Time For the Profession to Talk About Depression

Darryl Singer is a lawyer well-known to paralegals for his effective CPD presentations. He shares his knowledge of assistance available to legal professionals who are coping with issues such as depression.

In any given year, according to Statistics Canada, approximately 5% of the population will experience a major episode of depression. Almost 15% of us will suffer from such an illness at some point in our lives.

According to the Canadian Medical Association, depression is the fastest rising medical diagnosis in Canada and accounts for over 11 million doctor visits a year. Add to this burden on our system the lost work productivity and it is clear depression is an issue that needs to be addressed as a society at the macro level.

However, on a micro level, the legal profession is even worse off. It is estimated by some studies that lawyers will suffer depression at three times the rate of the population at large, yet are far less likely to seek treatment for it.

Although the studies deal specifically with lawyers, there is every reason to assume the statistics either do or eventually will apply to paralegals. Since paralegals are now Law Society licensees, they face the same professional, business, and personal pressures attributed to lawyers. So for the balance of this article I will refer to lawyers and paralegals simply as legal professionals or licensees.

High Expectations, Competing Demands

I suspect the reason for increased incidences of depression amongst legal professionals is because we are entrusted with our clients’ most significant personal and business problems, sometimes including their very liberty or financial well being. Their problems become our problems.

Then there are the expectations we have of a particular lifestyle, having invested much time, money and effort to attain our Law Society licence; the tangential expectations of our financial success by others in our lives based on some perceived “status”; the very real pressures generating business; doing the work generated in a timely manner; billing and collecting on that work; long hours away from family and friends; the increasing expectation with technological advances that we must always be available and that everything needs to be done yesterday.

And this is for those of us who are for the most part successful in our career. For others, particularly at either end of the experience spectrum, there are more basic issues, like even finding work in the first place or phasing out of the only work you have ever known (often not by choice).

Then there are the challenges unique to those who litigate, as opposed to those members of the profession whose work does not require them to attend court or tribunals.

Litigators of all experience levels and specialties must navigate the course of a file with greater burdens than ever — in addition to the problems enumerated above, they must also struggle with systemic delays (which clients do not understand and for which the client will inevitably blame the legal professional); an economy that makes the cost of running a practice more expensive than at any other time while at the same time making it more difficult to get paid; clients more aware about their ability to report you to the LSUC or file a claim with your negligence insurer; and a constantly increasingly lack of civility amongst members of the profession.

The most surprising thing about the recent statistics is that the numbers are not higher.

Far-reaching Consequences

I regularly defend lawyers and paralegals at Law Society discipline hearings through the Advocates’ Society’s excellent and much needed volunteer duty counsel program. It has been my experience, and that of many of my colleagues on the duty counsel roster, that a disproportionate number of licensee defendants in these disciplinary proceedings suffered from some form of mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety. Most did not seek any treatment or assistance of any kind until after they had run sufficiently afoul of the Rules of Professional Conduct (or worse).

Note: While I use the word depression in this article because it references the particular statistics set out herein, depression is intended as an all encompassing term that also includes anxiety and panic attacks, debilitating stress headaches, other psychosomatic illnesses as well as other types of mental health issues.

It is also worth noting that mental health issues often go hand in hand with some sort of addiction or substance abuse. Often the effects of the addiction on one’s life and psyche lead to depression, while at other times the depression results in some form of self-medication which in turn leads to addiction. In many instances the depression and the self-destructive behavior run hand-in-hand, and it is virtually indistinguishable where one stops and the other begins.

The potential to cause costly and often irreparable harm, when our own mental health issues prevent us from dealing with both our clients’ matters and our law practices timely and appropriately, cannot be overstated. Yet the fear of “coming out” as someone suffering from depression is terrifying to most of us.

I remember thinking when I was suffering some years ago, “These people trust me to solve their problems and I can’t even handle my own life! What will everyone think of me? My clients, my colleagues, my sources of referral? Will they all turn against me, blacklist me, be afraid to deal with me? Will the Law Society get involved?” This is what is going through the minds of thousands of legal professionals at this very moment.

Paradigm Changes Needed

As a profession, we need to recognize this problem and deal with it in terms of education, compassion, and a change in mindset about how we view ourselves as members of the Law Society.

This has to start with the schools, the Law Society, the large firms, and the most senior and successful members of the profession We need to pay more than lip service to the concept of work/life balance, must accept a new economic paradigm, and learn to see our jobs as an integral part of our lives but not as the be all and end all.

Most importantly, the stigma of depression needs to be lifted. It is time for all those of us who have suffered, overcome our difficulties and thrived, to “come out” for the benefit of those still suffering in silence. One person going without help will result in deleterious effects for many others beyond just that practitioner, and ultimately our profession’s failure to address the issue will in the long run hurt both our public image and our ability to self-govern.

So what exactly needs to be done? We need to educate the profession, starting during school, that depression is not a barrier to a successful career if it is treated or managed. The message must be disseminated to the furthest reaches of the profession that those who seek help will not automatically face disciplinary action either by their employer or the Law Society. Programs like OLAP and the LSUC’s current Member Assistance Program through Homewood must continue to be funded, have a peer counseling component, and guarantee confidentiality. And such programs must ensure that members who seek help receive the best available care in a timely fashion.

Most importantly, the message from on high needs to be that asking for help demonstrates strength of character rather than weakness of will.

Darryl Singer is a Toronto litigator and peer counsellor with the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program (OLAP).

by Elizabeth Published on Paralegal Scope Magazine