More than 40 per cent of Quebec lawyers suffer from psychological distress, with young lawyers with less than 10 years of experience more prone to experiencing mental health issues, according to a study by researchers at the Université de Sherbrooke.
The study, the latest in a growing body of research that points to an elevated risk of mental health disorders in the legal community, reveals that 42 per cent of women and 39 per cent of men surveyed experienced psychological distress, a set of symptoms similar to burnout or depression often characterized by anxiety, sleeping difficulties and concentration problems. It is an “early warning sign,” indicating that the person has problems adjusting to stressors, according to the 181-page study (available only in French).
The figures climb noticeably with lawyers who have less than 10 years of experience, regardless of sex, with 49.9 per cent suffering psychological distress compared to 36.7 per cent for experienced lawyers. The sphere of practice plays a role as does the kind of practice. Half of lawyers working in the private sector suffered from psychological distress, a figure that dropped to 37.4 per cent for those working either in the public sector or as in-house counsel. More than half of litigators (51.5 per cent) experienced psychological distress compared to almost as many lawyers (49.4 per cent) who practice business, commercial and corporate law, and family law (49.1 per cent).
“I was surprised that there was little statistical difference between the sexes regarding psychological distress,” remarked Nathalie Cadieux, a management and human resources professor who conducted the study. More than 2,500 lawyers answered the 150-question survey that focused on psychological distress, burnout and well-being. The study, commissioned by the Barreau du Québec, began in 2014 and was completed this year.
“It was surprising because it is generally recognized that women are more at risk for psychological distress. For all sorts of reasons. Women talk about it while men turn to alcohol to deal with stressors. It’s more difficult for them to make their way in the workplace, to climb up the corporate ladder. And then there’s family obligations. So it was very interesting to see that the same proportion of lawyers, regardless of the sex, suffer from psychological distress, which means that we should have the same kind of interventions.”
Nearly the same pattern holds true for lawyers suffering from burnout or exhaustion. Nearly a quarter of lawyers, or 22.4 per cent, with less than 10 years of experience said they suffered from burnout compared to 16.5 per cent of more experienced lawyers. Lawyers working in the private sector reported higher burnout rates (22.8 per cent) than their confreres in the public sector (17.1 per cent) or those working as in-house counsel (15.2 per cent). Family law practitioners reported the highest burnout rates at 29.7 per cent, followed by criminal lawyers at 28.2 per cent and litigators at 23.1 per cent. In contrast to psychological distress, female lawyers reported higher burnout rates than men – 20.7 per cent compared to 15.9 per cent.
While mental health issues can have profound implications for affected lawyers and their families, the impacts can extend much further, to colleagues, firms, other members of the legal community and the public that lawyers serve. Indeed, Paul-Mathieu Grondin, the bâtonnier of the Barreau, views the health and well-being of lawyers in part as an access to justice issue. If lawyers are not at their best, clients are not getting the kind of representation they should be receiving.
“We definitely are taking the issue very seriously,” said Grondin. “We think that mental health in our membership is definitely one of the priorities for years to come. It’s part of our mission to work in the public interest, (and that involves) looking at the mental wellbeing of our lawyers.”
The Barreau is going to increase monies allocated to its in-house lawyers assistance program by 35 per cent, which will be bankrolled by a premium hike to bar members from $26 to $35 that services the program. The Quebec law society also will launch a committee to examine viable long-term solutions to deal with the “really tough issue as they are probably no easy solutions,” said Grondin.
The culture and stressors unique to the legal profession are likely factors that contribute to mental health issues within the legal world, said Cadieux. “There’s not one single factor at play but many,” said Cadieux. “There’s the culture and the issue of technology, which has proved to be invasive. On top of that lawyers work in an organizational milieu where demands are high, deadlines are short, and top-notch performance is expected, all of which makes for an explosive cocktail for one’s health.” Added to the mix is the stigma around mental health issues that makes it difficult for those living with mental health issues to talk about the challenges they face or to seek help to deal with it.
Young lawyers face further challenges. Articling and employment prospects for young Quebec lawyers has deteriorated over the past decade, according to a 2016 report by the Young Bar of Montreal. In 2004, 11.8 per cent of lawyers were unemployed at the time of their registration on the Roll of the Order – a figure that now stands at 18.2 per cent. In yet another dismaying finding, the report reveals that young lawyers who do find work can no longer count on making as much as much as those who entered the profession in 2004: 17 per cent of lawyers who enrolled in the bar between the years 2004 and 2008 earned over $110,000 compared to a paltry 0.7 per cent today. At the end of the other scale, nearly one in three lawyers admitted to the bar in 2013 earned less than $20,000 compared to 3.5 per cent who entered the bar between 2004 and 2008.
“Is it so farfetched to see that there could be a link between employment and the fact that there’s not a lot of security for our members,” remarked Sabine Uwitonze, head of the Young Bar of Montreal. “There’s also a lot of unknowns. The gap between what you think the profession will be like when you graduate and the reality of it is a big gap and a big shock for some of our members.”
The Young Bar of Montreal is in the midst of organizing a roundtable on mental health, and has invited some of the city’s largest employers to take part. The roundtable is expected to take place this year. “We are hoping that by getting everybody at the same table that we will be able to discuss what steps can be taken as an employer and what are the best practices that should be put in place to be able to offer a healthy and open work environment for lawyers to address the stigma of mental health issues in the workplace.”
A French-language summary of the report can be downloaded here.
This story was originally published in The Lawyer’s Daily.