Skip to Content

High prevalence of distress and depression in law

Findings from a national study ring the alarm on the wellness of legal professionals.

Lawyer under stress

According to a new national study of the legal profession, the first of its kind in Canada, more than half of respondents experience psychological distress, depressive symptoms and burnout. Alcohol and drug use among legal professionals is also at worrying levels.

The unsettling findings are detailed in a report by a research team led by Dr. Nathalie Cadieux at the Université de Sherbrooke, with funding from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Canadian Bar Association.

"The data in this comprehensive report sheds a bright light on the heavy toll that our daily work takes on legal professionals and their loved ones," said CBA President Steeves Bujold.

Federation President Nicolas Plourde calls the findings "a wake-up call for the profession and the regulators," adding that it is now up to stakeholders "to make evidence-based decisions about policies and practices that will help."

The research shows significantly higher levels of psychological distress among legal professionals than experienced by the Canadian working population (57.5% compared to 40%) and similarly higher levels of anxiety (35.7%, compared to 13%).

According to the data, nearly one in four legal professionals, compared to à 2.4% of the general working population, have had suicidal thoughts since starting their professional practice. Also troubling, two out of three legal professionals who had experienced suicidal thoughts since the beginning of their practice did not seek help after recognizing that they needed it.

The highest proportions of burnout rates are found among legal professionals between 31 and 35 (67.0%), women under 40 (67.4%), those living with a disability (69.8%), articling students (62.9%), and professionals who identify as members of the LGBTQ2S+ community (62.7%).

"As a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community, I am extremely saddened by the high rates of stress, anxiety, burnout and depression experienced by this community," said Bujold. "We should all be concerned by this data as well as the impact on women, young lawyers, lawyers with disabilities, Indigenous lawyers and other racialized legal professionals."

Minority groups also experience significantly higher levels of mental health concerns than white legal professionals.

Concerning alcohol consumption, 14.1% of women respondents and 17.5% of men have hazardous or harmful levels of use. Another 4.3% of women and 7.0% of men are likely to be highly dependent on alcohol.

One in four respondents has used an employee assistance program (EAP) offered by their organization or law society. But over 40% said they would not have confidence in their employer's program if they needed to resort to it.

In any field, the first step towards improvement is measuring the challenge, said Dr. Cadieux, an associate professor at the Université de Sherbrooke's Business School. "Without rigorous measurement of health issues, and of the stressors that cause them, we will be unable to take sustainable action to support the health of legal professionals."

The report’s findings are based on the responses from an overall sample of 7,300 legal professionals working in each province and territory of Canada. The data was collected in the autumn of 2021, following the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research team also examined several stressors for legal professionals. Their findings show that the billable hours model has a highly negative impact on mental health, though not as much as the emotional demands of clients. The researchers also identified work-life conflict as an acute stressor which pushes people to leave the profession.

Also, while seniority is generally a protective factor against mental health issues, the pressure of billable hours on health worsens, rather than lessens, with experience.

The areas of practice where practitioners are most inclined to suffer from compassion fatigue – where they take on the suffering of clients who have experienced extreme stress or trauma– are criminal law, child and youth law, family law, elder law, immigration law, human rights law and health law.

The report's release marks the end of the study's first phase. Dr. Cadieux's research team will be providing recommendations in the fall on actions that can be taken to support the wellness of legal professionals in Canada. Phase II, now underway, will involve qualitative interviews with legal professionals to explore differences by province and territory. It is expected to conclude in 2024.