The Every Lawyer

Mental Health in the Legal Profession - Dr. Nathalie Cadieux & Glen Hickerson

Episode Summary

Julia welcomes Prof. Nathalie Cadieux from the University of Sherbrooke and Glen Hickerson from the CBA Well-being sub-committee to discuss mental health in the legal profession.

Episode Notes

Julia welcomes Prof. Nathalie Cadieux from the University of Sherbrooke and Glen Hickerson from the CBA Well-being sub-committee to discuss the first ever nationwide comprehensive study of the psychological health determinants of the legal profession, sponsored by the Federation of Law Societies and the Canadian Bar Association. Today will also see the release of the report’s much anticipated recommendations, which we will go through at the end of this episode. 

Whatever the reason for your interest in this issue, if you are a legal professional or aspire to be one, setting limits and achieving psychological detachment from your work are the key. 

Canadian Bar Association - The first comprehensive national study on wellness in the legal profession is published (


Executive Summary:


Canadian Bar Association - CBA Well-Beingx

Episode Transcription

[Start of recorded material 00:00:00]

Julia:               Whatever the reason for your interest in this issue – if you are a legal professional or aspire to be one – setting limits and achieving psychological detachment from your work, are the key.

Speaker 1:       This is The Every Lawyer, presented by the Canadian Bar Association.

Julia:               Hi, I am Julia Tetrault-Provencher, and welcome to another mental health episode of The Every Lawyer. Today we discussed the first ever, nation-wide comprehensive study of the psychological health determinants of the legal profession, sponsored by the Federation of Law Societies and the Canadian Bar Association. Today we’ll also see the release of the report’s much anticipated recommendations, which we will go through at the end of this episode. 

                        Welcome Dr. Cadieux, from the University of Sherbrooke, Chief Investigator and Author of the report. And also welcome Glen Hickerson, from the CBA Well-being Subcommittee. Do you feel the legal profession is open to a conversation about its own mental health?

Glen:               Yes. I mean the – I’ll be a lawyer here and say – it depends on how you define the word open. But look – lawyers make a living telling their clients things that their clients don’t want to hear. And working with those clients on ways to solve the problem, despite the fact, or maybe because of the fact, that the facts aren’t what they wish they would be. I’ve been asked before, “Am I an optimist? Am I a pessimist?” And my answer to that is an optimist looks at the glass and says, “It’s half full.” A pessimist looks at the glass and says, “It’s half empty.” A lawyer looks at the glass and says, “Somebody screwed up on assessing quantum.” And I don’t have to be an optimist or a pessimist, to think that lawyers are going to figure out at some point, that a change is coming – change needs to happen and that the only way to deal with the problems that are there and are building in the legal profession, is to face those bad facts – those hard facts – face on. 

You’re not going to win your case by imagining the facts are all sunshine and rainbows. And you’re not going to solve the problem of, how to continue to have a legal profession, quite frankly, if you don’t deal with the problem that we’re facing. When you read this report, you can’t miss the fact – or maybe you can miss but you’d have to be pretty motivated to miss it [laughs] – that the very way we practice law, is what’s causing harm to people. It’s not that we don’t have enough nice stuff, or we don’t pay lawyers enough – that’s always nice, Yoga classes are nice, good salaries are nice of course and they’re important and they’re valuable. But, for example having completely unattainable billable hour targets or quotas, is going to wipe out any good that you could possibly do as a law firm for the people that are working for you, if you insist on those things.

                        So do I think that the profession is open to that discussion? It is because that’s in our nature to be open to looking at bad facts and hard facts and figuring out a way through it. But like every good client, [laughs] our first reaction is always going to be, “I don’t want to think about it.” And that’s understandable but we got to get over that.

Julia:               What prompted the CBA to sponsor this report? And were there a lot of surprises in it?

Glen:               It’s a bit like saying, “I knew that there was bad weather, I just didn’t know there was a hurricane outside my door.” So it’s, is any of what’s in that report a surprise? No. Is it a surprise that, for example there are certain practice areas and/or certain geographic areas of Canada, where the rates of – I’ll just call it harm because the report gives a lot more detail – than from the work itself, is approaching two thirds. And even in the best of situations, it’s approaching 50 percent. You’re actually at the point where it is an accepted idea that this job will simply harm you. It will make you less able to function as a human being. If you had a widget factory where 50 to 60 percent of the people that were working there were getting broken [laughs] by the work itself, you’d stop making the widgets. But we don’t have that – we don’t have that luxury I guess. 

                        So to answer your question, why did the CBA do a survey? The really prosaic reason is, we did a survey about a decade ago [laughs] and it was time to get an update. But a little bit more importantly, if you don’t know what you’re trying to fix exactly, it’s pretty hard to calibrate the fix in the first place. So we’re trying to be as effective and efficient as we could possibly be. So – and I mean, here’s the thing. The legal system isn’t a bunch of statutes. The legal system isn’t a bunch of impressive looking courthouses. The legal system is people – it’s humans – and it’s lawyers, it’s paralegals, it’s notaries, it’s articling students – and they’re, they’re not all there is to our legal system but they’re a precentral part of it. And if Canadians are seeking access to justice, if they want this system to work for them, then the working [laughs] parts – the people that make it up – need to be able to be their best. And if you look at the survey and the survey results, the honest answer right now would be that the work itself, makes it really hard for those people to do the best job they can. 

Julia:               Thank you Glen. And now Dr. Cadieux. So first, thank you very much for being here with us. And also I know you already had an interview with me in French and now we’re doing it in English, so that’s very – we really appreciate your time. 

Nathalie:         Thank you so much. It’s a real pleasure for me to have the occasion to share with [practitioners? 00:06:49] the results of this incredible research program. 

Julia:               Incredible is the word. I agree with that. So first of all, can you describe your research process a little bit?

Nathalie:         This research is the result of ten years of research. First we come back to the qualitative study in Quebec in partnership with the [unintelligible 00:07:08] Quebec to develop a measurement tool that was aligned with the challenges of the practice of law. We then come back to the conceptive study across Quebec, in which nearly then 2700 Quebec professionals participated. And this tool served as the basis for undertaking the National Wellness Project – a National Study about Mental Health and Wellness at work among legal professionals. However, we went back to conduct a few interviews, in order to clarify certain context and such as the Quebec notaries for example. And finally this report is the result of the National Data Collection – it’s more than 7300 professionals participated. And this data was used to prepare the research report but will also serve as a basis for developing [unintelligible 00:08:09] in each province and territory, during the Phase 2 of this project. And during this second phase we will also conduct approximately 100 interviews with professionals in every Canadian province and territory.

Julia:               So we have to stay tuned for also the Phase 2 of this project.

Nathalie:         Yes.

Julia:               Can I ask you – so it’s a very broad question – but a bit of the executive summary I would say of this report, for those who haven’t had the chance yet to read it, but I’m sure they will after the interview. But in general, how is our health?

Nathalie:         That’s a great question. And [laughs] I thank you for that question. I have a short answer but also a more extensive answer for you. If I start with the short one, I would say that the answer to that question would certainly not be very good, or I would say bad. But I think the short answer [deserves? 00:09:09] more nuance and also at least some support from some of the key indicators that we have measured in the study. And as a part of that, you know I also, I have to give you some context. We collected data following the third wave of COVID-19. And during the pandemic for sure, the entire Canadian population was strongly impacted by the pandemic situation by the health measures – in a period of turbulence and of the uncertainty – and the multiple changes that took place in the environment of a professional.

                        So prior to the pandemic, the [unintelligible 00:09:57] indicators related to mental health among legal professionals, were of concern. We had done a study in Quebec and we had come to the conclusion that the indicators related to mental health are – were already higher than in the general population. So not surprisingly the indicators are not only high but they are even higher than in the general population during the pandemic. So we found the proportion of psychological distress was around 59 percent, which is still very high. And we also – we looked at some findings for burnout and we found out – 56 percent of the burnout in the legal profession; 29 percent of depressive symptoms with – it’s a proportion of the professional with moderate to severe symptoms; and 36 percent of society at the worrying level; and 24 percent of professionals – so almost one in four professionals who have had suicidal thoughts during their professional practice, which is really high, unfortunately.

Julia:               This is quite alarming. And is it – because also I’m kind of thinking here what we said in French, but you also said, “In comparison to other professions it is also – it remains a bit higher also.” So I understand that it’s not only necessarily a professional thing, or being professional, or highly qualified, or whatever. It’s more like there’s something here with the legal profession. There are some root causes maybe that we need to pinpoint to maybe better understand. So I feel that those results are quite alarming. And is it something that you were surprised by?

Nathalie:         I was, I was really surprised too, when I saw the barriers for professional to getting help. The barriers are numerous and yet we see that the resources are sometimes [unintelligible 00:12:11] for professionals. And when I talk about barriers, there are all the informational barriers – people don’t have access to information about their Assistance Program; don’t remember where they should go; don’t know the services that are related to their Assistance Program; or think that their problem is not enough important, “It will pass.” 

                        And on the other end, we have many barriers related to stigma associated with mental health problems, in the legal community and like many other high-performance environments. In the study we measured personal stigma and perceived stigma in the profession. So professionals who were first asked to answer at the [unintelligible 00:13:04] some question about, “What do you think about people in your – about people who experience some psychological distress in their practice of law?” And we asked the same question for professionals related to, “What do you think that people in your profession think about this? And what do you think the perception gap is?” The gap is just over 40 percent. That’s huge. And this gap is related to the fact that few professionals have a negative perception of professionals, or colleagues who experience mental health issues during their practice, but many perceive that people in their profession have a negative perception of mental health issues. And there is a significant gap between the perception in the profession and the actual perception of people. And there is no reason for this barrier. Nothing at all, other than a lack of communication about health. And it is based on individual beliefs, fueled by a lack of collective communication related to mental health. So we have to talk about it in all settings and raise awareness and breakdown [patterns? 00:14:15].

Julia:               There’s a tremendous amount of stigma associated with mental health. You might even say we have been in denial for a while about it too. Do you think this report will help remove the stigma?

Glen:               I think, I think the – I certainly hope the report is going to help destroy stigma and I certainly hope that the good work and the hard work that we do using the report, helps destroy that stigma. Is the profession in denial? I mean, saying the profession is – that’s a big word and not just [laughs], not just grammatically – it’s a big word because it covers a lot of people. My assumption is, anybody who’s listening to this podcast, is probably a lawyer I’m guessing, or a paralegal, or a notary, or an articling student and more importantly, is probably someone who has an idea, or an inkling that something is wrong and maybe we need to do something about it. And so the listeners to this podcast – probably the ones that aren’t in denial – they’re just looking for a way to deal with the issue.

Julia:               Is there anything in particular about the report that you feel people might not necessarily notice immediately when they read it at first?

Glen:               It’s really easy to look at this report and just say to yourself, “Oh. Isn’t this terrible.” And then just go on doing what all of us have been doing our entire careers. And the report shows the way that we structure the practice of law is hurting lawyers profoundly. And that – those harms significantly outweigh the good things that we do for lawyers. We can’t get out of this problem. We can’t figure out our way out of this problem – by paying people more; by offering Yoga in the lunchroom at noon; or making up another set of office policies; or having a nice glossy recruitment page for our firm that we immediately don’t follow when it’s inconvenient for us. We can’t keep breaking the promise that we’re going to treat people well.

                        So if there was a lawyer listening to this podcast and that lawyer was – is wondering what to do, I’m saying, “Please, please, please, right now listen – hear this advice that I’m giving you, the way you’d wish a client would listen to your advice.” Right now you’re burning through lawyers at a rate you can’t possibly sustain. Eventually you’re not going to be able to recruit people and those people are going to be making mistakes because they’re sick and tired and burned out. Fixing the problem is going to be hard, yes. But if you change the way you ask people to work for you, there’s an opportunity for you and for the people you work with, to have a happier, healthier and more productive workplace.

So you have to ask yourself, if you’re treating the people who work for you the way you would like to be treated? And if the answer is, “No,” and you’ve got to ask that question and answer it honestly, then figure out a way to do that better in practice and then do it. And then keep asking yourself that same question, “Am I treating the people working for me – working with me – the way I would like to be treated?” And just it's an iterative process – keep going, keep going, keep going – and you’re not ever going to arrive at nirvana, but you are going to make things better incrementally one little step at a time. So please deal with the hard facts, but there is an opportunity there, if you’re willing to take it.

Julia:               Yes. And I think – I mean that shows that people should talk to each other [laughs] and colleagues should talk to each other, so that people would understand. I know nobody actually – it’s kind of reassuring at the same time, thinking that personally, individually, people do not [shame? 00:18:25] necessarily mental health, but it’s just people have the feeling around them, other’s do. So it’s also quite sad because I think it really shows that we lack communication here. But I think this report is here also to enlighten this and to have some follow ups, which I understand there will be some recommendations that will be published. Can you just give us a little bit more of those recommendations – how many; how do you think they will be implemented by the legal profession; how did you – how did you come up with them – a little bit.

Nathalie:         Yes. Absolutely. I have to share that in the final report, we made a summary of the different findings of the report, because it’s very important to develop solutions around findings, to [unintelligible 00:19:18] the targeted recommendations in the facts and in the data that we obtained in this incredible project. So we developed around ten recommendations for the sustainable practice of law. And in these, more general recommendations, we include around 50 recommendations – more specific recommendations – and some of these recommendations are developed and target specific stakeholders and sometimes it’s the law society, sometimes it’s the regulator and general, sometimes it’s the workplace – workplaces where professionals [evolved? 00:20:06]. So I think it’s very important to identify many actions at each level and solution is not a global solution, or we can’t apply a part of one recommendation and not the other one but at the end we are taking action at every level in the legal professions. So in the workplace and for the individual too. I had in my recommendation, “Take your vacation.” [Laughs]

Julia:               Yes. No, that’s such a good one. [Laughter]

Nathalie:         Yes. Absolutely. Because we say – everybody knows that it’s very important to taking vacation – but with the intrusion in personal life with the technology for example, it’s very easy to reach for your email during your vacation period. But during this time you will not be able to refuel your energy and to take more constrain after your vacation period. So we have to talk about health. It’s my responsibility to talk with my colleagues about my distress if I have some distress, to reach for help, it’s important. But it’s not only an individual responsibility. It’s an organizational responsibility and it’s a social responsibility, if you would like to protect the commitment of young practitioners. Because as we’ve seen in this report, more than half of professionals responded that they will be willing to accept another job at the same pay level, if they have an opportunity. So I think it’s an area of concern. And if we would like to protect the commitment of the future professionals, we will have to move toward assisting the practice of law and a healthier practice of law.

Julia:               It speaks for itself. And I just love that those recommendations are very – I mean they are touching – they are targeting different people – different institutions. So we don’t – and it’s only – because sometimes we tend to say, “But you know, just take your days off,” or, “Take your weekends off,” and everything, but it’s not just that because sometimes maybe people don’t even feel that they are allowed to take them, because they will be judged, or this perception that they need to perform and everything. So I love that one of your recommendations, is take your vacations, because I think this is so important. And maybe even the right to disconnect, which we don’t have here in Canada, but still the right to just not have your cellphone, not having to answer and I think [unintelligible 00:22:59] for that. It’s a very interesting way that’s even like a legal – maybe even if we go there – a legal view that we could maybe have a law, for the right to disconnect, that could help maybe. [Laughs]

Nathalie:         Yes. An organization will have to give the chance to the professional to [actualize? 00:23:17] this and because if I put a lot of pressure on the shoulders of my professionals, they will not be able to set their limit. They will not be able to say, “No,” if they need to say, “No,” to perfect their own health. So we have to take action at every level.

Julia:               So back to you Glen. How do you think we can incentivize law firm leaders and others, to take the mental health and wellbeing of their employees, associates, and partners, more seriously?

Glen:               We’ve got three things going on. Law firms in particular, but legal workplaces in general, have had a long history of a workplace culture, that I say is a lot less like, How to Win Friends and Influence People and a lot more like, Game of Thrones – much more peer-to-peer competition – right from the time you write an LSAT exam, you’re setup for the idea that success comes with beating your peers. And let’s just stipulate for a moment – I’m sounding again kind of like a lawyer here – but let’s just stipulate that argument that that’s worked. 

The problem is three things. One, the supply of great lawyers and great candidates, is not what it once was. There’s greater competition for good lawyers out there. Secondly, you’re recruiting from a generation – people who were born in the 1990’s or 2000’s – who were raised not to put up with being exploited for a long period of time. I think most people who are old like me, have realized – have noticed that younger people don’t put up with the stuff we put up with – and good on them. And the third problem that law firms have in just continuing on as things were, is we just have had a massive real life, real-time experiment, in what it’s like not to go into a lousy office, [laughs] and it was called the pandemic. And people have worked from home and there’s lots of problems and bad things and challenges with working from home, but people have also noticed that there’s a lot of good stuff there.

                        And so if you’re a law firm who is dedicated to pinning one lawyer against another in a competition to succeed, you’ve got to watch out that you’re not, by doing that, continuing to put yourself out of the marketplace for recruiting good lawyers and/or having your best people leave, because why work there?

Julia:               Can you tell us about some of the resources and activities of the CBA, focusing on mental health and wellbeing?

Glen:               We have got a lot. I mean, there’s the short answer but the – we’ve got a series called the Wellbeing Hour, that covers a variety of topics and builds out all kinds of solutions that – and a great deal of it unsurprisingly, is already in response to things that are outlined in the report. One of the things that the report does – or the recommendations certainly say – is that perhaps our resources, like everybody else’s resources, should get organized in such a way that it’s easy to spot what’s available, based on the concern or the problem, the issue that’s at hand. So we’ll certainly be – that’s something we’ve already got, but we’ll still be working on it. 

                        If you’re looking for something a little bit more fun, then we’ve got a monthly advice column called Dear Advy, and that’s at – actually all of this is at Hopefully there will be links in the show notes, but [laughs] there will be something that you can get to, but you can find the Wellbeing Hour and Dear Advy on our page. You can also find a CPD course that we have – and all of those by the way are free – and not just free to CBA Members but they’re free, thanks to our sponsor Lawyers Financial. 

                        And the other thing that we’ve got on that same page, is contact information for every Lawyer Assistance Program across the country. And behind the scenes, one of the things that we’ve been doing – and of course we’re going to continue to do and we’re going to do with this study and its findings in mind – is we support the work of the frontline workers in the Lawyer Assistance Programs in every jurisdiction. So we offer continuing professional development for those people and we offer them opportunities for them to exchange good ideas and that sort of benefit. And so we do that behind the scenes. Obviously that’s not something that’s a front-facing service that the CBA provides. 

                        Beyond that, if you’re – to the extend of what will we be doing – I see the people that are in our profession that realize there’s an issue that needs to be resolved, as our customers. You’re the managing partner, or you are the human resources person, or you’re just an interested person in a law firm, or a workplace and you’re looking for a couple of things. One, a list of things that your organization could do, in order to make it a friendlier place to work for. And secondly, ammo. You’re looking for a way to convince the people that are in your firm that maybe don’t see that there’s an issue, that this really is a problem. So customers they’re, “Watch this space because there’s going to be even more for you.” But the business case, for managing lawyers’ mental health well, is almost irresistible. 

Julia:               Thank you Glen. Dr. Cadieux, if we come back to you now. So my last question for you will be, so in the report there are some testimonies of lawyers, or people working the legal profession – jurists as well, I guess. Is there any lived experience anecdote that jumped up the page and that had stayed with you and that you’d like to share to our listeners before we end this?

Nathalie          Certainly. I wouldn’t say that I have been taught many times this last year, by the [unintelligible 00:30:16] from the professionals. We included the comment box at the end of the survey and this was to allow professionals who wanted to share some of their challenges. And unexpectedly we received more than 300 pages of comments that we then analyzed to contextualize certain results. And among the comments we received, I remember a young woman who wrote to us about working in the firm while she was pregnant and fearing the reaction of her workplace and the impact it might have on her being assigned cases, for example. She made the decision to hide her pregnancy. And to do this she sometimes drank alcohol in front of her colleagues, during a Happy Hour, to avoid their suspicion of her pregnancy. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging this situation but on the contrary. I think it shows the incredible pressure that professionals are under. And also, I remember one professional man using [unintelligible 00:31:38] harsh words when he said, “Over the years this profession has killed me many times, in many ways.” I think this shows the intensity and persistence of stress throughout the lives of professionals. And so I was particularly touched, just by these comments that I received.

Julia:               Those are very strong. And I think the fact that you received all those comments – an extra box – and you said that some of them it lasted for an hour but people still wanted to give some comments. It also shows that you kind of opened a door here and people felt maybe comfortable at the end. And it also shows how you did your interviews I think that you really made people comfortable and open. So I think, also kudos for that. Thank you very much Dr. Cadieux. That is all the time we have. It was so interesting and thank you for doing them in both languages as well.

Nathalie:         Thank you so much.

Julia:               And finally, as promised, here is the concise list of report recommendations coming out today towards a healthy and sustainable practice of law in Canada.

                        As a profession we should first, improve preparation of future professionals and provide them support to deal with psychological health issues. (2) Improve support and guidance available at entry to the profession. (3) Improve continuing professional development, the CBD. (4) Where relevant, evaluate the implementation of alternative work organization models that limit the impact of certain risk factors on health. (5) Implement actions aimed at destigmatizing mental health issues in the legal profession. (6) Improve access to health and wellness support resources and breakdown barriers that limit access to these resources. (7) Promote diversity in the profession and revise practices, policies, and procedures that may include or create discriminatory biases. (8) Consider the psychological health of legal professionals as integral to legal practice and the justice system. (9) Develop a culture of measurement. And final one, foster a better work-life balance in the legal profession.

                        Glen Hickerson and Dr. Nathalie Cadieux, thank you so much for your time today. And thank you for listening. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact us directly at and look out for some deeper dives into these recommendations and some of the issues we have discussed here today on, The Every Lawyer in the weeks and month to come.

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