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Addressing law's mental health crisis early

Law schools need to help students learn the skills required for a rewarding legal career and a balanced life.

Mental health concept

While anecdotal evidence has long suggested that many law students struggle with mental health, there has been a dearth of empirical data on the topic in Canada. Now we have the first comprehensive national study on wellness in the legal profession, which sheds light on the dire state of wellness in the legal profession, including among the 264 articling students who participated in the research.

According to the study undertaken by a research team at the Université de Sherbrooke, with funding from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Canadian Bar Association, 49.8% of the new legal professionals reported developing mental health issues since starting their practice.

Legal workplaces and, by extension, law programs serve as risk factors. For example, 72% of articling students experience psychological distress. Over 43% of articling and law practice program students report moderate depression symptoms and almost half report moderate anxiety symptoms. Similar numbers report experiencing severe symptoms of depression (43.3%) and anxiety (43.6%). 

More than half the participants (56.2%) reported experiencing compassion fatigue, a higher number (66.5%) among articling students and young lawyers. As for burnout rates, while they are generally sobering at 47.3%, they are downright worrisome at 69.8% among legal professionals who live with a disability and those who work in Nunavut (81.2%). 


The study offers a comprehensive list of recommendations to move the dial on mental health and wellness in the profession. Two of them focus specifically on student engagement and education. 

The first focuses on improving the preparation of future professionals and providing them with skills to deal with psychological health issues. It targets a theory-practice balance, teaching about mental health issues, increasing understanding of emotional intelligence, and instituting mandatory credit courses. 

Recommendation 7 calls for promoting diversity in the profession and revising practices, policies and procedures that may create discriminatory biases. The recommendation encourages law students' involvement in annual conferences, law school activities, and moot court competitions to help raise mental health awareness. 

Setting an example

From its founding in 2020, the Lincoln Alexander School of Law has allowed students to access university-wide mental health and student well-being resources at the Toronto Metropolitan University. 

In the first two years of operations, given the negative impacts of online schooling caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, law students were offered complimentary access to counseling and peer support via the Law Society of Ontario's Member Assistance Program (MAP) for lawyers and paralegals, the OBA's Wellness Edge for law students and CBA Well-Being. Other community resources include 24/7 helplines such as Distress Centers of Greater TorontoGood2Talk and keep meSAFE Student Support Program. 

Salima Fakirani, the school's director of student engagement, calls the law school journey a stressful one. "As an institution, we work hard to design our student programs thoughtfully and in a manner that is inclusive of students from different backgrounds and life circumstances. At the most fundamental level, our students need to know that they belong here, both in law school and in the legal industry, and that they are seen as their full selves." 

"Strong student services programming helps develop core non-academic skills that law students will require to thrive [...] in and beyond their three years of law school," says Pratik Nair, the manager for health and wellness and academic success. "An example of a core non-academic skill is resilience, not simply the ability to grin-and-bear it through an obstacle, but the learned skill to negotiate for resources that promote one's physical and mental health." He adds that the Lincoln Alexander School of Law strives to embed in its curriculum the learning of core non-academic skills that promote student and future lawyer mental health.

The study's recommendations offer optimism for the future, Nair adds. "However, they privilege responsive measures to mental health struggle over long-term structural change." Those measures include access to resources, respecting privacy and confidentiality, and destigmatizing disclosures. "A lot of progress has been made in improving our collective ability to respond to mental health struggles over the last two decades," says Nair, who points to recommendations 7, 9 and 10 as particularly compelling, as they ask organizations to dedicate resources to changing the settings where students learn and lawyers work. "This area of change represents an opportunity for innovation, piloting, and scaling to improve population-level mental health outcomes."

The data in the study is helpful to the discussion, says Fakirani. "In an educational setting, implementing these recommendations requires consistent and thoughtful questioning about well-established practices and norms," she says. It requires addressing "the core of the systems and values that have historically been pervasive within the industry."