This month’s cover story is a cautionary tale but also a chance to openly discuss issues facing many lawyers across Canada, the majority of whom work alone or in small firms. Anyone practising law knows it’s no walk in the park. Law is a stressful profession bookended by the need to stay solvent on one end and the demands of clients on the other. For lawyers in larger firms, it is somewhat easier to manage than it is for those who practise alone or in smaller firms. Large firms have not only more lawyers to turn to if you’ve got questions or problems but many have built-in support mechanisms, educational opportunities, and even accounting and human resource departments to do a lot of the basics. That’s not the case for many other lawyers and they do run into problems trying to juggle all their various responsibilities.
But it’s more than just the difficulties of the day-to-day running of a law practice — it’s the overwhelming stress of practice in general. I don’t know a single lawyer who doesn’t know at least one other lawyer who has problems with drugs or alcohol or even both. Long hours, high expectations, hefty workloads, and complex work create a perfect storm for substance abuse. What may start out as the occasional drink after work can quickly turn into a daily need for alcohol or something stronger to take the edge off. In this, the size of the law firm does not matter. Stress is stress and the search for a crutch knows no limits.
In the good old days, which weren’t really all that long ago, colleagues often knew about another lawyer’s drug or alcohol problem but not much was said about it, a few friends may have tried to help but the problem was kept hush hush. But as discipline records at the law societies will show, in the end, it’s often personal problems that start to hurt the law practice and frequently end in letters from the law society or even disbarment. It’s more likely to be a marriage breakdown or similar personal problem than any real nefarious behaviour that is at the root of what sends many a lawyer in the vortex of disciplinary proceedings.
In recent years, there has been a much greater realization of these problems within the legal profession in Canada. We saw the creation of many lawyer assistance groups across the country. Most started simply as drug- and alcohol-support organizations but they’ve grown into much more. For lawyers who are having trouble in certain areas of their practice, they can access peer support networks to help with, say, accounting problems or complicated cases. For those having emotional or substance-abuse problems, there is access to professional counsellors in every province across the country. The Canadian Bar Association even has a section that provides education, support, and expertise to strengthen these provincial lawyer assistance programs.
Help is out there. It’s up to lawyers to recognize when they’re having problems and reach out. But there’s just as much of an onus on friends and colleagues to reach out and offer a helping hand or a bit of guidance to keep their lawyer pals off the radar of the law societies’ discipline departments.
To co-opt a catchphrase from the Bush administration: no lawyer should be left behind.