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The silent, hidden struggle in our profession

As I sit here on my way to Montreal, I see that Sept. 10 is national suicide prevention day. It occurred to me that in the many years of writing for this forum as the “in-house coach,” I have never touched upon mental illness. This is an especially important issue, in light of the unique struggles being faced by law students and recent calls to the bar.

The challenges faced by the newest members of our profession are unprecedented. They are making a substantial investment of their time and money (tuition is now approaching $30,000 per year) in attending law school. Upon graduating, there is an ongoing struggle to find articling roles (paid or unpaid). After finding an articling placement, if fortunate enough to find a job, they often struggle to pay back their tuition, struggle to buy or rent a home or apartment (also at historically high prices) and then they struggle to balance the competing obligations of family.

When you add the pressures of work/life balance and dealing with health issues (your own or family), it is clear to see why so many of our newest colleagues become victims of mental illness depression, anxiety and other illnesses.

Unfortunately, just getting through the humps early on in one’s career is not enough. A recent study found that even among successful lawyers, the rate of mental health issues is large. In fact, the “larger the firm and the more lucrative the role, the more likely a lawyer was to experience depressive symptoms.”

How can this be? The added pressures of the long hours and the effect on work/life balance apparently become more significant than the uncertainty of articling and finding your place within this profession.

When faced with such pressures and challenges, you generally have two options: fight or flight. Some will unfortunately abandon the profession and take their skills into other areas such as compliance, human resources and government affairs. Others choose to stay on and continue as is, but, eventually,  this perpetual fight response, unless addressed, will take a heavy toll both physically and mentally.

We need a third option: As a profession, we need to provide our members and colleagues the tools they need to stay in our profession, stay healthy and deal with mental illness. So, what can we all do to help? Here are some suggestions:

  • First, it is important to understand that this is not personal. As you can see, this is a struggle being faced by many other lawyers at all levels of their careers. No one should feel ashamed or alone while struggling with mental illness or the factors that can lead to this. It is not about you; it is a common struggle for us as a profession.
  • While in law school, students need to take advantage of the resources available to them through the school to learn techniques to overcome minor anxiety and stress. These tips and the strategies for coping with the stress and the anxiety are extremely valuable and something that you will carry throughout your career. Start early.
  • Be patient and understand that not everyone’s career takes a linear path. For some, meeting their career objectives will require making unplanned decisions or steps. Just keep focused on meeting your long-term objectives, while maintaining flexibility with regard to how you get there. Be prepared and expect bumps along the way; these are common and never insurmountable.
  • We need to, individually and as a profession, stop perpetuating the following stereotypes: “Millennials are lazy” and “mental illness is a sign of weakness.” By ignoring the real struggles being faced by members of our profession, we are contributing to the problem and not the solution.
  • As mid- or senior-level members of the bar, we should assist in mentoring and helping other members cope with change, share our stories and provide constructive career advice where possible. Not only is such advice valuable, but lending a hand and providing support can go a very long way.
  • Finally, but importantly, if you are feeling overwhelmed and need assistance or if you need to speak to someone, you can reach out through the resources provided by programs such as the Canadian Bar Association as part of its professional development initiatives. For example, you can check out the CBA Wellness page for videos, tips and resources to help lawyers deal with mental illness. Law societies may also have valuable tools and resources to assist. For example, the Law Society of Ontario recently released its Member Assistance Program to assist lawyers, paralegals and students. As an in-house counsel, you will also have access to your employer’s employee assistance plans. Law firms may also provide confidential and valuable programs to provide support. Do not hesitate to take advantage of these important tools and resources.

I conclude by reiterating my main point here: It is not you. You are not alone. Many members of our profession, at all levels, are struggling through mental illness issues and the stressors that can lead to mental illness.

Do not be afraid or embarrassed to get support or take advantage of the tools available to us in dealing with this important issue. We can all play a role in providing a helping hand, in advocating for more resources and in ensuring that when needed, we step up for our colleagues. You never know, it may be you that needs this help tomorrow.