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Tackling distress and depression in law

Recommendations from Canada's first national study on the issue focus on destigmatizing mental health problems, emphasizing health as integral to legal practice, and reviewing the billable hour business model.

Well-being concept

On the heels of last month's release of a national study detailing sky-high levels of psychological distress, depressive symptoms and burnout in the legal profession, a research team at the Université de Sherbrooke's Business School has published recommendations to guide the profession moving forward.

"[T]he key message from this report and the recommendations is that moving towards a healthy and sustainable practice of law in Canada will require small steps at all levels, from all stakeholders," said Dr. Nathalie Cadieux, an associate professor at the university who led the research team. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Canadian Bar Association funded the study.

CBA President Steeves Bujold called on leaders in the profession to work together so that "we can create healthy work environments and remove the stigma around mental health. These recommendations will help guide our continued work in the years ahead," he said.


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Jill Perry, KC, President of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada noted 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."

In formulating its recommendations, the Université de Sherbrooke research team found that most of the issues experienced by legal professionals and their symptoms stem from several causes, including violence and incivility in the workplace. A couple of troubling figures: Just under 10% of Ontario paralegals reported having experienced threats of violence, ranging from a few times to every day in the 12 months before completing the survey. And over 30% of legal professionals living with a disability reported experiencing workplace bullying.

There is also a great deal of stigma associated with mental health issues in law. Some 46.8% of legal professionals reported having felt the need to seek professional help for psychological health problems, but had not done so.

According to the report, organizational risk factors, including emotional demands, job insecurity, long hours worked, quantitative and qualitative overload, lack of resources, and compassion fatigue account for much of the perceived stress and burnout in the profession. On average, legal professionals who report working in a more agile management environment experience lower burnout symptoms.

However, the billable hour business model continues to pile significant pressure on legal professionals. Those with targets work an average of 54 hours per week, while professionals without them work on average between 47 and 48 hours per week. Seven out of ten respondents with targets between 1,200 and 1,800 hours per year were afraid of starting a family. This proportion rose to 81.5% among those who were required to hit 1,800 hours.

Other issues include inability to cope with technology that results in distress, adjusting to teleworking, work-life conflict, alcohol consumption and drug use.

Based on these findings, the research team identified ten broad recommendations, broken down into action items, to address mental health issues. They are:

1.    Preparing future professionals to support them in dealing with psychological health issues, including promoting healthier lifestyles.

2.    Improving supports and guidance available at the entry to the profession, including by removing billable hour targets for professionals in their first two years of practice.

3.    Improving continuing professional development (CPD) that involves incorporating psychological health as a core skill for law practice and more structured mentoring programs with themes related to wellness in law.

4.    Evaluating the implementation of alternative work organization models that limit the impact of specific risk factors on health. According to the report, it will be "critical to assess the use of alternative business models," and "if billable hour targets are maintained, the billable hour system has to be reviewed."

5.    Taking actions aimed at destigmatizing mental health issues in the legal profession, including awareness campaigns and designing policies aligned with best practices for a gradual return to work for those coming back from prolonged health-related leave. Requiring candidates for admission to law societies to disclose mental health issues should also be reviewed, the report states.

6.    Improving access to health and wellness support resources and breaking down barriers that limit access to these resources targeting a range of resources addressing everything from violence and incivility to vicarious trauma and addiction issues. Increased funding for assistance programs is also recommended.

7.    Promoting diversity in the profession and revise practices, policies and procedures that may include or create discriminatory biases. Law societies and the Canadian Bar Association should select ambassadors who represent the socio-demographic diversity in law practice to drive change in the profession. It is also recommended that legal workplaces implement diversity management policies, proactive inclusiveness practices, and inclusive parental leave policies. Legal workplaces should also establish "zero-tolerance" policies on violence and incivility.

8.    Emphasizing the health of legal professionals as integral to legal practice and the justice system through awareness campaigns and training, including for judges.

9.    Implementing ongoing measurement of health and wellness among legal professionals by collecting data, including from those who leave the profession.

10. Fostering a better work-life balance in the legal profession, including pursuing policies that support the right to disconnect and render teleworking arrangements more flexible.

The study has moved on to Phase II, which involves one-on-one interviews with legal professionals from across Canada to contextualize the quantitative data to inform further recommendations that consider regional factors. Following the interviews, customized reports will be prepared for each law society. In the meantime, it is proposed that a collaborative body be formed with representatives from the Federation, the CBA and other stakeholders to consider how the legal profession can take up the challenge of improving well-being in its ranks.