Candice Pollack and Lexy Smith-Doughty present the virtual gatherings “Coffee in the times of COVID”; events to facilitate connection and mentorship.
Candice Pollack and Lexy Smith-Doughty tell us more about the virtual gatherings “Coffee in the times of COVID”; events to facilitate connection and mentorship.
The online meetups bring junior lawyers and law students together with mentors to discuss pertinent issues in the legal field that have been changed by our new virtual reality.
Candice Ashley Pollack is the communication officer for the Canadian Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Section and the co-chair of their mental health and awareness committee.
Lexy Smith-Doughty is a lawyer with the Auditor General of New Brunswick and she’s currently on the mental health and awareness committee of the CBA.
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Building Resiliency through Connection
Voiceover: This is The Every Lawyer, presented by the Canadian Bar Association.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: It’s been roughly three months since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. The practice of law has changed dramatically since that time for many lawyers across the country. I personally noticed this when my husband, who’s a criminal lawyer, attended a bail hearing from our bedroom.
One commonality for all lawyers is the loss of camaraderie and networking opportunities that come from being in the same physical space. Now people are attending court through Zoom and conducting due diligence from their living rooms.
Today on The Every Lawyer we’re speaking to two lawyers who are attempting to recreate those moments of small mentorship and support. You know, the ones you find around the proverbial water cooler. The program is called Coffee in the Times of COVID, and it brings junior lawyers together with mentors online to discuss challenges faced by young lawyers with a new virtual reality.
Candice Ashley Pollack is the Executive Director of the AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub in Advancing Policies and Practices in Technology and Aging. She’s also the Communication Officer for the Canadian Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Section and is the co-chair of its Mental Health and Awareness Committee.
Lexy Smith-Doughty is a lawyer with the Auditor General of New Brunswick and she started her career in private practice focusing on civil litigation. Before law, Lexy worked in health policy and public health focusing on mental health, and she’s currently on the Mental Health and Awareness I understand that you’re both on the Mental Health and Awareness Committee of the Canadian Bar Association, and you actually both have backgrounds in health policy. And so, my first question to both of you is how does forging connections with other lawyers, whether virtual or physical connections, how does that affect the mental health of young lawyers specifically? So, Candice, why don’t we start with you but, Lexy, I'd love to hear your views as well after.
Candice Ashley Pollack: I think the critical part about forging connections, whether it’s among young lawyers or just in general, is that as a society we face challenges in relation to social isolation. And isolation in that way actually has similar health impacts to excessive smoking, obesity etcetera in terms of your mortality rate. So, I don’t think we actually really fully grasp the fact that being socially connected is a huge protective factor in terms of your overall wellbeing just in general.
And in the context of young lawyers particularly, especially during these strange and challenging times, you know most of us are knowledge workers, we’re able to work from home. Many young lawyers and articling students have now lost their roles or their positions and so are probably feeling increasingly isolated and alone, and potentially like they may be the only ones having this experience because some of their friends may not have had similar challenges recently.
So the idea behind bringing people together and connecting them is really about showing them that they are not alone. And giving them the space to just have a conversation with somebody else, whether that’s in person or virtually, at a time when social connection is becoming more and more challenging.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right. OK, so showing them that there is a community behind them.
Candice Ashley Pollack: Exactly.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: OK, thank you. And Lexy, how about you? How do you feel about the fact that connection to other lawyers, whether it’s in the virtual space or physical space, how that affects mental health?
Lexy Smith-Doughty: Yeah, the public implications of social isolation and loneliness are well documented. And I think to put something in place in order to help mitigate that, especially during these strange times, was definitely one of the goals of the committee. So we thought, you know, lots of people are doing these virtual meetings and what better than a virtual coffee break to connect others and exchange tips and tricks on how to deal with these strange times.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: For sure. And it’s interesting that you say a virtual coffee break, because that’s what I personally find I'm really missing is just those impromptu moments of, I don't know, solidarity, whether you’re talking about the way this TV show or a book you read, or even the informal conversations, I think that’s neat that you both took this and made it a little bit less formal of a program, that kind of coffee break idea.
Lexy Smith-Doughty: Yeah, we really tried to keep the numbers down, which made things a lot more informal. And by the end of it, you know everyone was very comfortable with sharing their stories and their experiences. And everyone got a chance to talk which was also important. So, yes we did try and keep it more informal and I think it’s so far been working quite well.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Perfect. So Candice, back to you; in your coffee chat you talked about productivity and morale. And I just wanted to start with what are some of the challenges in these areas for young lawyers during this pandemic when it comes to productivity and morale?
Candice Ashley Pollack: Our discussion ranged from a whole bunch of different challenges. Some of the key ones that came up were just in terms of workplace motivation when you’re at home, when there’s distractions, your dog is around, your children are home, you’re partner’s also working from home, and you don’t have potentially that set office space so you don’t have that ergonomic setup that you’re used to.
There’s a whole host of different reasons why you may be less focused or have less energy. Another being being home all of the time means that you’re not getting a change of scenery. You’re not getting that same mental stimulation that you’re used to. And all of this could potentially impact your productivity or your morale in terms of what you need to accomplish at work.
Deadlines may be a little bit different in the context of COVID. And I think many employers have really sought to be a bit more compassionate and empathetic towards the reality that we’re in right now. So, the main challenges that people talked about are really just not being motivated, not having the right workplace setup at home, having a lot of distractions and overall not being able to focus on wellness because of the general stress that this pandemic situation has placed on their lives.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right, for sure. Actually, in the introduction I talked about the fact my husband, who’s a junior lawyer, he is a criminal lawyer, and he conducted a bail hearing during COVID from our bedroom. So, for sure when it comes to – I was nodding my head along with you when you were talking about having the lack of setup or space in your own, you know, in apartments or houses can really affect productivity and morale.
I wanted to talk about you personally because part of what you’re doing through this series is mentorship. So, what have been your own challenges when it comes to productivity and morale in the time of COVID?
Candice Ashley Pollack: Yeah, I mean I think I was projecting a little there. Definitely the workplace setup is a big challenge for me. We didn’t have any office space at all at home. We finally converted one of our rooms into an office. But my partner has many, many screens and pieces of technology that he needs so I'm kind of relegated to shifting between our couches and our kitchen table. And I’ve found that I definitely feel some aches and pains – generally speaking – that I didn’t have before.
But also, just in terms of being able to focus on a really large, abstract task or getting something big off the ground, it’s been more difficult to do that from home. And I feel like I'm accomplishing less every day. Even though I have a to-do list and I might be crossing things off that to-do list, I don’t feel like I'm accomplishing as much as I did before.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right, OK. Yeah, I'm right there with you so I'm again nodding vigorously along with you. What was something that you found surprising about your conversation from the other lawyers in your session? Was there anything that was, not shocking, but not something that you would have thought about without this coffee break?
Candice Ashley Pollack: I think it was less things that I wouldn’t have thought about and more who was at the table. For my session we had just such a diverse range of people, and there were actually a couple of participants who were not necessarily new to the profession.
And many of them actually had indicated that they had already been working from home prior to COVID-19, or that they have lots of experience working from home. And so they in fact signed up so they could share their tips with others, which I thought was really exciting because I don’t have that many great tips to offer people. So it was great to have other people in our virtual room who could take on that role as well.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: That’s very generous. It’s nice to hear. That’s actually, that’s a perfect segue to my last question just in this part for you and that was what did you learn from the session that you didn’t know already? What was your one kind of takeaway from your coffee?
Candice Ashley Pollack: I think my favourite takeaway is somebody reached out to me afterward and asked me to plan another session with her on an entirely different topic about alternative legal careers. Because, we had generally just kind of gotten to know each other through that session and heard about each other’s backgrounds and thought we might have some mutual points of connection there to move forward with. So I think that was the biggest takeaway for me is that I actually did form a connection with somebody that went beyond that one-hour session.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: That’s great, going back to the goal of the series to create the network, to strengthen your network. That must have been gratifying to know that it can be done online.
Candice Ashley Pollack: Absolutely.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Great, OK thanks. Lexy, in your coffee chats you talked about the technology learning curve now that everybody – senior, junior, everyone – is working from home, and it’s quite the learning curve. What was your biggest takeaway from your discussion?
Lexy Smith-Doughty: I'd have to say that I was quite surprised at how quickly different law firms were adopting technology, from what I heard from the other participants in terms of witnessing documents, filing forms of court, anything, and that they really did pick it up with ease. I expected to hear more negative issues with this.
But it seems like not only were people excited to go in this direction but there was a lot of talk around continuing this going forward, you know, long after COVID, if we are out of these strange times any time soon, which I think is really exciting because you know law is a very paper-based profession. And anything we can do to sort of make it easier on the environment I think that’s definitely the right step forward.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Absolutely, make it easier on the environment and create some maybe modicum of flexibility for even more junior lawyers too would be certainly a plus of all this. While we’re talking about technology, what do you think about technology helping us form new relationships and mentorship opportunities? Or is it just innately hindering them? What do you think about its role when it comes to being able to create the camaraderie and community in the profession that maybe you experienced as a more junior lawyer?
Lexy Smith-Doughty: Well I think it was great that we had participants from all across the country. You know I don’t think we would have had that opportunity if we had had an in-person meeting. So, learning about different law societies, like provincial ones, and how they do things, I think that’s really an invaluable source of information that we couldn’t have tapped into if it weren’t for technology.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: That’s a really good point. So, technology actually enables us to have a bigger national and maybe even international network.
Lexy Smith-Doughty: Right, exactly.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Yeah, OK. And from your session, what do you think is your biggest tip that either you gave the attendees or it came up organically in your discussion? But, what is the biggest tip for junior and senior lawyers to use to actually leverage that technology to network?
Lexy Smith-Doughty: Really to do your research around are there ways of having documents signed electronically, seeing what resources are out there. Don’t just venture forth and say oh well, you know, we’re going to try and just meet around a six-foot table, you know? Look at those innovative ways to doing things. Reach out to your colleagues, see what they’re doing, because there’s just a lot of really neat stuff going on right now.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Mm-hmm. So almost use that kind of curiosity, inquisitiveness to find out from people across the country what they’re actually doing; how they’re troubleshooting. Is that fair?
Lexy Smith-Doughty: Exactly, like making use of your network essentially.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right, making use of your network, OK. So, different provinces – speaking of the fact that we are national and different provinces have different pandemics and they’re in different stages of opening back up right now – but when it comes to both leveraging technology and being productive and positive while at home, what do we need to remember about this very strange and it’s almost a cliché now but unprecedented time in our career? Candice, we’ll start with you. We’ll give Lexy a break.
Candice Ashley Pollack: That’s a big question to start with.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: I know.
Candice Ashley Pollack: One of the biggest things that crosses my mind regularly is to remember to be grateful and to think about what we have right now in the context of such a large-scale, really large-scale social and economic impacts that are going to come with COVID-19. I can't even begin to explain how absolutely blessed I am to have a home and a family and a partner and a dog, and to not be worried about the basic needs that human beings have. You know that for me has been the biggest learning of COVID-19 is just to remember to think back on all of these things that we kind of are, you know, not taking advantage of but just don’t really realize how lucky we are right now.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Yeah, absolutely. Whether it’s a gratitude journal or whether it’s just taking a minute out of every day to reflect on that, I think that’s a really important thing. We’ve actually had other people come in talking about wellness and the importance that gratitude can be toward wellness, so that’s interesting that you mention that as kind of your biggest net takeaway from all this.
Lexy, how about you? When it comes to leveraging technology, being productive and positive while at home, what are you always going to remember about this very odd time in your legal career?
Lexy Smith-Doughty: Similarly to Candice, you know I think it’s important to keep some perspective. You know things may be different but it doesn’t mean they have to be difficult. You know, just because something is new and unprecedented, it doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of moving forward with benefits, like for instance, you know, being less paper-based as an example.
So yeah, my answer is essentially the same, you know, have gratitude, look at innovative ways to move forward. Don’t think this is the end of the world.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right, OK. And how have the coffee chats helped you come to this conclusion?
Lexy Smith-Doughty: People came sharing many positive things. I wasn’t really expecting that. I thought people would come in and they would be venting about this or that, but for the most part people were excited about the new uses of technology and sharing different tips and tricks in terms of witnessing documents. And I just thought everything was really positive. And I think like maybe I'm a bit of a pessimistic person or something, but when I did go into the chat I expected not necessarily complaining but, you know, venting about certain difficulties. And I really came out feeling the opposite, so.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: That’s really nice. OK, interesting, so a lot more positivity than you were thinking. Especially when it comes to junior lawyers, as you were saying before, who are really bearing quite a bit of uncertainty during these times, that’s nice to hear that there’s a general positivity within the sessions.
Lexy Smith-Doughty: Mm-hmm.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: So Candice and Lexy, you’re both feeling positive right now based on the sessions, and there’s been a lot of forward look about what are the benefits actually to these situations, whether it comes from creating more of a national network or whether it’s going paperless. What about people that aren’t feeling as positive?
Candice Ashley Pollack: I think at the core the idea behind Coffee in the Times of COVID was really to bring people together so that you can see that you’re not alone. And I think it’s important for us to iterate that it’s OK to not be OK right now. It’s OK to be struggling, whether that’s with your mental health, your social situation, your economic situation. All of those things are OK and you’re not alone. And you know, that’s why we’re doing these sessions is so that we can bring people together around those topics. And you can hopefully leave with some tips and tricks but at the very least you can leave with a sense of community.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: For sure, absolutely. And turning to your community when times aren’t as strong either is an important part of a healing and coping process. So, what’s coming up for the series? I understand that it’s continuing into July and beyond, so what types of sessions will be hosted? Who should sign up? Who are you looking to connect with?
Candice Ashley Pollack: We’ve got some really great sessions planned going all the way into the end of July at this point, a couple more on articling and what people wish they knew when they started their articles. We’ve got some sessions on how racial minorities can be better supported in the workplace coming up, and also some sessions around using social media as a tool for social justice.
So I think we’ve got a really broad range of topics that would interest anybody in the legal profession, and I would highly encourage all young lawyers and articling students to either sign up for a session or reach out to facilitate one. I'm sure you’ll find that there’s a community of people that are really interested in something that you have an interest in sharing.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: OK. Well thank you both for your time. Thank you for being here. And we really appreciate you sharing with us your tips, your tricks, what you’ve learned and what you’re doing going forward when it comes to creating these mentorship opportunities in the profession.
Candice Ashley Pollack: Thank you.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Thanks to both Lexy and Candice for discussing with us their Coffee in the Times of COVID series. For information on the series, check out the CBA’s website. I'd love to hear how you’re mentoring or seeking mentorship opportunities while at home. Tweet to us at @CBA_news, or you can reach me at my handle @Marlissess.
We are on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Stitcher, wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe to receive notifications for new episodes, and leave us a review. We also have a podcast in French called Juriste branché. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for the next episode.