Beth Beattie, co-editor of a book on mental health in the legal profession, on breaking new ground

Inspired by an LSO summit, Beattie worked with judges and lawyers to share their experiences

Beth Beattie, co-editor of a book on mental health in the legal profession, on breaking new ground
Beth Beattie

Beth Beattie is senior counsel at the Ministry of the Attorney General Ministry of Health. She was a co-editor of “The Right Not to Remain Silent: The Truth About Mental Health in The Legal Profession,” recently published by LexisNexis. In May, she co-chaired the Law Society of Ontario’s fourth annual Mental Health Summit for Legal Professionals.

She spoke with CL talk about mental health in the profession and why she thinks the new book she co-edited is ground-breaking. Beattie worked with judges, young lawyers and senior leaders in the profession who shared their experiences of working while living with various types of mental health challenges. Beattie describes the summit that inspired the book as the most successful program in the LSO’s history.

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Below is a summary of the conversation, edited for length and clarity:

What was your inspiration behind the book “The Right Not to Remain Silent: The Truth About Mental Health in The Legal Profession?”

I was co-chair of the mental health summits from the very beginning. We had a variety of speakers, most of whom have lived mental health experiences. We had a great turnout, with thousands attending and over 7,000 people watching the summits live or on demand. They were so well received because of the power of individuals disclosing their mental health experience, whether it's someone living with bipolarity, addiction, anxiety, depression, or the whole gamut of mental health conditions. Carole Dagher and I thought, “There were so many great stories out there; why don't we put together a book?”

You disclosed your mental health experience in 2017.

When I was 35 years old in 2002, I was hospitalized at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health following a manic episode where I was floridly psychotic, meaning I lost touch with reality. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was miserable for 14 years, concerned that I was going to get sick again and that people were going to find out that I had bipolar disorder and that I was hospitalized. I'm a lawyer and litigator meant to be seen as strong and unflappable. I worried that if my clients, opposing counsel and colleagues found out about my illness, they would see that as a chink in my armour, and it would be a real problem for my career.

That didn't turn out to be the case, but I thought that at the time.

The lawyers who wrote about their experiences in the book were also likely reluctant to talk about it. What did you say to them about the benefits of doing so?

Putting together the four summits was very helpful because most of the authors in the 18 chapters of the book had spoken at the summit. We knew that they had gone public with their stories. We were not looking for new people so much, although we did get several people who hadn't been at the summit.

It didn't mean people were automatically excited about writing a chapter, though. Sometimes, it took some nurturing and telling them what a significant contribution they would make.

What are some of the stories in the book that you felt were most compelling?

A young woman named Courtney Wilson talks about her anorexia. We had not heard of any lawyers speaking so publicly about living with an eating disorder. It's a compelling chapter because she talks about being one of the top students at Western Law, and she got a bunch of on-campus interviews. She was very heavy then; she wasn't given a job and just thought, “Bay Street has a certain aesthetic, and I don't meet it.” So, she felt it prevented her from getting a job.

Another of my favourites is by Michael Ferguson, who's from Goderich, Ontario, a small town. He lives with anxiety and depression, and everyone in the town knows about it. And yet there he is, practising law in a small firm with a successful practice.

How do you hope the book will impact the legal profession?

Fundamentally, we are trying to normalize the conversation around mental illness. Many very successful practising lawyers are living with mental illness or addiction.

We want to shatter the stigma around mental illness in the legal profession. People should feel comfortable getting the help and support that they need, and we want to cultivate more diverse workplaces.

The book contains personal stories and many tips on changing the culture of legal practice. The first chapter is written by George Strathy, the former Chief Justice of Ontario. He doesn't have a mental illness, but his mother was bipolar, so he feels very passionate about it. He outlines some very practical solutions.

What are some of the solutions Strathy outlines?

Civility. The legal profession has become very uncivilized. We need more compassion, recognizing that we're going through difficult times. Opposing counsel or the other side of a corporate deal may be going through something very challenging. We should all be aware it could be them or us. We all get knocked off our game from time to time.

Not having billable hours in place for first- and second-year associates also helps take pressure off. For work hours, it is important to be clear to clients that you will be unavailable at certain times, whether evenings or weekends. Clients want to make sure that they can access their legal counsel easily, which is fair enough, but at the same time, they don't want to be working this hard either. This approach gives them a bit of a break if they know that their counsel is not going to be available until the next day or until Monday.

Also, we've seen the hybrid work model is quite successful. In many cases, lawyers tend to be independent, and if we're told we must be in the office five days or six days a week, that may not sit well with us. If we're told we can work from home two or three days a week, that can make a great difference for morale.

What is the role of leaders in legal workplaces?

We need leaders to come forward and talk about their lived experiences. We know many of them have these experiences, but people are quite reluctant to disclose them.

One of our authors, Michael Herman, is the general counsel at Gowling WLG. Ryan Middleton is a senior partner at Dentons. Both wrote beautiful chapters and took a leap by disclosing their stories of living with depression and anxiety. We need people like that.

We need leaders to ensure their senior people are trained in mental health first aid and buy into good benefits packages. Legal leaders are getting better at that. For instance, some firms have gone to $5,000 or even $10,000 in psychotherapy benefits, which goes a long way.

At the Law Society of Ontario’s Mental Health Summit, the first panel was on addressing suicide in the legal profession. What was the key message from that panel?

There was a national study done in 2022 that found that over 24 percent of lawyers have contemplated suicide since they began practice. It's a massive problem in our profession. We've had Crown attorneys die by suicide in recent years. If people aren't taking their lives, some are thinking about taking their lives, which is devastating for them and their families.

We wanted to normalize the conversation about people having those thoughts of suicide and how we, as colleagues, can support them. Much of it comes down to having more compassion and not being afraid to talk to a colleague who seems to be struggling, saying, “Hey, you don't seem like yourself recently. How are you doing? Is there anything that I can do to support you?”

On the lighter side, Dr. Thomas Telfer at Western University spoke about mindfulness.

He is one of the book's co-editors. Mindfulness has come into vogue, but that's simplifying it. In recent years, it has become apparent that it can be very effective in helping people deal with issues, particularly anxiety and depression. So, we wanted to make sure that we had that voice.

At the summit, we wanted to make sure we had it just after the panel on suicide because we all needed to have a breather after such a serious discussion. Thomas is a leader in the field. He has classes at Western on mindfulness.

Mental health isn't an issue unique to the legal profession, but things about the profession make it manifest differently.

Lawyers tend to be high achievers. The legal profession is competitive and very stressful. Other professions have the same hallmarks, but we know it to be the case in law. Perfectionism is rampant because we're used to being top students. We did well in high school and undergrad; we got through law school. We tend to put far too much pressure on ourselves.

We must have compassion for ourselves as perfectionists and for our colleagues, including younger people and students. We want to ensure we treat them with compassion and let them know, “If you make a mistake, we're going to rectify it.”

On my team, I like when people come to me saying they've made a mistake because I say, “Okay, well, let's figure out how we're going to resolve this issue.” Invariably, we do. I have only encountered two situations in my career where I thought, “Oh, that was a real problem.” Most of the time, things can be rectified.

So spread that word and let young people know mistakes are okay. That's why they put erasers on pencils.

Mental health is a continuum. Some severe conditions require immediate medical attention, and then there are things that we all experience. How can lawyers who are not experts distinguish between the two situations?

One of the best things to do is to attend continuing legal education sessions where mental health is discussed, such as the mental health summit. In terms of attendance, we are the most successful program in the history of the Law Society of Ontario. That is because people want and need to understand mental illness.

It is also essential for people to recognize that even if they don't have a mental illness themselves, they could hit the age of 45, be cruising through life, and then their marriage falls apart, or they have a sick child or an aging parent. There are all sorts of things that can knock us off our game. It is essential to be aware that we go through different things in life, and we're going to have many good times, but we're going to have difficult times.

What mental-health-related activities for the legal profession are there outside Ontario?

For the book, we ensured we had people from across the country. There is a writer from BC and one from Alberta. In BC, they had the Mental Health Forum for legal professionals.

Is there anything else lawyers in Canada would be interested in knowing about your book?

All the royalties from the book will go to CAMH, the largest psychiatric hospital in the country. We think it is a ground-breaker because there is no book like it in the English-speaking world, and we suspect there is no book like it in the world.

My dream is that it is like “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” Although our book was written by lawyers, anyone, including engineers, accountants, doctors, and teachers, could write it.

It would be ideal if the book's authors and editors could consult with other professions and show that if the legal profession can make significant changes, then other professionals can as well.

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