A few weekends ago, I joined about 78 Legal Assistance Plan volunteers from across British Columbia at the annual LAPBC volunteer’s training retreat in Harrison Lake. Our profession is fortunate to be served by so many caring people willing to help colleagues facing challenges. We all know our job can be stressful and collectively, we need to face some of the negative ways that stress manifests itself in our profession.
Of course, the pressures of practising law reach beyond our provincial and even national borders. Over the years, I have enjoyed the opportunity to participate in conferences put on by our colleagues south of the border. The American Bar Association commission on lawyer assistance programs serves a similar role for American attorneys and sharing perspectives on assistance programs for lawyers has proven beneficial to both sides.
I have witnessed the breadth of LAP programs across the continent. I have also seen firsthand the good work they do for our members. Many of us have a colleague who has benefited from the programs LAPs offer whether we know it or not. We all manage the pressures of our career in different ways, but there is no denying these programs have an important role to play in the overall wellness of lawyers.
My personal involvement with the LAP began in 2001 primarily through my former role as CBA-BC president. The CBA-BC mandate was “lawyers for lawyers”; LAPBC’s was “lawyers helping lawyers.” It seemed an appropriate match.
After completing my term as president, I joined the board of the CBA Legal Profession Assistance Conference, which serves as an umbrella organization to the LAPs across the country. In 2012, after having served as chair of LPAC for two years between 2008 and 2010, I joined the board of the LAPBC and I continue as current board member.
For many of us, achieving a balanced work life is not as easy as it sounds. The LPAC has reported that stress, anxiety, and burnout are the most prevalent issues affecting the legal profession with only 37 per cent of lawyers surveyed believing they had enough time to exercise and 45 per cent believing they lacked enough quality time at home with family.
Lawyers are not alone. The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime and this may include depression, stress, anxiety, and addiction.
In 2012, Ipsos Reid conducted a national survey on the health of the legal profession. It showed 58 per cent of us have experienced stress or burnout; about half suffer from anxiety; and about a third have experienced emotional stress, including worries about job security.
Importantly, the survey found a correlation between long hours and unhealthy habits. In short, the survey underscored the importance of good work/life balance.
Regrettably, the survey also showed that only one of 12 lawyers turned to an LAP for help.
LAPs have a broad mandate of assisting members who are having difficulties that adversely affect their lives, both personally and professionally. Lawyers work in a challenging, competitive, demanding, and stressful profession. Balancing career and family responsibilities can add to the pressure.
The demanding nature of the legal profession can result in burnout, depression, alcohol or drug dependency, family problems, and other difficulties that can affect your performance and judgment and destroy your reputation and practice.
LAPs are staffed by experienced professionals trained to assist members in a wide variety of health and addiction matters. The LAP will also refer clients to a third-party professional, if necessary. LAP will assist lawyers with crisis management, to help assist with short-term solutions, but they will also help lawyers stay healthy for the long term. In B.C., for instance, the LAP offers programs on work-life balance, meditation, counseling, and referral services.
LAPs offer a range of supports to help lawyers identify and respond to these issues. Special thanks are due to our many peer support workers. These lawyers take on volunteer assignments because they understand how important it is to serve the profession. By understanding the issues and assisting their peers find answers and take appropriate courses of action, support workers are a key tool towards conflict resolution. This can often be a road that a peer support worker has already travelled and that experience can help shape a productive course of action for a lawyer in need of help.
Many of us may never need the LAP. At the same time, a change in personal or professional circumstances might cause you to reach out for help you never thought you would need.
Because of the sensitive nature of personal problems, lawyers in need are often reluctant to seek help. An LAP is designed to assist lawyers and their family with health and addiction problems by ensuring confidentiality is a high priority. Our B.C. LAP is a separate, independent entity from the law society and is under no mandate to report lawyers in trouble.
As you continue through our profession you are likely to come across a member who needs help. In such cases, you owe it to yourself, your colleague and to the profession to provide the support you can and make the individual aware of the LAP resources available.
Whatever the problem, lawyers in crisis need not manage alone. Often a quick call to the provincial LAP is all it takes to start getting professional help. Don’t delay making the call and wait for things to get worse. If you, a friend, or a colleague is in trouble, seeking professional help will make a difference. Once you have made the call, you have taken the first step. Your LAP will take it from there.
Here are some resources to assist you or someone you know with connecting to LAP.
Find your local branch
Legal Profession Assistance Conference of the CBA
1.800.667.5722 (24 Hour Help Line)
Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia
604.685.2171 or 1.888.685.2171
Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society
1.877.737.5508 (Peer Support Help Line) or 1.877.498.6896 (24/7 Professional Counselling)
Manitoba Lawyers At Risk
1.800.590.5553 (24/7 Help Line)
New Brunswick Lawyers’ Assistance Program
1.800.315.2244 (24/7 Bilingual Help Line)
Northwest Territories Lawyers’ Assistance Program
1.800.663.1142 (24/7 Help Line)
1.800.398.9505 (en francais)
Nova Scotia Lawyers’ Assistance Program
1.866.299.1299 (24/7 Help Line)
Nunavut Lawyers’ Assistance Program
Contracted through the Ontario Member Assistance Program
Ontario Lawyers’ Member Assistance Program
Saskatchewan Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers
Yukon Lawyers’ Assistance Program
Try the self-tests provided by the legal assistance program
The LAPBC has a number of self-tests that can assist you in discovering yourself and your situation. Take the first step to help yourself, and explore these. If you are unsure if your colleague or acquaintance has a problem, encourage them to try a self-test. There are tests for depression, alcoholism, drug addictions, gambling, work addictions, and others. Remember that this is not diagnostic, but it is a helpful tool.
The LAPBC web site features a number of articles and videos by respected and successful lawyers that detail their journeys. By connecting with these stories you will soon discover that you are not alone. By helping yourself, you will help others. Many lawyers are open about their journey with addiction and mental health.
As past chairman and current board member of LPAC, I meet with lawyers who provide ongoing support and generally participate in creating a healthier bar. Getting involved with a provincial LAP is an excellent way of giving back to the legal community.
Lawyers are change-makers, leaders, activists, and advocates and our skills are needed to benefit the profession and the public in this area. When one in five Canadians are affected, there is a lot of work to do. Lawyers are in stressful, highly demanding professions and together we can remove stigmas and support members of the legal profession that struggle with drugs, alcohol, depression, anxiety, and other mental health and emotional issues.
For me, this is about working together towards a healthier profession and society.