Canada launches national wellbeing study of legal professionals

A partnership of the different Canadian law societies, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the Canadian Bar Association and the Université de Sherbrooke is coming together for a first-of-its-kind national study on the well-being of legal professionals.

The study is based on the fact that legal practitioners are amongst the grouping of professionals most at risk of experiencing mental wellness issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression. The partnership aims to better understand why this is, in order to better support legal professionals, providing them with the necessary resources to promote a healthy and sustainable legal practice.

A range of legal practitioners are being contacted in order to complete the study. For example, In Ontario, the following legal professionals are being asked to participate in an anonymous and confidential study questionnaire:

  • All lawyers and paralegals, including those who are presently unemployed, on leave and who have retired or stopped working in law in the past year;
  • Articling candidates who are working in any capacity, including private practice, public sector, university or college, etc.;
  • Experiential learning candidates who completed the Law Practice Program at Ryerson, the Programme de pratique du droit at the University of Ottawa or the Integrated Practice Curriculum program at Lakehead University in 2021.

Read more about the study here,  Or watch a video of lead researcher Dr. Nathalie Cadieux introducing the study here

 

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Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism: five ways to improve well-being in the legal profession

Stephanie Villinski, Deputy Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, has released her take on improving lawyer well-being, based on ‘The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference’, which is the Commission on Professionalism’s annual future law event.

Ms. Villinski reflects on the fact that many of the changes that can have the greatest impact are in fact simple and easily implementable. With not all changes requiring a major change.

Her recommendations include:

  • Improving practitioner awareness around legal assistance programmes
  • creating clear KPIs and success measure
  • creating cultural shifts, and
  • encouraging professionals to lead by example

Read more about the conclusions and the conference here. 

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Stress, drink, leave: An examination of gender-specific risk factors for mental health problems and attrition among licensed attorneys

Abstract

Rates of mental illness and heavy alcohol use are exceedingly high in the legal profession, while attrition among women has also been a longstanding problem. Work overcommitment, work-family conflict, permissiveness toward alcohol in the workplace, and the likelihood of promotion are all implicated but have yet to be systematically investigated. Data were collected from 2,863 lawyers randomly sampled from the California Lawyers Association and D.C. Bar to address this knowledge gap. Findings indicated that the prevalence and severity of depression, anxiety, stress, and risky/hazardous drinking were significantly higher among women. Further, one-quarter of all women contemplated leaving the profession due to mental health concerns, compared to 17% of men. Logistic models were conducted to identify workplace factors predictive of stress, risky drinking, and contemplating leaving the profession. Overcommitment and permissiveness toward alcohol at work were associated with the highest likelihood of stress and risky drinking (relative to all other predictors) for both men and women. However, women and men differed with respect to predictors of leaving the profession due to stress or mental health. For women, work-family conflict was associated with the highest likelihood of leaving, while overcommitment was the number one predictor of leaving for men. Mental health and gender disparities are significant problems in the legal profession, clearly requiring considerable and sustained attention.

Anker J, Krill PR (2021) Stress, drink, leave: An examination of gender-specific risk factors for mental health problems and attrition among licensed attorneys. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0250563.

Available on PLOS ONE. 

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Wellness and Law: Reforming Legal Education to Support Student Wellness

Abstract

No one goes to law school with the expectation that their mental health and overall well-being will be significantly compromised during those three years. But, for a substantial number of law students, it is. It does not have to be this way.

This is not a typical law review article. It cannot afford to be. Most law students begin law school as reasonably happy and well-adjusted people. We must ask, what is it about law school that contributes to the disproportionate decline in student wellness? The answer to that question is complex because many of the very factors that make good lawyers also contribute to their mental health challenges.

This paper contains a blueprint, borne out of experience, of how to reimagine legal education with a focus on wellness. This goes beyond a general call to action, but rather presents concrete actions that faculty, law administrators, and students themselves can take to effectively manage the stresses inherent in law school and the legal profession. These changes will be long-term and will profoundly impact the well-being of not only legal practitioners, but the very practice of law itself. There will be resistance, but making this transition is crucial. We know that when law students first enter law school their psychological profile is similar to that of the general public, but their depression rates increase drastically across three years of legal education. Lawyers have the dubious distinction of being the most frequently depressed professionals in the U.S., and the legal profession ranks among the highest in incidence of suicide by occupation.

Two recent and major events have exacerbated this already dire landscape of wellness dysfunction: COVID-19 and widespread protests associated with the quest for racial justice. For students who managed their addiction recovery or mental health challenges in part by having the structure and accountability of a classroom setting and nearby counseling services, social distancing threatens those means of coping. Then the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others ignited a wave protests that likely caused some law students to experience race-based and other types of trauma. The absence of a culture of wellness in law schools may lead law students to endure these added traumas in silence.

As other movements have found national and global recognition recently, it is time for a wellness crusade in legal education. Just as movements have galvanized the public to demand action on issues of racial injustice, gender equality, and climate change, so the legal profession must take steps to comprehensively address the wellness crisis spanning the lecture halls to practice. Just as America must be willing to undergo an honest reckoning and radical reforms in order to evolve into a more just and equitable society, law schools and the legal profession must undergo foundational changes in order to graduate healthy and whole students. The reforms outlined in this article not only reimagine the law school experience for thousands of law students, but they would, over time, lead to a qualitative change in the delivery of legal services themselves. The legal profession, indeed our lives, literally depend on it.

Jackson, Janet Thompson, Wellness and Law: Reforming Legal Education to Support Student Wellness (February 15, 2021). Howard Law Journal, Vol. 65, No. 1, 2021,

Available at SSRN

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Measuring Lawyer Well-Being Systematically: Evidence from the National Health Interview Survey

Abstract

Conventional wisdom says that lawyers are uniquely unhappy. Unfortunately, this conventional wisdom rests on a weak empirical foundation. The “unhappy lawyers” narrative relies on nonrandom survey data collected from volunteer respondents. Instead of depending on such data, researchers should study lawyer mental health by relying on large microdata sets of public health data, such as the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) administered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The NHIS includes data from 100-200 lawyers per year. By aggregating years, an adequate sample size of lawyers can readily be obtained, with much greater confidence that the lawyers in the sample resemble the true population of U.S. lawyers. When we examine the NHIS data, we find that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, lawyers are not particularly unhappy. Indeed, they suffer rates of mental illness much lower than the general population. Lawyer mental health is not significantly different than the mental health of similarly-educated professionals, such as doctors and dentists. Rates of problematic alcohol use among lawyers, however, are high, even when compared to the general population. Moreover, problematic use of alcohol among lawyers has grown increasingly common over the last fifteen years. These sometimes surprising and nuanced findings demonstrate the value of relying on more reliable data such as the NHIS.

Citation: Listokin, Yair and Noonan, Ray, Measuring Lawyer Well-Being Systematically: Evidence from the National Health Interview Survey (August 4, 2020). Journal of Empirical Legal Studies Forthcoming, Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3667322

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ABA profile of the legal profession: diversity and well-being

While the number of lawyers nationally has grown faster than the U.S. population, this growth hasn’t been spread evenly across races and ethnicities, according to the American Bar Association’s 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession. (PDF)

The ABA Profile of the Legal Profession is a compilation of the latest statistics in the legal profession.  In an article published on 2CIVILITY (Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism) they discuss diversity in the legal profession and attitudes toward efforts to address attorney well-being.

Read the article

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Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner: lawyer well-being project

In 2019 the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner interviewed people working across all parts of the legal profession to gain a deeper understanding of lawyers’ experiences of mental health and wellbeing over their careers.  These interviews were analysed and the resulting report ‘VLSB+C report on legal professionals’ reflections on wellbeing and suggestions for future reform’ is now available.

The report found that interview participants:

  • described being acculturated early in their career into a professional culture that frequently made it very difficult for the average individual to achieve wellbeing
  • identified a range of cultural and institutional factors that made it hard to improve the wellbeing of legal professionals
  • were positive about the direction of change in recent years and most, though not all, respondents conveyed optimism about a changing conversation regarding the wellbeing of legal professionals
  • had many ideas and suggestions for changes that could improve wellbeing within the profession

Some of the suggestions for improving wellbeing included embracing more comprehensive assistance programs like those in place overseas, increased collaboration with researchers, the increased promotion of counselling and debriefing programs, reforms to court practices, improved management training and the incorporation of a focus on wellbeing into CPD requirements.

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Victorian Legal Service Board research into vulnerability to miscounduct

In February 2016 the Victorian Legal Service Board and Commissioner entered into a research partnership with the University of Melbourne. The project was designed to help identify risk patterns and predict areas of concern within the Victorian profession. The study focused on 10 years of regulatory data on complaints (2005 to 2015) and looked at lawyer vulnerabilities and misconduct.

In April this year, lead researcher Dr Marie Bismark, published the results of that study in the International Journal of the Legal Profession.

The research paper ‘Vulnerability to legal misconduct: a profile of problem lawyers’ is now available.

Read the Board’s statement.

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NSW law society to provide solicitors with session with psychologist

The Law Society of New South Wales (NSW) has launched its new Solicitor Outreach Service (SOS) as part of its ongoing efforts to support the mental health and wellbeing of the state’s lawyers. Solicitors in the state will be provided with 3 sessions a year, with a qualified psychologist free of charge, and will also be provided with a 365 day a year psychological support hotline.

President of the Law Society of NSW, Richard Harvey, said the launch of the new SOS comes at a time when many in the legal profession are dealing with the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding: “As we well know, the legal profession is far from immune from having its own susceptibility to mental health distress. It’s possible that some members of the legal profession will be at heightened risk due to the unpredictability about the scale, duration and impact of COVID-19, along with other factors such as the challenges of working remotely, lack of regular exercise and restricted social engagement… While many large law firms and organisations provide support through their Employee Assistance Programs, there are solicitors in smaller practices, especially in regional areas, who don’t have access to this support. The Law Society is committed to providing best practice and relevant mental health and support services to all NSW solicitors.”

Read the society’s statement on the new services.

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IBA launches project on lawyer mental wellbeing

The International Bar Association (IBA) has launched a global project aimed at addressing the mental wellbeing of legal professionals, particularly in light of the tensions raised by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The first phase of the project is made up of two global surveys – one for individual lawyers, the other for law firms and other legal institutions, including bar associations, law societies and in-house legal departments. Available in both English and Spanish, the surveys are anonymous and take approximately ten minutes to complete.

The data gathered from the completed surveys will provide insight into:

  • the pressing mental health concerns of legal professionals;
  • the support they can expect to receive from their workplaces;
  • how the wellbeing of lawyers and other stakeholders in the legal profession are affected by their work and working environments;
  • identifying problems that each might have faced in getting the help they needed; and
  • what law firms, bars and law societies should be doing to support those in distress.

IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto has said: “The devastating effects of depression, stress, addiction and other such attacks on our mental health may have preceded the current crisis, but there is no question that COVID-19 has exacerbated their impact. Yet, just as the pandemic has posed challenges for our profession and ways of life, and in the process refocused our attention to this critical issue, so it also presents opportunities for us to change for the better in the future.’ He added: ‘These studies will provide us with a vital global snapshot of our profession. I sincerely hope that they will lead not only to the sharing of best practice guides, but also to starting conversations in those parts of the world where mental wellbeing is not spoken about so openly, and lawyers perhaps find themselves suffering in silence.”

See the IBA’s press release on the survey, complete the individual lawyer’s survey or complete the institutional survey.

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