Erin Durant on speaking up about mental health and the importance of sponsorship for women lawyers

Durant will appear at Canadian Lawyer's Women in Law summit in April

Erin Durant on speaking up about mental health and the importance of sponsorship for women lawyers
Erin Durant

Erin Durant is a litigator in Ottawa, founder of Durant Barristers and one of Canadian Lawyer’s Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers in 2022. For our CL Talk podcast, we spoke about her book It Burned Me All Down, where she wrote openly about her mental health struggles during the pandemic and argued for the need for better health and wellness in the legal profession.

Durant will speak at Canadian Lawyer’s Women in Law summit in April, where she will be addressing the importance of mentoring and sponsorship.

Listen to our full podcast episode here:

You can also find this episode on our CL Talk podcast homepage with links to follow CL Talk in all the major podcast providers.

Below is an edited summary of the conversation.

Tell me a bit about your experiences during the pandemic and what led you to write your book.

Like many people, I had a difficult time early in the pandemic with my mental health. I also had a busy practice. I billed the most hours of in any year of my practice right in the heart of the pandemic.

Coming out of 2020, I was tired and worn down but thought it was the usual end-of-year blues and that I'd be up and running come January after taking a break for the holiday season.

I returned to work in January, and in the second week, I completely broke down. I ended up going off work on the advice of my physician, taking medication and doing therapy.

I was off for a few months. I returned to work and quickly decided I needed to make a change in my career and put some focus on myself. I started my firm, Durant Barristers, primarily as a way for me to continue practising while also focusing on my health and well-being.

It was through my recovery and in conversations with other lawyers and mental health advocates that I came to realize that sharing my story might be helpful for other people. Speaking with other lawyers who had gone through similar experiences helped me.

I wanted to put something out there that shared my experience that other struggling lawyers could read and learn from and for law firm managers to read as a resource for hopefully making workplaces better for their people.

Mental health is increasingly being talked about openly in the profession, but there still is a stigma. What made you comfortable to talk about your struggles publicly?

The first time I spoke about it was when I was still off work, which I did in a series of LinkedIn articles. I was off during the Coronavirus's Omicron wave, and many of my friends and family were struggling then. The overall vibe on social media with other lawyers was one where you could tell many people weren't doing well.

So, I knew it was not just me who was struggling. I didn't overthink the stigma when I first did it, but I wasn’t expecting the uptake. I didn’t fully comprehend how quickly the article would spread within the legal profession. I got emails from managing partners, nationwide firms and lawyers thanking me for writing it.

The stigma didn’t put me off because of other lawyers who have done this before me. I recall seeing a lot of speeches on mental health when I was younger by Orlando Da Silva and Doron Gold. I didn't feel like I was the first.

I tell lawyers that, to the extent that there may be a stigma, it has not impacted my practice. I'm just as busy as I always was. None of my clients abandoned me because I was having a mentally tricky time. I encourage people not to worry so much about the stigma and to go out and get help if they need it.

Tell me about your law firm.

We are a small firm with only three lawyers and a few staff members. We have a broad practice. I'm what I like to call a full-service old-school litigator. I believe that litigation is a skill; you can learn topics or bring subject matter experts on board as needed.

Many of my mentors litigated in many different areas, which is how I was brought up in the Ottawa office of BLG. The mantra wasn't that you must only be in one small practice area, but you often had a chance to do many things, so I've continued that in our practice. We do any civil litigation and complex workplace and sports investigations. I'm also currently working on mediation and arbitration training so that we can offer more of those services.

In your book, you argue mentoring, and sponsorship are ways to improve mental health in the profession.

I've always felt I've benefited from having both mentors and sponsors. I'm a big feminist; anyone who knows me would know that, but all my mentors and sponsors throughout my career have been men. I admire those men because they never treated me differently than the male associates and junior partners. They pushed me forward and gave me opportunities to speak publicly at events.

You can have different mentors and sponsors, or they can be the same people. My mentors at BLG were often also my sponsors. Mentorship is someone you can go to for advice about your career, and a sponsor’s job is to give you opportunities to advance in your career and be a voice in the room to promote yourself to others.

Sponsorship is essential for women in law, particularly if you are at a firm that historically has not had a lot of women in equity partner or management positions. You need somebody in that room, whether a man or a woman, advocating for you for promotions and salary equality.

Unless you have somebody like that in your corner, it can be challenging to be noticed in some very large legal workplaces because so many lawyers are working hard and doing good work.

I have tried to put the lawyers in my firm out there. I've had more than enough opportunities to prove myself to my clients. I want to build up our young lawyers.

For firms, what are the best practices to ensure women are given the opportunities to thrive in the profession?

It depends on the size of the workplace or firm. Most large law firms and in-house departments have a formal mentorship program matching senior and junior lawyers. Those systems work well, although there needs to be an opportunity to reassess those relationships occasionally because sometimes those matches don't work.

There also needs to be a focus on the importance of informal mentors within the firm and time credit given to lawyers doing the mentoring.

One struggle that our firm has is we're 100 percent remote. I have lawyers in different cities, so we're getting good at trying to figure out the best way to mentor and give learning opportunities remotely.

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