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Economic downturns and lawyer mental health

Battling the stigma of job loss.

Unemployed woman

The Alberta economy has been in the doldrums for several years now. We have seen mass layoffs at oil and gas companies, and the Alberta government budget released in the fall of 2019 was austerity-based.

Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweizer recently announced that 90 government lawyers’ positions will be cut in early 2020. We do not have data about how many other lawyers have lost their jobs during this sustained downturn or have had the economic viability of their practices erased.

This begs the question of how this sustained economic downturn is affecting Alberta lawyers and articling students. Intuitively, we all likely believe that uncertainty and hardship cause stress and perhaps even depression but is there data that supports this belief?

Lawyer well-being

Lawyers as a population are frequent subjects of study. We suffer from depression and addiction much more frequently than the general population (almost 4 times the rate for depression and more than double the rate for addictions). When students enter law school, they have typical rates of depression but, by the end of first year, their rates of depression increase more than three-fold.

As well, law students’ motivation tends to shift from internal goals, such as helping people or improving the justice system, to attaining external benchmarks like top grades and landing jobs with high-paying firms.

Advanced education generally rewards students with an optimistic learning style, but law school is different. Students with an optimistic explanatory style have a much higher rate of dropping out or flunking out because law rewards pessimistic thinking, the ability to anticipate negative outcomes that could occur, which we translate into the characteristic of “prudence.”

Pessimism in this context is not our colloquial definition (people who see the glass as half-empty rather than half-full) but rather the pessimistic explanatory style, the belief that the causes of negative outcomes are internal, stable and global (i.e. your fault, permanent and unchanging).

Not surprisingly, practicing law has been found to be among the most stressful professions and there is a wealth of research regarding causation of lawyer distress.

According to a recent Canadian Lawyer article by Jim Middlemiss,

Part of the problem is that law is a high-pressure, competitive and adversarial environment where you are trained to be a pessimist. Not only do you fight competitors for business, but competition within law firms for recognition can also be intense.

People in occupations with low decision latitude (the belief that you have limited options to choose from) and high pressure have higher rates of depression, as well as coronary disease. Junior lawyers frequently fall into this category, but the combination of making high stakes choices from limited options can occur in many legal roles.

A word about finances

According to a recent study, law school graduates in Ontario incur debt of more than $80,000 to pay for their education.

In an earlier Ontario study, students indicated that “mental health, stress, and academic success are all impacted by their debt burden and financial constraints, and that their career objectives have been skewed by the cost of legal education.”

While tuition at some Ontario law schools is higher than tuition at the two Alberta law schools, many Alberta articling students and practicing lawyers have significant student debt. Servicing this debt load requires steady, well-paying remuneration. Interruptions in employment makes debt-servicing even more stressful.

Many lawyers incur practice debt as well, either to buy into a partnership or to establish their own firms. When legal work dries up or collections become difficult due to prevailing economic conditions, this debt load can be daunting.

And we all know—or have been—lawyers whose lifestyles consume whatever they earn or who become highly leveraged to support a lifestyle they can almost afford in the hope that good times will continue to roll indefinitely. Unfortunately, the good times stopped rolling in Alberta around 2014 and many lawyers face the challenge of high debt servicing costs on lower incomes.

Impact of economic downturn on lawyers

The specific impacts of economic downturns on lawyer mental health does not appear to have been studied. This may be due to fact that the link between job loss and distress is logical and well-known. Psychologist Dr. Heather Fiske, in “Guidelines for Legal Practitioners with Suicidal Colleagues,” identifies job loss and financial reversals as stressful circumstances that can be linked to suicidal behaviour in lawyers. Perceived failure, which can include the loss of status associated with a prestigious position, can also be a factor.

If we look at studies of financial crises on mental health outcomes of large populations, though, there appears to be a correlation between recessions and poor mental well-being. A 2016 literature review of 101 academic papers across Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Australia concluded that factors like unemployment, decreased income and high debt levels can be associated with mental disorders, substance issues and suicide.

Assist’s data

Assist’s data about usage of our programs by Alberta lawyers can also shed light on the impact of a prolonged recession on lawyers.

Assist provides 4 free professional counselling sessions per person per issue per year to all Alberta lawyers, articling students, law students and dependent members of their families. Services are confidential, delivered by registered psychologists and are available throughout the province.

Usage of Assist’s professional counselling services has continued to grow since 2014, when the price of oil collapsed. It is difficult to isolate the impact of economic turmoil but there are some key correlations:

  • Usage in 2014, the year when the oil price crashed, increased by 27 per cent over 2013
  • Usage in 2016 increased by 33 per cent over 2015
  • Usage in 2019 increased by 27 per cent over 2018

Assist also operates a peer support program where we connect an Alberta lawyer or law student with a trained peer support volunteer with experience with, or insight into, an issue of concern.

Assist’s peer counselling program was introduced in 2011. Usage rates mirror the increases in professional counselling in 2014 and 2019.

Career transition and job loss were dominant themes in peer support matches during 2019.

Assist’s data should not be interpreted as meaning that economic downturns negatively impact lawyer well-being. However, it is reasonable to conclude that the economic downturn, as measured by oil pricing, certainly seems to correlate with increased use of professional counselling and peer support by Alberta lawyers.

The fact that lawyers and students are reaching out for assistance more frequently is important from the point of view of battling stigma. In studies, lawyers have reported that they do not ask for help because they fear that others will find out and that they will be perceived as vulnerable.

Do you know someone who is struggling with job loss or a change in practice viability? Please urge them to call Assist. We can connect them with counsellors who will help them process the emotions that accompany these challenges and find hope, the first step in moving forward.