Freeing the imperfect lawyer: Part 4

So you're busy, and how are you, really?

Freeing the imperfect lawyer: Part 4

This article contains information about suicide that may be difficult to read and triggering for some people. If you feel the need, please contact Crisis Services Canada.

What if you found out that out of each of 4 of your colleagues, one had experienced suicidal thoughts at some point during their legal practice?

In late 2022, a team at Sherbrooke University led by Dr. Nathalie Cadieux released the results of the first comprehensive study on well-being in the Canadian legal profession. More than half of the approximately 7,300 lawyers, paralegals, articling students, and notaries who responded to this study reported experiencing psychological distress and burnout. Those rates are even higher for those living with a disability, articling students, lawyers aged 26-35, legal professionals with less than 10 years of experience, those identifying as members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, and women. And, perhaps most shockingly of all, 24.1 percent of respondents reported having had suicidal thoughts since joining the profession. By contrast, just over 2 percent of Canadians are estimated to have suicidal thoughts annually.

For most of us, the report itself is not surprising. The extent of the damage, however, is. Glen Hickerson, chair of the CBA’s well-being subcommittee, says, “I knew that there was bad weather; I just didn’t know there was a hurricane outside my door.”

What if the way we practice law, and the way we talk to each other about our practice, is what is harming us? And what if, without engaging in a game of “blame the victim,” we could each, individually and collectively, take steps to remedy the problem?

Outdated conversations – how are you, really?

As we have explored in parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, human beings are linguistic beings, and it is through language that we give meaning to our existence. Language not only describes reality; it actively creates our reality.

As individuals and professionals, our reality is created mainly by the network of conversations we have together. The conversations that we engage in about practising law (both with legal professionals and others) play a significant role in shaping our reality and how we operate. Our shared experiences and interactions form a collective identity, shaping how we perceive ourselves and others and interact with the world around us.

In our experience, friendly conversations between lawyers, or between lawyers and their clients, often look something like this:

“How are you?”

“You know, busy.”

Glen Hickerson calls this the "Lawyer's Elevator Pitch": Like an elevator ride, it's quick, brings the conversation to a pre-determined and limited destination, and you can practically see the doors closing as you say it.

Busy is the new well: busyness is a badge of honour and proves just how important and impressive one is – and, therefore, how well one is. This culture is not unique to legal practitioners, and much has already been written about the culture of busyness in the past decade. This seemingly innocuous conversation directly creates a reality that is not sustainable and contributes to the metaphorical hurricane outside our door.

To produce new results, we must learn to have conversations that generate fresh outcomes and new possibilities. We may otherwise be stuck with our default conversations and a future that reflects the past or, even worse, a situation that deteriorates further.

As human beings, we are part of networks of conversations, both at home and at work. Some conversations are explicit, while others are background conversations that are never expressed but always understood, such as an expectation to work certain hours or to look, act, and speak a certain way.

When concerns about these expectations are raised, they may be “heard” in the biological sense of “sensing sound,” but are the people who are members of the organization, and especially their leaders, actually “listening”? Listening is not a passive activity; it requires hearing and interpreting. In other words, one can hear without having listened.

Some of the readers’ comments on a recent article published online by Quebec specialized media Droit-inc. perfectly exemplify the challenges associated with listening. The article recounts the story of an aspiring young lawyer working to be called to the bar. She expresses concern as to the future of the profession, based on the conversations occurring between her peers, and advocates for better mentorship. In particular, she highlights that before even being called to the bar, her peers are extremely anxious; and that those who have been recently called tell her that they are “overworked, stressed out, and unable to see any joy in what they are doing.”

Here are some of the readers’ reactions to this wake-up call (most of which are anonymous):

“The profession is stressful. If these students already need help at this early stage, they should be doing something else.”

“The profession is unhealthy. In other words, after being called to the bar, you will be just as stressed out.”

“Those little bunnies aren’t very strong, are they? What will happen when a judge calls them out for not being prepared enough? They ain’t out of the woods yet!”

“NO ONE IS FORCING YOU TO DO THIS. It's ok to admit that the profession is not for you and find something else. Life is hard enough. Find something that will not crush your spirit.”

Arguably, some of these readers are genuinely trying to be helpful. However, many not only dismiss the very explicit call for help; they expressly feed the “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” mentality and actively shame and bully the young student out of the profession. Their words create a stressful, unhealthy, uncaring, arrogant, crushing reality – one that is generally unwell in our assessment.

They are telling the aspiring lawyer, and their peers, that the practice of law is fundamentally soul-crushing. Is this what we want for ourselves?

Select findings from the national study

The Sherbrooke University study highlights several challenges in the legal profession. One such challenge is billable hours, which make up 67.9 percent of the time legal professionals work. This leads to extended working hours and added pressure, affecting work-life balance. The study also finds that billable hours increase psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and burnout. Surprisingly, the effects arising from the pressure to meet billable hour targets do not decrease with years of practice, and create a gradual drain, leading to even more significant psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and burnout.

Another challenge the study highlights is the constant stream of information that lawyers face through text messages, collaborative platforms, and mobile technologies. This leads to work-family conflict, anxiety, and burnout.

The study finds that younger lawyers experience higher levels of distress, with 73.8 percent of lawyers with less than three years of experience reporting psychological distress and 49.8 percent of articling students reporting mental health issues since starting their legal practice. The study shows that psychological distress decreases as lawyers gain more experience. Nevertheless, drinking and drug use among lawyers is significant: 42.2 percent of women and 36.5 percent of men surveyed had possible alcohol dependence, and 22.7 percent of participants reported using drugs for non-medical purposes in the last 12 months.

Might these findings help explain some of the conversations the aspiring young lawyer triggers?

Better conversations

As legal professionals, our focus on the bottom line may lead us to disregard the suffering and hardships resulting from our actions. Professor Jarrod F. Reich explored the significant direct and indirect costs incurred by law firms related to the lack of well-being in their workforce, mainly in the form of (1) disciplinary actions; (2) absenteeism and presenteeism; and (3) costs associated with high attrition.

These costs are not inevitable. Legal workplaces can be successful while also treating legal professionals well. We believe that the latter is a condition of the former. We must create a space where people (and businesses) thrive while still treating them with respect and compassion. By doing so, we can establish a culture that values and prioritizes the well-being of all. A collaborative and supportive environment can lead to greater success and satisfaction for everyone.

We maintain that this begins with having better conversations, for which the Sherbrooke University study is a catalyst. The stream of comments in reaction to the aspiring young lawyer’s call indicates an opportunity for us to assess what is essential as individuals and a profession. What if, instead of accepting that “the profession is unhealthy,” as one reader did, we collectively set out to create one that is and seek ways to make it so?

Let’s all be a little more like Elle Woods

In part 2 of this series (“Observing and Deciding Better”), we discussed the world we previously lived in, whereby a good lawyer projects an image of perfection. Michaela Pratt, from How to Get Away with Murder, was the embodiment of that vision: she has memorized everything there is to know; she believes relationships are secondary; her main goal is getting the job done quickly and efficiently and accumulating billable hours. We contrasted Michaela Pratt to Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods: she believes anyone can practise law (“You got into Harvard Law?”– “What like it’s hard?”); she is all about building solid relationships with colleagues and clients.

Our world was one where Elle Woods was a mistake.

What if, instead of viewing her way of being as “less than,” we chose to view it as… a possibility?

We do not suggest that we must all bring a pink-clad chihuahua to our next work meeting. We suggest that perpetuating tropes about how “unhealthy” and “soul-crushing” the legal profession is less valuable than showing openness to other perspectives  and fostering relationship-building through conversation. In our next article, we will explore some of these conversations that are available to us.

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