Follow-up recommendations provided after release of legal profession mental health study in the fall

Stakeholders called upon to bring meaningful change to improve profession

Follow-up recommendations provided after release of legal profession mental health study in the fall
Steeves Bujold, Nathalie Cadieux, Jill Perry

Recommendations related to the first comprehensive study of legal professionals and mental health issues released this fall call on legal employers, law societies, bar associations, legal educators, the judiciary, and lawyers and paralegals themselves to identify where they can “take action to bring about meaningful change.”

The first part of The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada, published in October and prepared by the University of Sherbrooke’s school of business, painted a sobering picture of mental health in legal professionals. It pointed to “significantly high levels of psychological distress, depression, anxiety, burnout and suicidal ideation.”

Its key findings include that more than half of all respondents reported experiencing psychological distress and burnout and that the billable hours model negatively impacts mental health.

Also, legal professionals living with a disability or coming from s minority group experience higher mental health concerns. As well the study notes alcohol and drug use among legal professionals are at a “worrying” level.

As a follow-up to the report’s findings, the study’s authors this week published the final report with a list of recommendations they feel stakeholders in the legal profession should take to deal with mental health in the profession. They include:

  • Improving the preparation of future professionals to support them in dealing with psychological health issues. “For early-career legal professionals, there is often a significant gap between their idea of the profession and their experience of it in the first years of practice.”
  • Making better support and guidance available upon entry to the profession. Law societies should create a “Professional Integration Plan” that “would provide guidance and support to help young legal professionals adjust to the practice of law as they start their careers. It would include specific objectives related to competence acquisition spread over the first two years of a professional’s career.
  • Improving continuing professional development within the profession. The study says that many professionals, under the pressure of a heavy workload, struggle to align their professional development with the needs encountered in their practice. Improvements could include a better structure of mandatory training hours, training that aligns more with risk factors, and a better structure of mentoring programs and promotion of informal training.
  • Where relevant, evaluate the implementation of alternative work organization models that limit the impact of certain risk factors on health. This could involve a review of the billable hour system and an evaluation of alternative business models.
  • Implement actions aimed at destigmatizing mental health issues in the legal profession. “Many legal professionals with mental health issues perceive a stigma in the legal community,” the report says. Solutions could include support or coaching programs for professionals returning from prolonged health-related leaves, removing mental health disclosure from law society admission applications and creating a “Health and Wellness Week in Law” highlighting the importance of work-life balance.
  • Improve access to health and wellness support resources and break down barriers that limit access. This could include promoting available resources to encourage the willingness of professionals to seek help, facilitating access to relevant resources according to the problems encountered, and improving the perception of confidentiality to increase trust in assistance programs.
  • Promote professional diversity and revise practices, policies and procedures that may include or create discriminatory biases. The report says, “there is still a long way to go to reduce the stigma experienced by several groups: women legal professionals, legal professionals in their early careers, legal professionals who are members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, legal professionals living with a disability, Indigenous legal professionals and ethnicized legal professionals.”
  • Consider the health of legal professionals as integral to legal practice and the justice system. “Four essential elements appear to be key to ensuring that professionals’ health is seen as integral to legal practice and the justice system in Canada: 1) include a permanent wellness component in strategic planning; 2) maintain an ongoing discussion and raise awareness about mental health in the legal profession; 3) prevent violence and incivility in the legal profession, and 4) promote positive coping strategies.”
  • Develop a culture of measurement. “The findings of this research have revealed highly worrisome proportions on the mental health indicators for Canadian legal professionals. When indicators for legal professionals are compared to the general Canadian population, a significant gap exists. To develop a culture of measurement, two strategies seem essential: 1) collect data; and 2) examine the factors /sources of professional misconduct.”
  • Foster a better work-life balance in the legal profession. “The importance of work-life balance for health is no longer in question . . .. In order to foster a better work-life balance in the legal profession, four elements are important: 1) implement work–life balance programs; 2) support the right to disconnect; 3) make work organization and teleworking arrangements more flexible; and 4) take care of ourselves.”

The study’s authors say the recommendations this week offer concrete proposals touching on training and mentoring, work culture, raising awareness and breaking down taboos, wellness support resources, adopting alternative business models, promoting diversity, and committing to work-life balance.

The data analyzed in the report comes from a national survey on the wellness of legal professionals in Canada. More than 7,300 legal professionals from all jurisdictions - lawyers, Quebec notaries, Ontario paralegals and articling students - participated in the survey. 

Nathalie Cadieux, associate professor and principal researcher with the University of  Sherbrooke’s business school, says that “the key message from this report and [its] recommendations is that moving towards a healthy and sustainable practice of law in Canada will require small steps at all levels, from all stakeholders.”

The Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Canadian Bar Association financed the study.

Jill Perry, KC, President of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, says she welcomes the recommendations. “The release of the recommendations marks an important milestone in the ongoing work of the National Wellness Study.” She adds that the federation is “carefully reviewing the recommendations and looks forward to being a partner as the legal profession charts a path towards concrete and transformative action.”

Steeves Bujold, President of the Canadian Bar Association, says the data released a few weeks ago shed “a bright light on the heavy toll that our daily work takes on legal professionals,” calling on stakeholders to “examine the ways in which we conduct business so that together, we can create healthy work environments and remove the stigma around mental health.”

The data analyzed in the report comes from a national survey on the wellness of legal professionals in Canada. More than 7,300 legal professionals from all jurisdictions - lawyers, Quebec notaries, Ontario paralegals and articling students - participated in the survey.

The study’s authors have also launched Phase II of the study, which will involve qualitative interviews with legal professionals to explore differences by province and territory. Phase II is expected to conclude in 2024. Phase II of the study will offer “a better understanding and, thus a greater focus, on what measures are most needed in each province and the territories.”

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