Actionable guidance on mental health hygiene and EDI, for firms and solo practitioners.
Julia welcomes Sania Chaudhry, an employment and human rights lawyer and winner of Alberta’s Top 30 under 30 award for professional excellence in 2022, to discuss mental health in the legal profession.
Sania is active with the Alberta Branch of the CBA, as well the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, and the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association. Julia talks to her about bouncing back from burn-out, going from litigation in private practice to a regulator and back again, learning to cope with microaggressions and stigma on multiple fronts, and starting a family, all before turning 30.
This conversation features an impressive density of tips, tricks, and hands-on advice for young legal professionals and their employers on sustainable lawyering.
EN_Preliminary report_Cadieux et al_Université de Sherbrooke_221024.pdf (flsc.ca)
Trauma informed lawyering and bystander training:
CBA National EDI recording series:
Achieving Racial Justice:
Indigenous Lawyers Panel:
Disability & Mental Health Panel:
Internationally Trained Lawyers Panel:
CBA Alberta EDI PD recording series:
Anti-Racism Education for Legal Professionals:
Being an Engaged Bystander:
How to be an effective ally:
Mental Health in the Legal Profession - Sania Chaudhry
[Start of recorded material 00:00:01]
Julia: Hi, I’m Julia and welcome to another mental health episode of The Every Lawyer.
Male 1: This is The Every Lawyer presented by the Canadian Bar Association.
Julia: Our guest today is Sania Chaudhry, an Alberta employment and human rights lawyer who has been very active with the Alberta branch of the CBA. As you know the Canadian Bar Association, together with the Federation of Law Societies and the University of Sherbrooke have just released the first ever comprehensive nationwide study on mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession. Considering our topic today, Sania, my first question is a very loaded one. How are you? How are you feeling?
Sania: You know I’m feeling good. I’m feeling great actually. How are you?
Julia: I’m very good, thank you, coming back from the holidays. I was on vacation so felt very good; did you take some time off?
Sarnia: I just took time off to spend with my daughter. We all fell sick with the flu so it was mostly just staying home but it was nice to just stay home and spend time with her.
Julia: I’m asking that now because we’ve been doing these podcasts a little while now with different lawyers and one of the conclusions that we have is that lawyers must take their holidays and their vacation days. That’s what also the [unintelligible 00:01:17] was telling us so it’s very good to know that – sad that you were sick but that you took time with your daughter.
Sarnia: But I unplugged. I didn’t reply to any emails or do anything.
Julia: That’s good, you unplugged; that’s very important. Well, before we talk about the sort of profession as lawyers we want to have, and we will do that during the podcast for sure, we will also talk a little bit about the article that you wrote in the Global Mail in December 2021 where you shared your experience with mental health, as well as intersectionality in the legal profession. You also made a bunch of very interesting recommendations and I will most – well, I would be delighted to go back to that a little bit.
But before that I’d like to talk about you; like how you are today and maybe first – well, you started in family and immigration law and now you just started a new job, right, in January. Am I right?
Julia: Yeah, OK, good. Can you tell us a little bit like how your own concern for your own mental wellbeing has impacted your career choices and the changes you made?
Sarnia: I can tell you that you know when you initially graduate law school your own mental health – at least for me – was not even close to top of my mind when I was searching for a position. For me, I moved from Vancouver to Calgary right upon graduation and I was out of that normal articling, recruit cycle, so all I cared was about getting an articling position, so when I was interviewing it was just take me. I don’t care what the culture in your firm is, please just take me.
And a lot of people are in that situation, right, so this power dynamic of being desperate to be hired and then being desperate to stay on, you know for the firm to retain you as an associate. You know you’re afraid to show any signs of weakness. You’re afraid to do anything or disclose anything that will make you less desirable as an associate and it’s damaging for mental health.
For me, my mental health as well as microaggression and the impact of them on my mental health have been a daily issue prior to the legal profession, worsened in higher education, worsened in the legal profession because you’re just working twice as hard to prove yourself.
So you know while I was articling I got pregnant, I gave birth, I’ve had my first face to face direct Islamophobic incident. My mom passed away six weeks after my daughter gave birth so a lot was happening and you know it was really impacting my mental health. Plus, I was just overworking you know?
I was so worried about going on mat leave that I worked myself so hard while pregnant. You know like my mom came to visit before she passed. I obviously didn’t know she was going to pass but I spent no time with her. I didn’t take her to [unintelligible 00:04:11] or anything. I just kept working, you know, and all of this led to an increase in anxiety and depression, worsened by grief and postpartum depression, worsened by the billable hour because my desire was to exceed in it. You know I’m very ambitious and worsened by the pressure and stigma around speaking about your mental health.
So I decided to make a change from that firm to a different small firm that did family and immigration. I didn’t really think about it. I was just desperate to do something to change because I wasn’t feeling good. I was hoping that change would make me feel more fulfilled but there the same things were happening. You know the billable hour really impacted me and my ambition really impacted me and I was surrounded by well‑meaning allies but I just – you know my anxiety and depression worsened.
I had no work/life balance whatsoever. I just wanted to bill the most, get the best client reviews but the work got too much. You know, this time when I made the change my mental health was at the very top of my mind. You know I made the decision calmly, not as a desperate escape. You know I let my mentors knows at the firm that I had to make a change because of my mental health. I was terrified that I would make a mistake on a file due to being overworked and terrified that I was failing as a mother to my only daughter.
So I made the move. I joined a regulator as in‑house conduct counsel, so I was still doing litigation which I love. I was still in the realm of admin law, which I also love, so the two years I spent there were really great for my mental health, especially since – the good thing from the pandemic was the option to work from home and you know research has actually shown that working from home has positive impacts on mental health for racialized individuals by kind of partially removing you from microaggressions.
And so I was really happy there and this most recent career transition in January, this month that I made it was – so it was due to my passion for equity, diversity and inclusion and looking for how I can do that in my legal practice without damaging my mental health, so yes, mental health was also top of mind at this point.
You know when I was exploring returning to private practice I actually was really honest and open and was having open and honest conversations about mental health, wellness and work/life balance but also my career ambitions with different firms. At times that didn’t work. You know I wasn’t the right fit but I finally found a place that you know I was the right fit here at Forte Workplace Law doing employment, labour and human rights, which is very in line with my EDI lens, but also at a firm that values wellness and wants to practise law in a way that views lawyers as humans and not just machines.
You know, this time when I made this job switch I was more intentional about my mental health and being really open to talking about how I burnt out in private practice and left and then now I’m coming back after being at a regulator. In addition to just like noticing red flags or noticing situations where there wasn’t a fit but the most important thing that I noticed about Forte Workplace Law is that they really do practise law totally different.
They really value wellness and they communicate that, and so I think law firms need to really communicate to their employees that we value wellness and we can have conversations about wellness; without lawyers that are well you cannot have quality work for your clients and you can’t have a productive workforce at your firm, so it’s kind of a no‑brainer.
At the law firm I’m at currently they’re really intentional about that so like they’ll notice if you’re getting burnt out you know just from looking at your schedule or the timing in which you’re sending emails and things like that. They’ll check in on you, you know, to make sure are you OK, is there anything you need?
But also the seniors are communicating their issues on wellness as well, so in meetings seniors will speak out about experiencing burnout with a particular type of practice group or a particular type of file, and so you’re talking about wellness during practice group meetings and brainstorming together on what to do about burnout and wellness. You know do we need to refer some of our files to other associates in the firm or do we need to refer the files out?
Maybe we have too much work or do we have more than – you know do we have a really complicated that has only one lawyer and really we should have two or we should have three because it’s actually a really complicated file? Do we need to look into systems to make things more efficient? So like having that there, and I’ve noticed that at this firm so far and from all my talking with them and watching them on social media, that they really do value wellness.
It’s not like we have the solution and everyone is well, but at least we’re talking about it openly and we’re trying to figure out how to be well and how to have you know holistic performance measures you know? Not just assessing you by how much you bill but the quality of your work, the non‑billable tasks you’re doing, how you’re helping the firm.
Also, I think a lot of the mental health and wellness issues and stress that juniors face is due to lack of training. You really don’t know how to do something and you’re stressed and anxious about it and you’re worried about being competent, but also you have no formal training or mentoring, so you know a firm having a formal mentoring program. And even if the firm doesn’t have that many resources just assigning a mentor to each junior so they know this is my point person that I can reach out to. I think that’s really helpful and it’s also something that my current firm does, so training is important.
And also, I think the issue of civility in the profession is really important too. I feel like you know time has passed and the value on civility has gone down. Maybe something has changed in the way we’re mentored that that’s happening, so you know keeping your mind towards civility when you’re mentoring associates so we continue being a civil profession or become more of a civil profession.
Yeah, so you know there are lots of things that firms can do and I think the key to start is, is communicating that this is a value, this is really important to the firm. We’re not just paying it lip service. We actually mean it and we’re actually willing to put resources towards it.
Julia: Thank you so much. I mean when I was hearing you saying like what you did, all your career choices and everything, I think it’s important to mention that you just recently received Alberta’s Top 30, Under 30 Award so I mean this is impressive. You seem to be talking and have so much history and have such an impressive background and you have lived so much already but you’re still very young; and so very impressive and I’m delighted to have you here and to talk with you today. It’s a real honour.
Sarnia: Oh, thank you so much.
Julia: You’re also a young mom, very badass mom, that’s very cool. And obviously you are perfectly placed to tell us a bit what law firm leaders need to be offering and need to do if they want to recruit the best of the best and the young ones as well. You kind of got my attention here when you said that after a while when you were taking your decision, your career choices and you had in mind your mental health. So you said if I understood correctly, that you talked with the firm? So like before –
Sarnia: Yeah, I was very open; yeah.
Julia: That is so cool; so what, during the interviews you’re like – what did you discuss? You were very open?
Sarnia: Yeah, I was very honest and I guess that was not good sometimes, but also that meant those firms weren’t the right fit. You know the ones that didn’t want me. You know I was really open with them because I had obviously left private practice and been at a regulator for two years so I was honest with them. I told them, look, like I – every place when I introduced myself I explained that you know I left private practice not because I didn’t like the work because I actually really enjoyed the work, but my mental health was suffering.
My work/life balance is very important to me and my wellness is very important to me because I need to be a good mom and I feel like I need that, you know to be healthy myself, to do that. And also, to be a lawyer too I need to be healthy myself to serve my clients, so I was very honest. I just told them my story just like I told you.
Obviously at times that didn’t work out and I wasn’t the right fit, but at that point I wasn’t really desperate to leave my employer so it wasn’t like I needed a position, no matter what. I was just hoping that I could find something that fulfills me. So it was just like an open exploration and search so I didn’t mind the rejections and things like that, right? I know I was able to find a place that does value those things.
Julia: Anyway, you seem to thrive a lot –
Julia: – so that’s very – but that’s a good example I think for us young lawyers who sometime we were seeking for a job and we would, as you say, agree to anything without looking at the culture of the firm. I’m just curious, like do you have any – now that you have more experience would you recommend anything to young lawyers like what to look at? Someone who is getting outside who is just out of the university and are either looking for articling or for a new firm? Little red flags maybe; like how can you know the culture of a firm?
Sarnia: Yeah, it’s honestly very hard to notice red flags because often you know people will say, yeah, yeah, we value work/life balance, but then once you’re there they don’t and it’s not their fault. It’s just they’re also underwater themselves, right? They have client pressures and they – you know they haven’t put the boundaries in place so it’s just gotten into this thing that can’t be managed anymore for everyone at the firm, including the people at the top.
So I mean for me, like I know if you’re looking for articling it’s hard to have that open conversation so you can’t really notice right away if there is a red flag. But I mean for me, the important thing was also just talking to people who had worked at the firm, so confidentially reaching out to people who had left that firm.
I went on LinkedIn and saw you know, OK, this person used to be at this firm that I’m interviewing at, maybe let me give them a call and see if they’d be open to chatting confidentially, or asking the current people at the firm too because in some of my interviews I asked, hey, can I speak to some of your junior associates? I just want to get an idea of you know how things are at the firm and if I would be a good fit. You know speaking to juniors is often really helpful on that because they’ll be honest and they’ll say, yeah, you know this is how the workload is. This is what the expectations are. These are the unstated expectations and things like that, right, so talking with them.
And I think those would be the main things, and for me I mean I guess at this point I’ve made enough changes and been experienced enough that I get a gut feeling too sometimes. You know I’ll be like, OK, I don’t know, my gut is telling me this isn’t for me, yeah.
Julia: Thank you. No, I think those are very good tips. Actually talking to the other juniors is a very good idea; a little research you know in the background, so that’s like before entering a firm. Now my other question would be what are the strategies that you have developed to maintain good mental health hygiene now?
Sarnia: You know practising law is stressful, right, so you know that’s kind of a given and you can’t say it’s not going to be stressful, but there are many things you can do to maintain good mental health. One thing is boundary setting, so you know setting boundaries with clients and colleagues and opposing counsel. Letting them know that, for instance, I’m going on vacation on X to X date, I won’t be available to reply, so if there is anything you need done let me know beforehand or after but don’t expect a reply from me.
Or you know even having a buddy system; you know I’ll be gone these dates but my coworker so and so can reply to you during that time. Explaining what your hours are to colleagues. You know, OK, I’m going to be in‑office from – I don’t know, eight to five, eight to six, whatever it is – and so after that point if you contact me I’m not going to be looking at my email. So if it’s urgent send me a text and you know it has to actually be urgent for you to do that, and just explain that to colleagues as well.
The other thing – a lot of the stress comes from improper practice management sometimes too, so actually diarizing things in your calendar in advance. So like not just diarizing the deadline but like, OK, two weeks before the deadline, one week before the deadline so you remember, oh, this is something I have to do, so you’re not doing it the day before it’s due.
Another thing I’ve learnt is, with clients under‑promising and over‑delivering, so telling clients you know I’ll get you this draft in two weeks when you know you can do it in like a week but just give the extra time. And then when you send it early they’re happy, you know, and at least you don’t have to ask, oh, sorry, I need extra time, right?
Another one is assessing what you can actually take on and learning to say, no, and that’s really hard as a junior. You know learning to say no to files, learning to say I really – and you can say no in a nice way where you’re saying you know I appreciate this opportunity where you’re giving me this really interesting file, but I want to do well on the ones that I currently have and right now I feel like I’m at maximum capacity.
Another important thing is just taking the time to network, speak, venting with – you know involving allies, people who understand what you’re going through, you know doing things that feel meaningful to you, whatever it may be for you. For me it’s volunteering. It makes me feel really good so you know whatever makes you feel really good. Making sure you take time out to do a little bit of that. Taking the time to breathe. Sometimes I just take a minute to breathe. Sometimes I write down my feelings but don’t send them. That also helps a lot.
Julia: Oh, I love that. Yes, OK.
Sarnia: And also using the resources that are out there. You know the provinces, different provinces have different lawyer assistance programs, so like at Alberta we have Assist and they have peer support so you can just talk with another lawyer as a peer, but also professional counselling, and there is you know accessing that service. You get that for free. Access it. There is no shame in getting counselling. I’ve gotten counselling multiple points in my life and it’s been great. So you know just like you’re maintaining your car, you maintain your mental health you know?
And being trauma‑informed and learning about trauma‑informed lawyering because a lot of our work, we deal with really sensitive issues and that can trigger our own trauma responses, so learning how to deal with that. There are courses out there for that. Yeah, so those are kind of what I do to maintain my mental health hygiene.
Julia: Thank you so much. This is like so – I love it because it’s real actions. You know it’s really some things that you can really apply. I think I will apply some of them. I really love the giving – you can do it in one week but let’s give it two weeks. You know why not? I really like that. What also – when I was hearing you when you were talking, what I was thinking is also, wow, this person, she is really also – I think you gained some detachment from the work or maybe you’re more self‑confident?
I don’t know but I’d like to know when did this switch happen you know, because I’m pretty sure that when you started as a young lawyer, when you were articling maybe you didn’t have this detachment from your work because you know you want to prove yourself, which is very normal. We all do it when we start but I’d like to know, when was this [unintelligible 00:20:18]. We say in French to [de‑click? 00:20:20], so this kind of moment where you’re like, OK, no, I need some psychological detachment here from my work. This is unhealthy. When did that happen and you know what did you do to go forward with that?
Sarnia: Yeah, you know I think I never actually have achieved psychological detachment. This is something I still struggle with so I think one of my strengths is I really care about my clients and you know that’s why I work really hard and do really well for them and care. But also, there is a level of doing that too much so I have to actually remind myself constantly about that because I actually haven’t reached that – you know once in a while like I’ll feel it coming on.
Like now I can recognize it when I’m getting way too attached and then I’ll like sit down and think about how I’m feeling and I’ll realize, OK, this is irrational. I’m not – this is not my issue. I’m not having this problem. My client is. My job is to represent my client so, yes, I care about the issue but I am not the one having the problem. Because you know when I was in family and immigration law it felt like I was being deported, you know I was losing my kid and that’s not very healthy, right?
And also you know I’ve been accessing my support system more; so you know speaking to a loved one without breaching confidentiality but talking about my feelings helps a lot. You know often my husband will let me know; he’ll be like, “OK, you’re being irrational here. This is not your issue. You’re way too attached right now” and so that’s helpful too.
And I’m just also mindful about my own personal traumas and what my triggers are and so I know when to like step back and be like, OK, right now something is being triggered in me. And I actually found Myrna McCallum’s trauma-informed lawyering course really helpful for that so I would recommend that to everyone. Yeah, I feel like trauma‑informed lawyering should be a required CP or a law school course or something because it’s just so important.
Julia: I totally agree. I couldn’t agree more. I mean I’m also working in human rights and I’ve also known that it’s called a Dare to Care –
Julia: – and so I love it so much. It’s really just about learning to take care of yourself and other colleagues that work in that – it’s a bit about sexual violence as well but it’s just about trauma‑informed in general, but yes, I really agree. Thank you so much. You’ve given so many good tips and I think you know the report does identify young lawyer practitioners as being particularly vulnerable when it comes to maintaining their mental health and I think you’ve given us a bunch of good ideas and tips.
And I would like a bit to go back to something that you said and that also I read in your Global Mail article – by the way, what triggered you to write this article because it’s really interesting – but why did you want to share that?
Sarnia: You know I just felt like I’m sure other people are suffering through the same things that I suffered through and so at that point I was like you know if I share my story hopefully it will help others and make people realize that, hey, you’re not alone. A lot of us are going this. Maybe all of us are and also I just want to get my ideas for recommendations out there. I’m not sure if anyone will ever read them but you know at least it’s out there and I’ve put it out there and it’s not sitting in my head.
So you know the article is mainly about my experience with my intersecting identities, so you know I’m racialized, I’m a woman, I’m a young mother, I’m Muslim, I come from a lower socioeconomic background, right, housing and food insecurity and so I have all these intersecting identities.
Research shows that – first of all research obviously shows that the legal profession has high rates of mental health issues and stress, but also that those with intersecting identities have a more aggravated experience of mental health because of things like microaggressions and [disinformation? 00:24:18] and barriers.
So in the article I talk about intersectionality, and first of all I actually define intersectionality because that’s a word that’s thrown around a lot without a definition. It’s really – it talks about – like intersectionality talks about where power and disadvantage come from and collide, so how different intersecting, historically marginalized identities interlock and intersect, so it’s not just, oh, I’m experiencing racism or I’m experiencing sexism. It’s I’m experiencing gendered racism, you know what I mean?
It’s a different experience and tied to that is microaggressions. Microaggressions are these really subtle, often unintentional behaviours, often by well‑meaning people that kind of limit the influence of those from historically marginalized groups. So you know [unintelligible 00:25:11], tone policing, interruptions, caregiving assumptions, taking credit for someone else’s ideas.
You know when you experience these daily, you know the way I like to talk about it is it’s like a mosquito bite. Like if you’re someone who is not prone to mosquito bites you get bitten once; you know it hurts but then it heals, but if you get bitten by mosquitos over and over and over on the same arm, every time you get bitten it hurts more. You’re more sensitive to smaller bites. It has a more lasting impact and so that’s what I’m really talking about in the article.
I talk about the microaggressions I experienced; Islamophobic, gendered race‑related, stuff like that and I talk about my first really direct Islamophobic incident in a public place, which was very scary. You know I talk about how all of this impacted my mental health when I was articling and a very junior associate and you know I was surrounded by well‑meaning allies, but like no one had the time really to be that support system.
All of us were cogs in the machine of the billable hour just you know focused on making money and not having time to see each other as human, so I make some recommendations about how to deal with that. The first was that there is a level of collaboration between stakeholders like racialized, different sexual orientation, ability status, all of that; like people from all historical and marginalized groups who are lawyers being consulted on developing continuing legal education, because we can develop our continuing legal education to take an entire racist lens, to address cultural competency, to address unconscious bias, wellness. So all of us are educated on these different things like microaggressions and bias and things like that because a lot of us are well‑meaning but we have these blind spots and privilege, right?
I have blind spots and privilege too where I don’t realize where I’m not seeing some discrimination or bias or something like that going on, and so being educated, all of us on that, would allow the profession to be a more equitable place resulting in good impacts on wellness.
The other suggestion I had was you know having respectful workplace policies and inclusive workplace policies at firms. I know the CBA Alberta has an inclusive workplace toolkit that we’re currently updating, but you know something like that that firms can take a look at to get an idea of what type of policies they can have.
And the other thing I recommended was more holistic measurement of performance for associates, so not just your billing numbers and did you reach your target? You know looking more at did you contribute to the firm in other intangible ways? Did you maybe help with their website or did you do some marketing for them or you know did you just assist your – you know your fellow associates? You were a good support system. Do you volunteer; you know things like that because that also promotes the firm.
So you know taking a more holistic approach to measuring performance beyond just the billable hour. I know the billable hour matters. I know law firms need to make money but really looking at it as a whole. Wanting to have associates that are sustainable, that will last with your firm, not that will burnout quick and go somewhere else and then burnout again.
Julia: Well, Justice [unintelligible 00:28:38] will agree with you, Justice [unintelligible] because we had a talk with them and he said the billable hour is not working.
Sarnia: Not working, and I know that’s scary for law firms to hear that, right; that the billable hour is not working but you know we have to find a solution where law firms continue making money but also associates feel human and not like machines.
Sarnia: Another thing was the more senior individuals at law firms really role modelling self-care and setting boundaries and having those conversations about wellness and mental health and making it safe for other people to do that by role modelling that. And then also having safe spaces for lawyers from diverse identities to just vent, talk, discuss practice issues, whatever.
The CBA Alberta had a virtual coffee series where we – you know we kind of did that for different areas of law but having more things like that where associates can get together and chat with people maybe not from their firm who are going through similar things, who have some more diverse identities.
It’s especially important for those in small firms and solo practitioners because you really don’t have that support system there. You don’t have like a formal mentor or a formal program in the firm for wellness and things like that, so you know having things from the organizations like the CBA and other organizations like Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, the Canadian [unintelligible] Association, having those safe spaces is really important as well. I think those were like some of my recommendations. There might be more but these are the ones I remember from the top of my head.
Julia: Something also that you mentioned in your article and that you said again today, and you keep talking about well‑meaning allies or well‑intentioned allies, but we also read in your article that you’ve been twice – probably more than once, more than twice – but two times you shared that people were standing there and not saying anything. I’d like to know how to be a good ally, to be more than just a well‑meaning ally but to be a real ally to people who have an intersectional experience of the law work – in law firms and were living with microaggressions. How can we be good allies?
Sarnia: Allyship is I think a constant learning process. So you know like I’m still learning and I find myself always constantly educating myself, so educating yourself. Reading what’s out there about what different groups face, correcting yourself, not being ashamed to be like, oh, I just said something that was like – I didn’t realize it was a microaggression but when someone points to me, OK, you know stepping back and listening to that person and not being defensive.
Mentoring other lawyers and sponsoring them and lifting them up so that you know their voices are lifted up and listening to their voices actually. Giving people the permission to be human. We all make mistakes so you know not – like I’ve noticed that historically marginalized groups are judged more harshly from making mistakes than the dominant group in society.
So not being so judgy and giving people the permission to be human, but also learning how to be an active bystander because this happens. You might want to do something and you just freeze or you don’t know what to do. There are also courses out there on that. There is this quick online training from Stand Up Teams which kind of teaches you different ways you can be an active bystander.
I recently took that and it was really, really helpful for me because I also will often just freeze and not know what to do, and it gave different examples of different levels of intervention you can do depending on how comfortable you are. So I mean you could just speak up and be like you know excuse me, that’s offensive or that’s inappropriate or that could be construed as inappropriate or whatever, you know?
Or you could like make the behaviour stop by like dropping something and everybody you know changes their attention to the thing that fell or you fell or whatever. You know you take the issue kind of offline where after it’s over you speak to the person and say like I saw that, I can tell you know that that must have been hard for you or really uncomfortable for you. What can I do to support you? Do you want me to report this? You know what would you like me to do because I’m here to help?
And if it’s just to vent too, you can just vent but you know I want to do something to help you, or taking the person who did the behaviour aside, right, and being like, hey, you know I noticed you said this at our meeting. Actually, you know here is the history behind why that’s an offensive statement. So I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way but just you know be careful that – you know and somebody might – somebody’s feelings might get hurt or someone might feel uncomfortable if you say something like that, so like different things like that.
You know sometimes, especially as juniors, you’re not as confident to like address it right in the situation, right? You’re not going to say it right there. You feel this power imbalance so there’s ways to deal with it afterwards or even to, as I said, distract by dropping something really loudly you know?
Julia: I love it and it’s wonderful [unintelligible 00:33:51]. If you can share it with us as well, how to be an active bystander. I think this is also very important, and even if people are more and more working at home I think we still have interactions in the office for instance, but in general, in life in general I think that’s very good, so that’s also very interesting. Thank you. I was a bit curious because that’s always a question I ask myself so thanks for those. Again, very actionable tips that you’re giving us. I love that.
And also, again it’s probably because I listened to you and I keep thinking about stuff, but you also mentioned in the article and again today that there was a result saying it has been proven that the working from home experience was shielding some people from microaggressions. The working from home was kind of a good thing in this case and I’d like to have your view on that because I think it’s good to hear you know that working from home, it has some positives like this one that I didn’t know. I see here one of my privileges is I don’t live [unintelligible 00:34:51] microaggression.
But do you think – also when I was reading that, when I heard you say that I’m like but it is like – is it like a plaster or band aid I would put to something that is such an important issue, that people feel better to work from home because they are shielded from those microaggressions, so I kind of feel like there is a worry that really has to be done, an important one here that has to be done.
Sarnia: Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely I agree with you. You know that’s just a band aid, right? That’s not a solution to the systemic problem. And also, I mean working from home had that benefit but also it had social isolation that resulted from it, right? So a lot of people’s mental health worsened you know during the pandemic because you couldn’t go out anywhere and meet up with anyone.
There is also a problem with getting proper mentorship and things like that. When you’re at home it’s harder to get the attention of mentors through like a Teams message. It’s not all great but you know for me I felt that it was – it worked for me and I was still able get involved with different groups and organizations while working from home because things did move to Zoom, so I was able to find people to talk to and things that make me feel fulfilled.
Julia: That brings me also – because you did mention that volunteering was one of your ways to protect your mental health – could you tell us a bit more about the work that you’ve been doing with the CBA and with other organizations?
Sarnia: I initially became involved with CBA Alberta through their equity, diversity and inclusion committee and I felt really great because it was great to see a committee focused on that mandate. I eventually became coacher and now I’m a board liaison because I’m on the CBA Alberta Board. But through that work it was – I felt like we were able to do a lot of meaningful things and we’re still doing a lot of meaningful things.
We did a three‑part webinar series on – the first one on anti‑racism education specific for legal professionals, which is really cool because it’s customized to that context. The second one was on how to be an active bystander and it was interesting because that one – the second one was delivered by the Centre for Sexuality so there was more of a focus on that dimension of diversity.
Then the third one was just a panel discussion on allyship. That was a great series and I think it’s recorded so you know people can watch back on that. I also have been involved CBA National on the equality subcommittee and recently on the administrative law [section? 00:37:23] executive.
But the equality subcommittee as well, you know we were able to put together a really interesting webinar on achieving racial justice in the profession and featuring voices from regulators, academics, lawyers on what we could do so that was really good. We had a three‑part series as well on different barriers, so I think there was one focusing on indigenous lawyers, another focusing on internationally trained lawyers, another focusing on mental health and differing abilities in the profession, so that was really interesting.
You know I have lots of blind spots of privilege for all three of those identity groups so I learned so much and I know I’m still learning and I’m still making mistakes, but it’s stuff like this that’s you know is really helpful. I also became involved during that time with the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, Western Chapter, and so we were able to do a lot of cool things too.
It was a good safe space too. We had a really interesting event. It was our first in‑person event after the pandemic about race and mental health, so talking about racial microaggressions and mental health and how to cope and what we can do. We had some experts speak to us from the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, so it was really educational and helpful.
Then I got involved with the Canadian Muslim Lawyer Association. I started up the Alberta Chapter because Alberta didn’t have a Chapter and so we’ve just started up last year and we’ve been doing social events to help get Muslim lawyers together.
I know at our first event I felt so – like it was the first event where I felt truly, really comfortable because I was – you know it’s such a gap you know, and most events for lawyers things will have like alcohol and the assumption is you’re drinking the alcohol and if you’re Muslim you can’t drink the alcohol so you know, so you know just even little things like that have been really great. You know volunteering has been really helpful for me.
It’s made me feel like I have some control in making change in terms of the problem, and even if it’s small, little things you know, at least we’re doing something. At least we have some safe spaces, and at least for me – everybody is different but for me speaking about it and doing things about it is what makes me feel better.
But also, I do want to note that there is this burden, this unpaid burden of equity, diversity and inclusion work on historically marginalized individuals. There’s all of the assumption that we will take up the cause and we will educate everyone and we will do – and you know that’s tough to do when you’re also a lawyer and you also have your life and you also want to meet your billable target, right? It’s all this unpaid and uncredited work.
So you know it’s something that I want to just – everyone to keep in mind, is when you do ask someone to do something like that, to educate you or whatever, there should be some credit given. There should be – you know if it’s in the firm maybe it should count towards their billable target; like maybe you treat it as a billable thing that they just did or something like that. You know there should be compensation or some sort of credit given for that type of work.
Julia: You read my mind because I was about to say exactly that. Is that it’s very great but at the same time it takes a lot of your time I am sure, and I think that’s something that needs to be compensated somewhere. And also it perfects the firms as well because I think EDI policy, EDI activities, it is beneficial for everybody so I think it should definitely be something that is rewarded in some way. More holidays; I don’t know but anything, something, [unintelligible 00:41:19].
Sarnia: Yeah. Actually, at the new firm I’m at, at Forte Workplace Law, they really do take that approach. They do look at you know non‑billable things that you do that are beneficial to the firm and to the profession and you do get credit for it towards your billable target, so firms can think of doing that.
Julia: I love that. Best practices.
Julia: Yes, pick this up. That’s very good. Also, well, the last thing on EDI but I’d like to know also – you’ve mentioned it a little bit, just the fact to have cocktails without alcohol or stuff like that to really keep in mind that there are other people and there are [unintelligible 00:41:59], other contacts, other cultures to get away from the majority. But why do you think it has a good impact on mental health of the legal practitioners?
Sarnia: I think the first thing we need to do is define EDI. I feel like it’s a term that’s thrown around a lot and most of us don’t really know what it is. EDI stands for equity, diversity and inclusion and the difference between these terms is important because sometimes we’ll conflate diversity with equity, or equity with equality, when really those are not the same things.
You can have a really diverse workplace that is full of othering and microaggressions leading to aggravation of mental health for historically disadvantaged people, so maybe first to define. So diversity is kind of the numbers piece. It’s about having historically disadvantaged groups at the table, so recognizing differences and having differences at the table.
Inclusion is about these groups truly being accepted at the table, so appreciating that difference, and then equity is about these groups truly being equal at the table. Equity is different than equality, so if we’re treating everyone equal we’re giving everyone the same resources but really that doesn’t lead to substantive equality or substantive equity because if you start at different starting points, being given the same resources won’t lead you all to the same endpoint.
So equity is about allocating resources and opportunities differently to historically disadvantaged groups based on the differences to reach an equal outcome. So for instance, if you’re someone with intersectional identities – you know I guess I’ll give my example – so you’re a racialized mother in a law firm, you need sometimes different accommodations than other lawyers in the firm.
You know so you might need to leave early to pick your kid up from preschool. You might have a religious observance or a religious holiday or you know in my case a month for your fasting in Ramadan where you might want to change your work hours a little bit. So it’s kind of about flexibility because if we don’t treat others with compassion and flexibility it will inevitably lead to aggravations and mental health.
If you have differing intersectional identities, different barriers and being othered by you know little subtle signals, but also explicit things it’s going to have a toll on your mental health. I think EDI and mental health are absolutely interlinked and you can’t really separate the two when you have a wellness effort at a firm. You need to have an EDI effort as well.
So from the racialized perspective you know it’s kind of like you feel othered, if that makes sense? You know you feel like you don’t belong because you know somebody just came and put something that you can’t drink in front of you and you feel like, oh, I feel weird saying anything because now I’m going to just like signal that I’m an other; that I don’t fit in here, you know that I don’t belong here because I’m not doing what everybody else is doing, right, so there is a form of othering there.
I think that’s a lot of what the experience of being historically marginalized and racialized and all of that is, is that you feel like you don’t belong and there are little signals in different spaces showing you that you don’t belong here. That has impacts on your mental health, right? We all want to belong. We all want to feel that we belong to this profession.
Julia: I guess it’s also putting the burden again on the person, on the person who feels marginalized already, to say something because the person just takes – doesn’t think and is just doing that. It’s to be nice, yeah, but think about it a little bit before assuming, yeah. Sorry, you can see I’m a bit – but yeah, so thank you and there is one last thing if you still have time for me?
Sarnia: I have lots of time.
Julia: Yay, perfect, because we haven’t touched one last part which is the fact that you’re a mother and you have a family. So Doctor [Cardus? 00:46:04] in the report, Doctor Cardus’ report, she is the main researcher. So in Doctor Cardus’ report one of the findings was that having a family is good for your mental health and that the fear of starting a family has negative impacts on it.
So I guess, if you want a family you better one or if you already have one that’s very good, and you should not be afraid to start one because, well, that will just impact you so maybe just do it or don’t do it, but don’t think too much about I guess. That’s the message. Would you agree? Is it something you were thinking about without getting all very personal, but like was it –
Sarnia: I mean I would both agree and disagree; like I agree that having a family is definitely good for your mental health, so you know for me my family is my support system and my daughter is what keeps me going. She gives me an amazing sense of purpose and is this huge blessing. But you know the fear of starting one causes anxiety but that anxiety is kind of founded on real things, right?
You know like for me the fact that I’m a mother has been an issue, right, in the profession and I know others who have faced stigma for being pregnant you know, like being treated like that was bad news you know, or implications that you’re kind of ruining your career so you don’t get as good files anymore because they assume you’re not committed to your firm. You’re just committed to being a mom.
I understand that fear. That fear isn’t irrational. People do get iced out of opportunities. People do face detrimental impacts in their career. But also, for me like the fact that I have my daughter is really important you know; for me being a mom is kind of the core part of my identity. You know we kind of need to change our perspective in law firms on that; the ideal worker is not somebody who can work 24/7, who has no kids or who has somebody who is constantly watching their kids, right? A lot of us do have kids and we love our kids and we want to spend time with our kids and there is nothing wrong with that.
I see that being a mom has actually really helped me become a better lawyer. I care a lot more about issues. I’m a lot more careful and I – you know I sometimes notice issues for clients that they might not notice because I’m a mom too and so I can see things that they might face. That support system is really important and I don’t think you’re ruining your career when you’re starting a family. I really don’t and the people that think that you are, they just need to be re-educated on why it’s not something that’s going to ruin your career.
There are lots of firms that are doing really great things on that. You know they have really good maternity leave policies and things like that so there are firms where people are not being punished for having children. You know you come back from your mat leave and you’re still being promoted and you’re still getting the good files that you want and things like that so it’s not – it’s definitely – I don’t think you should hold off on starting a family if you want to start one.
But also, if you don’t want to start a family that’s fine too, you know what I mean? Like the whole point of everything is good, we should recognize diversity in the profession, diversity of family structures and things like that. You shouldn’t have stigma for not wanting to have kids, right, and you shouldn’t have stigma for wanting to have kids because both forms of stigma are bad for your mental health.
Julia: Yeah. No, totally and you should not be praised for any of the other because sometimes you see the opposite; like people being so praised for having a child or not having one, so I think, yeah, just do whatever you want, whatever makes you feel good at the end, right?
Sarnia: That’s exactly my opinion, yeah.
Julia: Yeah. No, same here but you know like the anxiety you talk about, like the fact that am I going to have a family? I kind of feel like at the end of the day it relies more on the culture that we currently have that see people with family to go with – a woman with a child. As you say, she is just – she’s no more a colleague, a woman or a lawyer. She is a mother and that’s something also that we need to change in our culture, so I also thank you for that.
And my very last question would be, so there is this finding in the report that 54.2 percent of the lawyers who were asked if you could be sure of earning as well as you’re doing right now, but by doing something else, would you leave the legal profession to do so? Would you?
Sarnia: I would not.
Sarnia: I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was in grade five, you know just given things that I’ve seen in my personal life. So you know I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer and I’m like passionate about the law and I like really nerdy and academically love the law; like I’m a total like nerd. That’s why I’m doing my Master's part time; like I love, love, love the law so I would not leave.
I just want to make – for all of us to work together, to do whatever we can to make the profession better and you know use my own skills so I can balance the law and my humanity and my personal life and still – you know like that humanity, recognized and respected that I’m not just a lawyer. I have all these other identities and that they actually make me a better lawyer and you know seeing that, so no, I would not leave the profession. But you know, for those who want to leave the profession you can; that’s a good thing about a law degree. You can do a lot with a law degree. There are a lot of alternative legal careers.
Julia: That is true. That is true or change your firm you know? That’s maybe a side issue.
Sarnia: Yeah, like changing –
Julia: Exactly, yeah. Don’t hesitate. That’s also something I think is very refreshing. You know don’t be scared to change the firm or even change the field of law or, as you say, just leave the profession. I mean you’re not tied to it, so yes. Thank you, honestly, Sania Chaudhry. Thank you so much for joining us today. It was very interesting. I think the listeners can see like I was very excited to talk to you.
And to our listeners, please feel free to reach out to us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already. Also, please check out our other episodes on mental health in the legal profession across all our channels, including of course The Every Lawyer, Juriste Branche, [French] modern law with Yves Faguy and Conversations with the President, [French] and this year it is with the very charming and candid, Steeves Bujold. Thank you, Sania, and have a great day.
Sarnia: Thank you so much for having me.
Steeves: Hello, I’m Steeves Bujold, President of the Canadian Bar Association. I’d like to invite you to welcome with me Barbara Findlay, Lee Nevins and Judge [Kale McKinsey] among others, to a series of kitchen table discussions on the legal system protecting its institutions, judicial independents, access to justice, where to start. You can see there is a lot to talk about. Conversations with the President. It is at one, it’s out now.
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