Wellness study highlights ‘heavy toll’ work takes on Canadian legal profession: CBA president

By Jeff Buckstein

Law360 Canada (November 2, 2022, 3:10 PM EDT) -- Several alarming details have emerged from the first comprehensive national study on the personal wellness of members of the legal profession in Canada.

More than half of the 7,305 legal professionals, as well as Quebec notaries, Ontario paralegals and articling students surveyed in the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada, reported having experienced psychological distress and burnout.

Depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation were also reported by many, especially young lawyers between ages 26-35 in the early stage of their careers. Women, professionals with a disability, Indigenous individuals and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, also reported higher than average distress.

Just under one-quarter — 24.1 per cent — of respondents admitted to having experienced suicidal thoughts since beginning their legal careers.

Overall, 47.3 per cent of respondents admitted to having sometimes (20.1 per cent) or regularly (27.2 per cent) considered leaving the profession.

The study, funded by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC) and the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), was undertaken by a research team led by Nathalie Cadieux, an associate professor and principal researcher at the Université de Sherbrooke’s Business School.

Steeves Bujold, Canadian Bar Association president

Steeves Bujold, Canadian Bar Association president

“The data in this comprehensive report sheds a bright light on the heavy toll that our daily work takes on legal professionals,” said CBA president Steeves Bujold. “We are particularly concerned about the high rates of stress, anxiety, burnout and depression experienced by the LGBTQ2S+ community, as well as the impact on women, young lawyers, lawyers with disabilities, Indigenous lawyers and other racialized legal professionals.

“The legal system is an essential pillar of our Canadian democracy. Making sure that legal professionals are healthy and well and that they stay in the profession is to the benefit of everyone. As this is the first comprehensive large-scale national study, the hard data paints a stark picture that is definitely concerning and that cannot be ignored,” stressed Bujold.

Bujold said the CBA has had an initiative in place since 1989 to offer support, provide advice and develop training to allow Canada’s legal professionals to lead healthy, balanced lives. “But more needs to be done,” he acknowledged. “The data from the report will help guide our continued work in the years ahead.”

The main message from this report is that, while many in the legal professions suspected there was a problem, and there has been more discussion of mental health issues in the legal profession recently, data has now been presented that shows its scope and dimensions, said FLSC president Nicolas Plourde.

Nicolas Plourde, Federation of Law Societies of Canada

Nicolas Plourde, Federation of Law Societies of Canada

“The sheer number of our colleagues who are suffering was startling,” said Plourde. “The even higher numbers of junior legal professionals with mental health concerns and with a corresponding high level of intention to leave the profession should set off alarm bells, first and foremost for their safety, but also for the future sustainability of our profession.”

Psychological distress was reported by 59.4 per cent of respondents, including 63.7 per cent of female professionals, 71.1 per cent between ages 26 and 35, 74.3 per cent of individuals living with a disability, 69.3 per cent of professionals identifying as LGBTQ2S+, and 76.4 per cent of members working in Nunavut.

Burnout was reported by 44.1 per cent of legal professionals overall, with much higher rates reported by participants between 31 and 35 (67 per cent), females under 40 (67.4 per cent), professionals living with a disability (69.8 per cent), members of the LGBTQ2S+ community (62.7 per cent), and members practising in Nunavut (81.2 per cent).

Moderate to severe depressive symptoms were reported by 28.6 per cent of respondents. Legal professionals with less than 10 years of experience reported the highest incidence of depressive symptoms, at 36.4 per cent, followed by those under the age of 40 (34.4 per cent), and professionals who are Indigenous (33.3 per cent).

Anxiety symptoms were reported by 35.7 per cent of members overall, but by 52.1 per cent of legal professionals 35 or under, by 45.2 per cent of professionals with less than 15 years of experience, by 42.6 per cent of female participants, and by 36.8 per cent working in private practice.

Bujold said the CBA is deeply concerned by this impact on marginalized groups, noting that diversity is essential in the legal profession and research has demonstrated that diverse teams make better decisions. The legal system must reflect the diversity of the population, he said.

Plourde called it “concerning and disappointing” to have it confirmed that equity-seeking groups in our profession suffer in higher proportions.” The profession has work to do in terms of advancing inclusivity, he said.

From a gender standpoint, in spite of the fact that there are more women lawyers than men in certain jurisdictions like Quebec, the legal profession has traditionally, and still espouses a masculinity culture, principal researcher Cadieux told The Lawyer’s Daily.

Billable hours a major stressor

The study details how factors like the billable hours model, on top of the emotional demands of clients, the ubiquitous demands of technology, and work-life conflict have had a detrimental impact on members.

Annual billable hour targets generally increased as the size of the firm increased, ranging from a median of 1,102 billable hours for firms with two to five employees, up to 1,651 billable hours for firms with more than 100 employees. The average was about 1,500 billable hours for firms with between 26 and 100 employees.

But the proportion of hours worked devoted to billable hours was, on average, only 67.9 per cent, or just over two-thirds. Those hours take a toll of family life and on personal life goals. Among members working to hit annual billable hour targets in the average range of 1,200 to less than 1,800 hours, 59.7 per cent reported psychological distress; 60.9 per cent reported burnout; 30.8 per cent said they had moderate to severe depressive symptoms; and 38.9 per cent reported anxiety symptoms.

A high proportion of professionals experience work-life conflict, including an almost identical 48.3 per cent with children, and 49.5 per cent without. Overall, women experience this conflict at a higher rate — 53.9 per cent compared to 45.4 per cent for men.

Nathalie Cadieux, Université de Sherbrooke

Nathalie Cadieux, Université de Sherbrooke

“I think this is the result of a gap between organizational policies and the real management practices that we have,” said Cadieux. For example, a firm can have a work-family balance policy in place but if they also have a high expectation with respect to billable hours, this presents a contradiction, she noted.

Just over 70 per cent of participants who worked with annual billable hour targets ranging from 1,200 to less than 1,800 said they feared starting a family, even though they wanted children. That increased to 81.5 per cent for those with more than 1,800 billable hours. But even at the low end, with less than 1,200 billable hours, 58.5 per cent reported such fear.

Overall, 15.1 per cent of respondents said they did not wish to have children because of their professional obligations.

The next generation might not want to be so involved if the legal profession doesn’t change its position on issues of work-life balance, to allow them to comfortably decide to have a child and know there will be quality family time to raise that child, said Cadieux.

Starting a career can be highly stressful, and the CBA wants young lawyers to stay in the profession and thrive in it, said Bujold.

“Protecting the commitment of legal professionals in their early careers is synonymous with transforming the practice at all levels, from the moment law students enter university or begin their articling, as these are the pivotal moments in forming professional culture. It also means redefining the ways in which performance is viewed and work is structured, as well as the place of legal professionals in their early careers in a profession that is now going through a period of renewal,” he elaborated.

Unhealthy versus healthy coping mechanisms

The report also revealed that alcohol and drug use among legal professionals has reached worrying levels.

The drinking habits of male legal professionals were found to be particularly disturbing, with the proportion of men with risky drinking behaviour increasing from 27.4 per cent to 34.1 per cent between five and 10 years of experience. For women, the most dangerous point is in the first five years of their career, where risky drinking behaviour increases from 18.1 per cent to 24.2 per cent.

“These results warrant closer attention,” said the study.

“I expect that we will need to look carefully at the place of alcohol in work culture and the promotion of more positive coping strategies,” said Plourde.

About 18 per cent of respondents who were willing to discuss drugs reported having used illegal drugs at least once, although the vast majority of those said they were not regular users. Of those who had taken illegal drugs, and wished to provide further details, 21.6 per cent admitted to having used cocaine.

The study identified psychological detachment from work and the ability for professionals to set limits on the intrusion into their personal lives as a key skill to building resilience and shielding them from the stressors that impact the profession.

Other protective factors listed in the survey include: autonomy, where the legal professional is free to decide on their own working methods; consistency of values, where the professional’s values and goals and that of their employer are aligned; receiving emotional support from colleagues in the face of difficulty; the presence of career opportunities for advancement; and the ability to telework on an occasional or regular basis.

Nobody can be exposed throughout their entire career to high emotional stress and expect to remain in perfect health because we are all human, and not superheroes, said Cadieux, who stressed that providing healthy wellness resources and reducing the pressure of expectations should result in a better performance by professionals.

Wellness is a continuous process and a necessary first step towards a healthy practice of law. It is also a collective responsibility of the profession to provide a culture that encourages wellness and to increase the capacity of practitioners to reach for help as required, as well as for the individual practitioner, who needs to assert the right to their own wellness, insisted Cadieux.

The research team that wrote this report will follow up later in 2022 with recommendations for specific actions that can be undertaken to promote the well-being of Canadian legal professionals. Phase II of this study, scheduled to conclude in 2024, will include interviews with legal professionals across Canada to explore differences by province and territory.

“We are looking forward to seeing the recommendations that will come later this fall. These will provide us action plans to build on what we’re currently doing and ensure that we are addressing the current gaps to better support members of the legal profession,” said Bujold.

Stigma: Reality or perception?

If there is a silver lining in the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada, it might be that the perceived mental health stigma that some members believe is pervasive throughout the legal profession, is actually much less pronounced.

In fact, the gap between personal and perceived stigma with respect to mental health issues was found to be large. In response to the statement “I think that people with mental health issues could snap out if they wanted to,” 9.3 per cent of respondents answered in the affirmative. But when asked the same question about how others thought, 44 per cent of respondents said they perceived others in the profession felt that way. 

When asked if they thought that people with mental health issues are to blame for their problem, only 3.6 per cent answered yes, but the perception was that the percentage was much higher, at 38 per cent.

A similar gap existed when asked whether mental health issues are a sign of weakness. While only 6.1 per cent said yes, it was perceived that the real number in the profession was much higher, at 53.8 per cent.

And as to whether “people who experience mental health conditions are not as capable of working in law as those who do not,” 19 per cent of members actually had this perception, but individuals perceived the number was nearly four times higher, at 64.8 per cent.

Cadieux said the stigma perception gap revealed surprised her. “It’s a huge gap, and it shows [why] we have to discuss wellness issues. If we discuss this, we will be able to fill the gap,” she predicted.

Bujold acknowledged the need for action. “As leaders of the Canadian legal community, we have an important role to play, and we should strive to transform the way in which we conduct business and create environments that help remove the stigma around mental health,” he said.