The Every Lawyer

How to cultivate health and wellness

Episode Summary

Lawyers suffer from depression more than any other profession. We’re fortunate to be talking to two guests about this issue – Doron Gold and Glen Hickerson.

Episode Notes

Lawyers suffer from depression more than any other profession. We’re fortunate to be talking to two guests about this issue – Doron Gold and Glen Hickerson.

Did you know that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than non-lawyers who share their same socio-demographic traits. Both our guests were speakers in the wellness conference of April 2019.

Doron Gold is a former lawyer and current psychotherapist. He specializes in helping lawyers deal with personal and professional issues like addiction, depression, anxiety and career stress. He co-authored to CBA’s mental health online course and in 2016 was honoured by the CBA for his work in this area.

Glen Hickerson is a trial lawyer at Wilson Laycraft in Calgary. His practice includes construction, employment and debtor-creditor matters before the court. He has extensive community and professional involvement, including various legal education positions and as a peer mentor for Alberta Lawyers Assist.

If you want to know more about mental health and wellness in the legal profession, check out an online self-learning program about causes, symptoms, preventions and treatments.

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Episode Transcription


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

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Lawyers suffer from depression more than any other profession. They’re 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than non-lawyers who share their same sociodemographic traits. This statistic comes from the CBA Health and Wellness Conference held last April, and today's Every Lawyer unpacks just what we can do about it.

We’re fortunate to be talking to two guests about the issue, Doron Gold and Glen Hickerson. Doron is a former lawyer and current psychotherapist. He specializes in helping lawyers deal with personal and professional issues like addiction, depression, anxiety and career stress. He co-authored the CBA’s mental health online course and in 2016 was honoured by the CBA for his work in the area.

Glen Hickerson is a trial lawyer at Wilson Laycraft in Calgary. His practice includes construction, employment and debtor/creditor matters before the court. He has extensive community and professional involvement including various legal education positions, and he serves as a peer mentor for Alberta Lawyers Assist. 

So Glen and Doron, thank you both so much for being here today to chat with me about mental health and wellness issues in the legal profession. The first way I wanted to start was with a bit of a state of the nation about what you’re both seeing right now in the legal profession when it comes to mental health issues. Doron, in 2019, coming up to 2020, what are the main issues that you keep seeing over and over?

Doron Gold: As a psychotherapist who works with the Member Assistance Program in Ontario, I have a decent lens on at least what’s happening in Ontario, and also I'm in touch with what’s happening across the country. 

The status of things is that we’re still in a profession full of people who are particularly susceptible to certain conditions like depression, anxiety, addiction to certain substances and processes, in part because of the personality itself, which is sort of perfectionistic, self-reliant, not as resilient as one might think - in fact, lawyers generally score relatively low on resilience scores - as well as being in a profession that is very stressful for any number of reasons.

And we don’t have to go into the details here, but we know that lawyering is particularly stressful, so that impacts how those lawyers are functioning, their mental health. And so what you end up happening - and it’s happened for years and it’s still happening - is you get people who are more stressed than average but less inclined to ask for help than average. And that leaves them isolated, in distress and needing help but not reaching out for it. And that’s still happening.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Okay. So it sounds like it’s compounding the issue of the amounts of stress that just naturally occur in the legal profession is the fact that lawyers are less inclined to actually address the issues that they’re feeling.

Doron Gold:  Yes.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Okay, interesting. And Glen, what are you seeing?

Glen Hickerson: Well, the first answer is that we don’t really know what’s out there. What we have is some pretty good hunches based on anecdotal evidence, but we don’t have a whole lot of data on what’s going on with lawyers. And don’t forget to ask me what the CBA’s doing about that problem.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:    That’s my next question.

Glen Hickerson: There you go, see? There’s two things broadly to think about. One is that the profession is aging, broadly. The average lawyer, just like your average Canadian, is getting older. Lawyers face a particular problem about getting older in that, for the most part, you’re either on or you’re off. So gradually retiring is a tough gig for a lawyer to pull off, especially when you’ve got things like professional fees and insurance etcetera that you’re either paying or you’re not paying, for the most part.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right, okay.

Glen Hickerson:  So what you’ve got, what that leads to is you’ve got a lot of lawyers out there who are either suddenly closing a practice. Or, once upon a time you could sell a practice but that isn't really an option so much anymore. 

Or the other thing that you see, and I see this; I do volunteering with our law society in Alberta with what I call the warm, fuzzy audit where we go to help lawyers who are having trouble in their practice. And you see a lot of lawyers who are hanging on a lot longer than they probably wanted to hang on to practice, because they really are looking at going over that cliff and they don’t want to go over that cliff of retiring. So you’ve got that.

And then the other thing that you’ve got on kind of the other end of the whole spectrum is you’re broadly seeing a decline of articling as an institution. Not saying it’s gone. Not saying it’s broken. But there are a lot of problems for - I was going to say young lawyers - for new lawyers, people trying to enter the profession, trying to get that articling and mentoring. And what that leads to is you’ve got a lot of lawyers that they come into the profession not really having much of a grounding as far as how to do law.

And I mean, one of the things that certainly I noticed early on in this business was that, if you’re worrying about something, if you’re kept up late worrying about something in this job, it tends to be more about how you’re going to do something, not about what you’re going to do. And a lot of these folks I think don’t have a lot of help as far as how they’re going to get these things done. 

So those two things, those two dynamics I think have an effect on exactly what Doron is talking about. It’s that it’s a profession of people who by and large have difficulty with the idea of accepting that they have weakness, we have weakness, right?

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right, okay.

Doron Gold:  There are also a couple of competing dynamics here which is, a) a younger generation that is becoming more aware and more willing to insist on their well being. They insist on taking care of themselves and working in places that attend to that. 

But a profession that has downward pressure in terms of the demands of clients, the demands of clients to pay less for services, competition etcetera, so that in the field a lot of lawyers are coming up against firms that are making higher demands on their time and giving them less work-life balance. Even though the firm’s maybe saying that work-life balance matters, you know when the rubber meets the road they’re often actually making demands that are more difficult than they used to make, and that tension is ongoing.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right, okay. Well, this leads me to my next question. Glen, I'm going to start with you because you talked to it already, you spoke to it already. But what are the plans here? So you mentioned there’s a real lack of hard data to help us understand what some of the mental health and wellness issues truly are that are impacting the profession, you know, relying on anecdotal evidence. So, are there any plans to gather some of this data?

Glen Hickerson:  Well the CBA is putting together a study, and it’s still in its planning stages, but to study both attitudes towards mental health in the profession and … You know one of the key problems that we have is we can have great supports out there, you know we can have great people like Doron out there helping us out, but you don’t have uptake. There’s a lot of lawyers who are afraid to ask for help.

We did a study in 2012, and certainly there have been some studies outside of the profession; there’s been some great work done at the University of Toronto on how high status or working at a large law firm, for example, can affect someone’s level of stress and mental health. And there’s a bit of an inverted U-curve as far as wellbeing is concerned. 

But, I mean this is a tough thing to get hard data on. Conversely, the less hard data you have the harder it is to plan what exactly you’re going to do about the problem.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Of course, right. And Doron, on your end, you know you spoke about the gap between people needing more help and less likely to ask for help. What are you doing in your position, or what are you seeing people do to address that issue?

Doron Gold:  So, we start from an effort to change the culture itself in the profession, which includes open conversations about these issues, breaking the stigma, hearing people - for instance, like Orlando Da Silva or Michele Hollins, OBA and CBA past presidents - talking about their own histories openly. So these are the top of the top in the profession who are speaking of their own vulnerabilities and their own having reached out for help, which assists along the way with the fighting of stigma in the profession. Because ‘If people of that calibre have dealt with these issues and have sought help then maybe I can too.’ 

  So, we do lots of open conversations, lots of discussions. You know, from my perspective, I'll often do talks about the issues I see as a therapist in the field, as a lawyer assistance professional, the fact that I see a lot of people who have isolated themselves and been afraid to seek help. And then, once they’ve sought help, they discovered they weren’t in fact the only one dealing with this, that the profession is full of people who are human beings who have vulnerabilities and sometimes need help.

It demystifies it. It takes some of the stigma out of it. And it allows them to consider that maybe it’s okay to speak openly about it. And when I say openly I don’t mean to large groups of people but perhaps to a therapist or family member, a colleague.

And then we proceed to let them know what services are out there, including a service like the one I work for which is the lawyer assistance program in Ontario called the Member Assistance Program - all of the counselling and peer support and other services that we offer – which is pretty much available across the country with various lawyer assistance programs in each province, so that they know not only is it safe to ask for help, but that the help is available and here’s what it is.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Okay, so a campaign of sorts to speak openly and then connect people with resources once they understand that it’s not a failure to ask for help.

Doron Gold:  Right.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Okay, great. So, I actually wanted to ask you another question, Doron. You spoke quickly about the lack of resilience within the profession. I was wondering if you could expand on that a bit more. How do you build resilience into a profession? You know, should this start in law school too? What can we do to address this issue?

Doron Gold: To me, the concept of resilience is kind of a fall down get up, fall down get up kind of thing. There’s an old, I think it’s a Japanese proverb, fall down seven times, get up eight, the idea being that resilience is about pushing through challenges, knowing you have it within you; you have the resources within you to surmount obstacles, to recover, for things to get better, to learn etcetera. 

And people generally think that lawyers should be good at that. We’re persistent. We’re people who stick to things and don’t give up and don’t try, you know …

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:    Tenacious…

Doron Gold:  And yet, resilience, if you think about it, requires some measure of optimism. It requires you to believe that you have it in you to grow and learn and recover. And lawyers are kind of built to be pessimistic. We’re built to find the negatives and fill gaps, and then we’re rewarded for those things. You know, ‘Here’s a contract, find every hole you can find in this contract and we’ll reward you handsomely.’   

Lawyers generally focus on negatives, on fixing problems, on remediation. They don’t always focus on what’s working, what’s good, ‘What am I grateful for?’ ‘What’s working out for me?’ And therefore ‘What gives me an indication that I'm going to be okay ultimately if I'm struggling right now?’

So ways to build resilience are ways to sort of follow what we say and call it in social work, a strengths-based perspective where I identify in me what are my strengths? When in the past have I been through challenges and how did I do? I clearly came through it so I have it in me to come through it, what supports do I have in place? Because resilience requires, often, asking for help and leaning on people, and lawyers aren’t always comfortable doing that. 

But we aren’t islands. We generally require other people to help us through difficult times, just as we would help other people through difficult times if we saw someone else struggling; so the availability of help and the willingness to help for it, practices that remind you of your strengths. That can even include small things like keeping a gratitude journal, which for some people sounds sort of Oprah-esque. But it’s now clinically verified as a really powerful tool for reducing anxiety and depression, because keeping a running tally of the things you’re grateful for is a reminder that not everything in your life is going wrong. 

Some things are actually really great, and sometimes they’re the most basic things like ‘I'm grateful for having healthy children.’ ‘I'm grateful that I live in a country that’s peaceful.’ ‘I'm grateful that I have all of my limbs.’ I mean really basic things that remind you there’s lots going right in your life, which is simply a counterbalance to the parts of your life that may be more challenging. It’s a holistic view of your life not just the focus on things that aren’t going so well.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:    Okay. So I like that, so trying to encourage lawyers and members of the profession to see their - to not compartmentalize actually, to see the whole of their profession, how that integrates with their home lives, and take stock of everything. 

Glen, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about conflict, because conflict is a big part of your job. You’re a trial lawyer. How do you deal with it? You know we talked just now about how lawyers are pessimistic, there’s a lot of stress and anxiety in dealing with conflict all the time. What does that look like for you and for your contemporaries?

Glen Hickerson:  You know it’s not easy of course. I mean, all of this would be a lot easier if it was easy to do in practice, or as easy to do in practice as it is to talk about it. But I mean conflict is the thing we work with. And like mechanics work on cars that don’t start and plumbers work on pipes that leak, and lawyers work on conflicts that don’t resolve, right? That’s what we do.

The problem that we get is that we start to identify ourselves with whether we win – quote/unquote – or lose those conflicts. And as soon as you become your case … I mean, first of all, as soon as you become your case, you become a lousy lawyer for your client. But the other problem is, is that you are constantly relying on something outside of you to determine how good you are. And whether that’s how good you are as a lawyer or how good you are as - how efficacious you are as a person, it’s, if you identify yourself with that conflict, that’s the problem. So, you wouldn’t have a plumber identifying himself with the pipes. You know what his job is, right?

I always tell my clients when we’re going into a high-conflict situation like testifying at trial, being cross examined or something like that, I tell them to essentially make a date with themselves; make a plan to go and do something afterwards that they really, really, really enjoy and that they can visualize, they can see it, they can hear it, they can smell it. Because at some point, they need to be able to tell themselves ‘Okay, at some point I'm going to be done. This will be over with this. I'm not part of this and I will be in the car singing Stevie Wonder songs’, right, or whatever the thing is going to be, right?

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right.

Glen Hickerson: And I try to take my own medicine with that when I give them that advice. But I mean it really is about - now you said about not compartmentalizing. In some ways it is about compartmentalizing because, this sounds a bit strange but at one point in my career I decided that a certain corner … 

I made a deal with myself that I could worry all I wanted to about work as long as I was within I think five kilometres of the office. If I was outside of that radius, doesn’t work. And it’s amazing how well something like that works. Saying don’t worry about it doesn’t really work, but saying ‘You can worry about it but not right now’ works actually really well.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Okay. You just can't ever move closer to your office.

Glen Hickerson: Yeah, you’ve got to, you know, make sure that you’re far enough away.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Yeah. Okay, well thank you. This is for either of you or both of you, but I led this podcast with a really startling statistic. And that’s that lawyers are suffering from depression at a rate of 3.6 times of non-lawyers in their same socioeconomic status. I think we spoke to some of the factors behind that already, so you know, people that are highly motivated, that are perfectionists, that are reluctant to ask for help and seek it when they need it. But is there anything we’re missing about understanding the statistic, why we are seeing lawyers at such a higher depression rate than other people?

Glen Hickerson:  I'll take a stab at it. At the conference that the CBA had in April of this year we had a presentation by Professor Larry Krieger from Florida. And one of the things he pointed - so he actually did a very broad-based study on lawyers and what makes lawyers happy. And paradoxically, that often tells you a lot about what makes lawyers unhappy. 

And one of the problems that we have as lawyers is that, certainly what Professor Krieger found was that the things that actually make lawyers happy are things like controlling what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it, so call that autonomy; something he calls relatedness, so making connections with other people. But the things we’re trained to believe are going to make us happy are things like getting a great job at a great prestigious law firm, or making a lot of money or making partner. 

So we’re taught that those are the signs of success, and we keep getting told that those are the signs of success. And those are, you know, certainly Professor Krieger found that those almost helped you not at all be any happier than you could be. We tend therefore to ignore and often give up on the things that actually make us happy.

So, if you’re going to work at a large prestigious firm, for example, very often you’re going to have to give up autonomy. You’re going to have to give up the ability to choose what you’re going to do and when and someone else is going to have to be telling you that. So we are constantly trading away the things that make us happy as a profession.

Doron Gold: And it’s really hard to know what’s right, because when you’re in law school, you’re basically gotten on a treadmill that’s going to carry you where it’s going to carry you. You always feel like you’re aware of where it’s supposed to take you, but whether you’re allowed to, at any given moment on that journey, take stock and say ‘Is this what I actually want?’

And so, there’s just this sense that there’s an objective right way to do this, whether it’s ‘I have to work on Bay Street’ or ‘I have to work in private practice’ or ‘I have to be a criminal lawyer’ or have to be a lawyer at all, that we often feel like, a) we’re not empowered to make decisions about our own lives and guide them in a direction we want them to go, in a direction that allows us to feel fulfilled and satisfied and have the quality of life we want and the workload we want. We often feel like the profession picks us up and takes us somewhere, and we don’t have the power to alter that or affect it. And that helplessness is very demoralizing. It makes a person get farther and farther away from their authentic selves.

There’s a saying by Albert Einstein that everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will feel stupid. You know, I like to say that there’s a lot of fish climbing trees in the legal profession, a lot of people who maybe they’re not suited to be lawyers at all. Or maybe it’s just that they’re not suited for private practice, or maybe they’re not suited to corporate law, or maybe they’re not suited to big firm life. 

But they don’t necessarily know how to get to where they are suited or what even they’re suited to, because they haven't done it yet. That journey is - especially early in a career - can be very daunting. One really can be really, really demoralized by it because one doesn’t feel like one knows how to make a good life out of this.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right.

Doron Gold:  And so, to coin another phrase, there’s a saying by Martin Luther King that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. And I like to think that the arc of a legal career is long but it bends towards fulfillment. Over time we get closer and closer to that ideal spot, that ideal placement, whether inside or outside the profession, but it takes time to come to that. And that journey can be uncertain. It can be stressful.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:  For sure. I mean I actually exited the legal profession as soon as I was done my articles, and I could barely finish my articles. And I found that it was probably the most nerve-wracking decision of my life, right? It’s risk averse naturally, and it’s a risky thing to not take that corporate law job or to reach for the pillars that the profession has set out for you. So I can definitely empathize with what you’re saying.

Doron Gold: Especially if you got $100,000 worth of debt.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:  Especially if you have $100,000 worth of debt, for sure.

Glen Hickerson: But you put a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of your identity into becoming this thing, right? And if it feels like it’s not working out, boy or boy, that’s hard.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:  Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. It feels like failure when maybe it’s not failure. It’s just finding something else. So I think a lot of us have heard this routinely, you know, stay active, eat healthy, meditate, pursue hobbies. But I wanted to know from both of you if you have tips that are a little, well, more out there in terms of what it takes to cultivate health and wellness, both individually, at an individual level, and then in the profession generally.

Doron Gold:  One of them I suggested already, which was a gratitude journal, because I actually have seen those be surprisingly effective for people who think it’s totally hokey. And then they do it and they find themselves actually having their mood raised because they realize there’s a lot in their life that actually is working that they should be grateful for.

You know I often will kind of joke with people, you know “Are you entitled to the oxygen in the room right now, because you’re actually pretty lucky that it’s a room full of oxygen so you get to breathe and keep moving forward.” 

We’re not entitled to anything. So there’s so much in our lives that actually is working out really well that we just take for granted, and so noting it on purpose and deliberately can be a really powerful way of realizing, ‘You know, my life is actually decent. I have a few challenges and I have to work through them, but I am noticing the good as well as the not so good.’ So that’s one tip that I find very useful.

The other thing that really jumps out at me, and it may be, you know, pretty conventional, but I believe people need to feed their souls. I really, really believe that people need to be themselves authentically. And that means, even if law is what you love or if law is just a job, you’ve got to know who you are at your core. You’ve got to know what makes you vibrate and radiate energy and excitement, and do those things.

I have lawyers who thought that they should have been poets. Well, maybe you’re not going to make a living as poet, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be writing poetry. Doing things that feel your soul keeps you going.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:  Okay. So creating some optimism amongst a profession of pessimists, and then thinking about what really drives you and making sure that, even if it’s in not something you can do on a professional basis, you continue doing your - pursuing your hobbies or your joys. 

And Glen, how about you? Do you have any activities or any suggestions that are a little … And it doesn’t have to be something that you do personally - that’s actually my next question - but things that you’ve seen colleagues enjoy or anything like that.

Glen Hickerson: I'm not ashamed to say this. I'm somebody that’s had depression, pretty serious depression, in his lifetime. It’s been very well managed for the last two decades. But you know, it’s something like diabetes, and you really have to look at it as a condition that you have to make sure you manage. 

And so, well, I'm at the gym every morning to make sure that it’s working properly. And if I'm facing headwinds in life, well I'll call up a counsellor like Doron - not Doron because I'm in the wrong province, but I'll call someone up and get some help. And you know, that’s not something that I have to do regularly, but if it’s there. 

The thing that is the most terrifying I think for a lot of, not just lawyers but lawyers maybe in particular, is that, if we ask for help or if we, you know, if we have to be mindful of how our brain is behaving in a particular moment - maybe I'm getting overly anxious for example - that somehow that’s going to mean that, ‘Gees, I'm one of those people. I'm one of those weak people who can't function in life’, right?

So the fact that you need to do something that manages that brain of yours, it isn't something to be ashamed of. It’s just being smart about it. 

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:  Right.

Glen Hickerson: So anyway, so there’s my answer from 30,000 feet to your question which is think of your brain as something you’ve got to manage. 

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right. No, I love that way of framing it. I think that’s really helpful, and I'm sure it will be helpful to our listeners. Doron, we’ll end with you. I asked kind of generally some tips, but what do you do to handle your own health and wellness? You know, you’re in a profession now where you’re dealing with people who are stressed and anxious and coming to you with their problems. Do you have a particular routine or strategy that serves you well?

Doron Gold: So apropos what I said earlier about knowing one’s self. I know that I have a certain amount of energy. I'm not a high-energy person. I'm not a low-energy person but I'm lower than I am higher, which means I need to manage the demands on me. So I might have an instinct that I've got to go out there and change the world and everyone in it, but that will probably wear me out. 

And so, I have learned to calibrate my efforts to channel them into the things I feel like I can be most effective in, and most fulfilled by, and let go that I'm not going to be the perfect everything and accomplish everything that I could have possibly accomplished. My mom had a Charlie Brown cartoon on our fridge when I was growing up. It said the greatest burden is the burden of a great potential. 

And I've learned to work within my limits so I can have a healthy life, so I can also have time with my family, so I can also have time alone as an introvert, and also do things that are really, you know, high energy, high intensity and high impact. But I manage it. I calibrate things. And I forgive myself when I'm not perfect, and I forgive myself when I'm not doing, you know, as many things as I think I could conceivably do. I'm doing my thing my way and I'm kind to myself about it, as much as I can be.

And so that means I take time for myself. I make sure that I'm with my kids and my wife a lot of time. I'm also very present with my clients. But even as a therapist, I have really good boundaries. So I can be entirely empathetic and present with someone in distress without adopting their distress, without taking it home with me. So those boundaries …

When I was a family lawyer, before I was a therapist, I had the same kind of boundaries. ‘I help you. I'm empathetic with you. I'm present with you. But I am not you. It is your problem that I am helping you with.’ I need to make sure I have my boundaries healthy.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:    Well setting boundaries I think is a really important idea to end on, actually. And so I just wanted to thank you both so much for your time and your thoughts. I know that our listeners will really appreciate your tips on cultivating health and wellness in the profession.

Glen Hickerson:  My pleasure.

Doron Gold: Thanks, I hope it helps.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney:  Thanks to both of our guests today for sharing their insights into really the most important topic of them all, how to stay healthy both mentally and physically. If you want to know more about mental health and wellness in the legal profession, check out It’s an online self-learning program about causes, symptoms, preventions and treatments. It was created through a partnership between the CBA, the Mood Disorder Society of Canada, and Bell Let’s Talk. 

I'd love to hear your strategies for pursuing a healthy lifestyle while practicing law. Tweet to us at CBA underscore news, or you can reach me at my handle at Marlisse SS. We are on Spotify, Apple Podcast and Stitcher; wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe to receive notifications for new episodes and leave us a review if you like what you hear. Thanks for listening.