionals subject to Code of Conduct with confidentiality protection are going to breach confidentiality since their careers are at stake.)
  • Our peer support volunteers reflect the diversity of the Alberta legal community in terms of municipality or community of residence, practice areas, work role, profit versus not-for-profit, firm versus in-house, age, seniority, race, religion, origin, gender, orientation, colour, physical and mental ability and disability (if I can use those terms).
  • The only diversity category mentioned by the National Study which we do not offer is “judges.” In some jurisdictions, judges are part of the local lawyer assistance program, but in Alberta, judges have their own programs. We have retired judges on our roster, and we have many peer support volunteers who were appointed to the Bench that we hope will return some day. But lawyers may not be comfortable sharing personal struggles with a judge, and while we assume that judges’ confidentiality duties are very similar to lawyers', the question of equivalency of confidentiality has never been addressed.

Again, Alberta is ahead of the curve.
Earlier this year, Assist made its 400th matched peer support program match! This means that 400 legal community members accessed support through this valued program. Use of our program has increased substantially with normal bumps and plateaus. If graphs aren’t your thing, please think about this: we made our 300th match in 2022, just under two years before our 400th match.
And we have supported more than 100 additional individuals through Red Mug Coffee Circles.
Why do we have two individual-centric programs (professional counselling and peer support)? Because different issues require different resources, and sometimes both professional counselling and peer support are deployed together, providing different kinds of assistance.
Almost everyone who calls our professional counselling service self-discloses that they are experiencing a psychological condition (anxiety, stress, depression, burnout), which make sense since they are asking for psychological intervention. Beyond the psychological condition (which can be a symptom), we also track the nature of the underlying issue, like work/school issues, family/relationship issues, medical issues, substance use etc.)
But almost half of lawyers and students requesting peer support are experiencing career-related issues. In 2023, more than 40% of service users identified career-related issues as well as 13% of service users who were articling students. While articling students occasionally face issues other than career-related issues (e.g., failing PREP), most of the issues they call us about relate to workplace issues.
So, we have different programs for different needs—sensible, given the data.
Peer support is a very cost-effective program as it relies on volunteers. Staff time is involved in training volunteers, reviewing profiles to make the most effective match, and tracking, but this is much less than the hourly rate of our Registered Psychologists!

 If you aren’t sure where to start but realize that you want assistance, we recommend starting with professional counselling unless your question is discrete, like asking to be connected to a lawyer who successfully navigated a career pivot. When issues are multi-faceted, our psychologists can recommend peer support for some issues while providing therapeutic support for others.
But if you are nervous about meeting with a counsellor, peer support can be an opportunity to learn more about counselling and that is not just for lawyers experiencing severe mental health conditions. We will match you with a volunteer who can share how counselling helped them to help reduce initial anxiety.
If we were on social media, I would ask you to “like” Assist and its programs. But this is a blog, and we don’t have any cute icons so I am going to ask instead you to consider being an Assist ambassador to ensure that all lawyers and students know that we are here for them. After all, more than 400 Alberta lawyers and students can’t be wrong!