Encouraging mental wellness along with medical checkups can remove the stigma: Carolena Gordon
Canadian Lawyer spoke with Carolena Gordon, the global senior partner at Clyde & Co LLP and Dennie Michielsen, a paralegal/researcher at the firm, about their Movember campaign and why they decided to broaden the moustache-growing charity event to mental health awareness.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What are your roles at Clyde & Co?
Gordon: I work with our teams worldwide, discussing strategy and clients and how we can work better together as a firm. I also lead our global management board.
Michielsen: I've been with Clyde & Co since March 2022. I work as a paralegal and researcher. I have a background in law from the Netherlands.
Tell me about Clyde & Co's Movember initiative.
Michielsen: Last year, a few months after I started at Clyde & Co, I decided to get involved with the Movember campaign. We had a small campaign in Montreal, but we raised $7,500 for the cause, which exceeded my expectations. So, I decided to take advantage of the global resources at our firm to see how much more we could do this year. We now have 65 participants worldwide, with many men growing their moustaches.
Carolena, this sounds like Dennie’s initiative. What is your role in the campaign?
Gordon: I'm thrilled with this because I feel ideas shouldn't just come from management or partners; they should come from anyone at the firm.
Dennie got so many people mobilized very quickly that it became almost contagious to get involved and support it. Mental health and well-being initiatives should come from the grassroots. My role is to support these initiatives.
Recent research on mental health in the Canadian legal profession inspired you to incorporate that into the fundraiser.
Michielsen: We all know legal professionals have a stressful job; we work long hours and are under a lot of pressure. The most shocking thing I found in this study, though, was that almost half of the respondents said they reached that point where they recognized they needed professional help but did not seek it.
What is it about the legal profession that makes mental health such a pressing issue?
Gordon: Mental health and physical health are critical to performance. Our lawyers and legal staff generally come to the office and want to put in 150 percent; they're very ambitious and want their careers to progress.
Yet there's a quid pro quo for that: You must take care of yourself. That means you must exercise, eat well, sleep, and feel good about yourself. Many people sidestep that and say, “It's going to get better; it's fine.” This is a valuable exercise because it's an awareness campaign about what you must do to look after yourself.
How does gender fit with this initiative?
Gordon: I think men often have a view that they've just got to press on. Movember encourages men to sit back and ask, “Am I looking after myself?”
Like breast cancer in women, certain cancers are more common in men. Prostate cancer is something that men need to be aware of and vigilant about. Our goal is to make people aware of health issues and how they must look after themselves.
Men don't always pay attention and get themselves checked. They are busy and have other things on the go, and it's not a priority. For everybody, your health must be your number one priority. Without that, you can't be there for your family, colleagues, work and clients.
We have approximately 5,500 people worldwide and 70 offices. We want to bring that discussion to the workplace.
How are the other Clyde offices collaborating?
Michielsen: Everyone registers on the Movember website, which shows what we are raising globally. The participants can keep track of how things are going and post pictures. Some people have huge beards and suddenly have no facial hair, which makes it fun.
The nice part for me is that there are all kinds of professionals participating. We have legal assistants, associates, the managing partner and people in finance.
How do you weave in mental health?
Michielsen: There will be a webinar for all the employees to attend, which is coming towards the end of November, given by the first Black captain of the English rugby team, who is retired and has openly struggled with mental health issues. I will present at the end of November for all the US and Canadian offices in those time zones.
Gordon: We're asking people to jump in and do check-ins to raise awareness and talk to their friends, family members and colleagues about the issues. They can ask, “How are you doing? How are things working out for you?”
Through the process, you can learn how some people are dealing with mental health in their lives. And it allows you to understand better where they're coming from and how you can support them.
What can lawyers do to improve mental health in the profession?
Gordon: We need to talk about this and remove the stigma. Lawyers live in a very high-performance world, but sometimes they can't perform as well when they're struggling and need support.
We need to look at this the same way we do when someone calls in from the office and says, “I can't make it in because my child is sick.” It wasn't always the case, but as we started to talk about what it is to be a young parent, we became more flexible.
What I'd like to see is that we do the same thing with mental health, where it's normal for people to say, “I've just finished a huge trial, I'm exhausted, I need some time off.” It is perfectly fine for them to stay home or get some assistance, such as coaching.
During my tenure as senior partner, we launched an initiative to provide that kind of support to partners. Confidentially, they can contact someone in HR who will help give a referral for assistance.
What is the role of legal leaders in mental health?
Gordon: Managing partners and partners in law firms need to communicate to their lawyers that this is important to the firm. This will allow the firm to achieve much better performance overall, with happier lawyers, instead of pretending that it doesn't exist.
Firms should have events, talks and discussions on this. I think that goes a long way to sending the message to people that this is part of life, and we must address it like that and keep pressing forward.