Mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession

In a profession that demands for you to be meticulous throughout every moment of your day, there is an enormous amount of pressure that undeniably exists. Can the continuous pressure of rushed deadlines, liabilities for oneself and others, dreadfully long work hours, stiff competition, dismissal of emotion from sensitive client matters, isolation, and/or sleep deprivation take a toll on a lawyer’s mental health and wellbeing? They most definitely can! The legal profession is one that requires psychological stability, but mental health is often neglected by those in the profession.

Lawyers are typically immersed in the vocational and theoretical aspects of their trade but are not equipped with the tools to maintain balance and focus in high stress professional environments [1]. In order to address the situation, professionals must concur to destigmatize the current views surrounding mental health. Only then can we open the door for discussion, resolution, and change the status quo.

Former President of the American Bar Association (ABA) had the following to say:

Lawyers, judges and law students are faced with an increasingly competitive and stressful profession. Studies show that substance use, addiction, and mental disorders, including depression and thoughts of suicide—often unrecognized—are at shockingly high rates [1].

Former President of the American Bar Association (ABA)

These findings are not surprising considering the daunting challenges that surround the legal profession. About 44% of lawyers recently surveyed by the ABA said that they would not recommend their profession to a young person [2]. That is quite the irony, now isn’t it; diving into a career path that you would advise others not to partake in. It is vital to understand why the profession has become so toxic and why lawyers are among the top three professionals to face substance abuse issues [2]. Only by doing so, can we develop solutions and coping mechanisms which may build resiliency amongst lawyers and prepare them to tackle stressors more effectively. Neglecting the data and the stigmatization of such health concerns is not going to solve the issue at hand, and has probably done more harm than good.

In order to address a problem, its existence must first be acknowledged. Only then, can we proceed with devising a solution and executing it to the fullest extent available. Approximately 58% of lawyers in Canada have faced stress and burnout, 48% have experienced anxiety, and 26% have experienced depression [3]. These statistics were derived from a survey conducted in 2012 but they are not irrelevant to the concern that exists in the profession regarding mental health today. Lawyers are definitely on the edge with the type of matters they deal with on the daily and it may be of benefit to implement coping mechanisms to prevent such conditions of stress/burnout, anxiety, and depression. On April the 6th of this year, the Canadian Bar Association hosted its first-ever Health and Wellness Conference, a pivotal step in the right direction [3]. The conference dove into some of the most pressing issues faced by lawyers with an emphasis placed on mental health concerns. Traditionally, those in the legal field had turned a blind eye to the day to day stresses involved with their jobs, and the potential detrimental effects they had on the psychological well being of individuals. But as more awareness continues to be raised, lawyers will realize that they are definitely not facing these issues alone, creating room for the discussion and implementation of preventative measures.

Some practices include, but are not limited to, adequate sleep, exercise, external support, social participation, vacations/extended breaks, mindfulness, flexibility, workload management, and/or seeking professional help [4]. The definition of mindfulness, as written in the Oxford Dictionary of English is, “A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique [5].” To dwell in the present and acknowledge one’s mental and physical state of being constitutes to being mindful. In doing so, one is able to immediately understand how they feel, and asses if there is need to take action. Once that is taken care of, there are many coping mechanisms that can be put to practice. Rest is definitely vital in performance and sometimes you may have to step away from your professional practice to take a break and revitalise your mind and body [4]. Speaking to  loved ones can lessen the burden and help get a load off your chest. It has even proven to reduce the body’s physiological response to stressful events [4]. Lawyers can speak to loved ones, whose opinions they regard and weigh considerably, to help them cope with a dilemma. If that does not work to any avail, they can always pursue the services of a certified mental health professional. There are many support groups, within and outside the legal community, where they can get aid. Next, remaining flexible allows one to meet the shifting demands of their environment [4]. This is definitely relevant for lawyers who deal with a variety of complex matters. Focusing solely on the aspects of a situation you can reasonably expect to influence, paves the way for the process of eliminating things that may induce stress [4]. Last, but definitely not the least important, is the ability to manage one’s workload. Do not overload your schedule with client files and matters you cannot handle. It is completely rational to ask for help and outsource your work to create balance and become more efficient. Schedule yourself in such a manner that you can handle your workload and balance life outside of work. Do not be overwhelmed, so that you give yourself more openings to remain stressed.

To conclude, mental health is a serious concern for lawyers and legal professionals alike. If you ever feel that coping with adversity is too formidable a task, please seek help immediately! Remain mindful of your physiological and mental well being, acknowledging any negative changes in mood, behaviour, and habits. Then, carefully cultivate and strategize techniques to cope with such changes. You may be able to do so using techniques already in place or by seeking professional help. The Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Profession Assistance Conference (LPAC) says that they are, “Dedicated to helping lawyers, judges and law students and their families with personal, emotional, health and lifestyle issues through a network of Lawyer Assistance Programs, a national 24-hour helpline and through provincial programs [4].” Do not neglect your mental health and wellbeing! Please take initiative and use these resources which are so readily available.

[1] Lefkowitz, Dena. ‘Investing in Lawyer Well-Being-Why It Matters’, (2019), The Legal Intelligencer.

[2] Kane, Sally. ‘The 10 Challengers About a Career As a Lawyer’ (2019) the balance careers.

[3] Ashley Pollack, Candice. ‘Mental health in the legal profession: Are we asking the right questions’ (2019) The Canadian Bar Association.

[4] Kelly, Owen. ‘Coping with Stress and Avoiding Burnout: Techniques for Lawyers’. (2009) The Canadian Bar Association.

[5] Oxford Dictionary of English. 3d ed. Sub verbo. ‘Mindfulness’.

-Narvir Goindi