Confronting the Mental Health Stigma in the Legal Profession

Many lawyers suffer in silence rather than admit they struggle with depression, stress, anxiety and work-life balance. But help is available as various initiatives confront mental-health issues and their stigma
Confronting the Mental Health Stigma in the Legal Profession

Many lawyers suffer in silence rather than admit they struggle with depression, stress, anxiety and work-life balance. But help is available as various initiatives confront mental-health issues and their stigma

On Bell Let’s Talk Day this past January, Megan Seto, an associate at McInnes Cooper in Halifax, took to Twitter. Throughout the day, she tweeted a series of startling statistics in regard to mental health and lawyers, drawn from her highly regarded, prize-winning paper, “Killing Ourselves: Depression as an institutional, workplace, and professional problem.”

Among her tweets were “lawyers suffer from #depression at a rate that is 3.6x higher than those that share the same economic traits”; “while 4% of the general population suffers from anxiety – 30% of male lawyers and 20% of female lawyers report illness”; “for law students and junior lawyers, fear of stigma proves to be a powerful inhibitor in detection and recovery #BellLetsTalk #depression”; and “competition in law school can create #stress, fear, #anxiety and a profound loss of self-esteem. #BellLetsTalk #depression.”

During the day, which began with a firm-wide mental health breakfast for lawyers and staff, each office hosted a breakfast on mental health, Seto and other firm members continued to tweet, management sent a firm-wide email urging people to not only follow but retweet, and share the discussion, and personal stories on their own experience with mental health were posted on the firm’s intraweb. The firm also made a donation on behalf of Seto to a local charity specializing in mental health.

Seto, who was inspired to explore lawyers and mental issues by a professor when she was at University of Ottawa Law School, was gratified by the support. Yet she is aware of the steep cliff to climb, aware of how easy it is to ground the problem simply by focusing on numbers. “Lawyers need evidence, but the problem with depression is that the numbers reveal only so much since the statistics are self-reported. We need to make a shift where culturally it’s not only statistical, but we have humanized the issues.”

During Seto’s marathon coverage of depression and mental health issues in the profession, she tweeted “why care about depression & law? The illness limits a lawyer’s ability to distribute most valuable asset talent & knowledge.”

Her words resonate with Jeff Moat, President of Partners for Mental Health, an Ottawa-based national charitable organization dedicated to transforming the way Canadians think about, act towards, and support mental health and people living with a mental illness.

“Most people would rather suffer in silence and not get access to support or treatment because of the stigma that surrounds it,” he says. “This is particularly poignant for lawyers, because they are valued for what they bring ‘from the neck up.’ It’s the very asset that they are using that is being threatened. So mental illness is particularly important to be mindful of, and to take care of, for that’s where these professionals are most valued.”


Educating and providing resources for lawyers to be mindful about mental health is exactly what the Ontario Bar Association is doing. In December 2014 the OBA launched its Opening Remarks initiative intended to advance the conversation about mental health and personal well-being among legal professionals.

Certainly, the OBA is hitting the mark and providing a valued service to the industry with this campaign. In just the first month of the Opening Remarks campaign, there were more than a thousand visits to its website, by the end of February more than 800 participants were registered for the OBA’s ongoing “Mindful Lawyer” Continuing Professional Development series, and the OBA has been contacted by lawyers from several American states and as far away as Australia who are commending the association for this work and are looking to bring similar programs to their jurisdictions.

In addition, the Opening Remarks initiative has a vocal and well-recognized champion in Orlando Da Silva, OBA President, who says “since speaking publicly about my experiences with depression, I have seen firsthand the need to do more to advance mental health awareness in the legal profession. Through the OBA’s Opening Remarks initiative I really hope we can help lift the stigma of mental health and connect lawyers with the everyday supports that can be useful to them. I see our work as one more effort to support the profession. One day, I hope mental wellness is a commonplace topic and focus in lawyers’ everyday personal and professional lives. It is one more key to unlocking our full potential.”

The Not Myself Today campaign is an initiative of Partners for Mental Health that encourages employers and employees to play a pivotal role in transforming mental health at work. In 2014, 137 organizations held Not Myself Today activities, among them Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, which, says Moat, starting last year was the first law firm to come onboard with the campaign.

“Support for the Not Myself Today was firm-wide, with activities stretching a full work week in the Québec, Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary offices,” says Norman Steinberg, a Global Vice Chair of Norton Rose Fulbright and Chairman of Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP in Montréal.

Activities included an official luncheon with mood buttons distributed to engage mental wellness conversation between team members; a guest speaker conference about mental wellness; a team members’ group walk during lunch hour; yoga sessions, as well as “thank you” cards distributed to team members who were encouraged to write a sincere note to at least two of their colleagues about the value they have brought to them and to the organization.

Steinberg says the firm is introducing a number of other “firsts.” He cites, as an example, Mental Health First Aid Training, similar to CPR and automated external defibrillator training, which has not been introduced yet in Canada, but is anticipated in 2015. In addition this year, there will be a firm-wide National Fitness Challenge that will focus on encouraging positive physical and mental fitness and culminate in a one-day Health Fair with selected outside providers. 

“Mental health problems affect many people in all Canadian workplaces. Most of us will be affected, at some point in our lives, by the mental illness of a friend or family member,” says Steinberg. “As an organization, we are concerned by the mental health and well-being of our employees and, as a global platform, we have considerable resources and knowledge to promote workplace mental health. Raising awareness of mental health issues is fundamental to our well-being strategy and this is the best reason for joining the Not Myself Today Campaign in Canada.”

In August 2015, a new initiative aimed at assisting lawyers with mental health issues will be launched by the Canadian Bar Association. The “Lawyer Wellness Project” website, says CBA Chief Executive Officer John Hoyles, will address issues such as stigma surrounding mental health issues and the profession.

“The way we are trained is that we are tough, we can solve anything, and we don’t need anyone to help us,” says Hoyles. “So many people in the profession don’t say anything about their personal situation. If someone had a ski accident this weekend and was off work for three weeks, no one would say anything except ‘fine.’ On the other hand, if the person said, ‘look, my brain is worn out and I need to take three weeks off,’ it could be a very different scenario.”

Doron Gold, Staff Clinician at Homewood Health in Toronto, is co-subject matter expert on the CBA’s Lawyer Wellness Project with Dr. Patrick Baillie. One of the benefits of the online initiative is privacy. “If I’m at a trade show booth, people aren’t necessarily rushing over to talk to me, as they often don’t want to be seen looking at this type of subject matter material in front of their colleagues. A course like this offers them the opportunity to simply sit at the desk in their office or at their home and go through the website in privacy, take as much time as they need, and not have to worry about perceived stigma.”

The project is comprised of four modules: stigma, both generally and with specific reference to the legal professional context; recognizing signs and symptoms of mental health and addiction challenges; available treatment options and other resources; and discussions of proactive and remedial coping strategies for those with mental health and addiction challenges. Work is ongoing, but so far it includes video testimonials from lawyers and a law student.

Gold says the “Lawyer Wellness Project” website will also feature proactive wellness strategies such as making sure you get enough sleep, taking vacations, or delegating work, “as these are good daily healthy habits that create a foundation for wellness and also buttress against the hard things that happen in life as you go along.”


Bonnie Altro, partner and head of human resources and professional development at Altro Levy LLP in Toronto, started her legal career as a lawyer at a Wall Street law firm, working there from 2002‒2009. It was a very intense, exciting, but high-stress practice that included defending financial institutions that were being investigated by the U.S. Securities Exchange and Commission and other regulatory agencies. “Perfection must always be achieved, there was no room for error, everything was high stakes and on top of these pressures, the work was high profile,” she remembers.

As Altro grew more successful, she also grew more unsure about her career path, eventually looking around at others in her type of situation who were unhappy and asking herself “is this my future?” It certainly wasn’t the future she had envisioned at all when she went to law school at McGill University.

In 2009 she moved back to Montréal and began practising at Altro Levy LLP, which specializes in Canada-US cross-border tax, estate planning and real estate. One year later, she moved to Toronto as a one-woman outpost of the firm, operating out of a windowless conference room rented from a larger firm. Today the Toronto office has six lawyers and support staff.

“There’s a lot of time and room at our firm for discussing mental health, wellness and how to handle stress,” says Altro, drawing on her own experience. At the firm’s annual retreat, as one example, Rachel Schipper of Curated Wellness ran a full-day session that included very practical advice such as why lawyers shouldn’t skip breakfast, as this contributes to dips and spikes in blood sugar, and how this affects mood and can create stress.

Altro, who encourages her staff to try not to burn the midnight oil and personally tries to leave at five to be with her family, is “building a culture where as long as someone has a well-thought-out reason for why they took a decision, if it goes sideways, they shouldn’t feel overwhelmed. I don’t want them to be paralyzed to make independent decisions because of fear that they could be wrong. I try to instill confidence in our associates by reminding them that we hired them because we believe they are smart and capable. My hope is that this contributes to less work-related anxiety and a better overall work environment.”

Curated Wellness’s Schipper, an Osgoode Hall Law School graduate, also practised in New York. “As a young associate, I saw colleagues and classmates deteriorate rapidly and notably in all areas of well-being, on both sides of the border,” she recalls.

In 2012, after studying and teaching yoga, meditation and nutrition for 15 years, Schipper decided to leave law to build her company. “The first coaching and corporate programs preceded this date,” she says, “but one of the reasons I use the live workshop and 1:1 coaching formats, other than that I like doing them, is that a 2012 CBA study on lawyer wellness indicated that’s what Canadian lawyers want more of. To take a little more time being human, instead of just busy. To be present and accountable to oneself, even just over a lunch hour.”

When it comes to lawyer wellness, Schipper says “there are markers of well-being that are harder to measure, such as spiritual contentment, self-actualization or joy. I’m adding these intangibles because private clients – who seek help improving their well-being with easier wins like diet or exercise – repeatedly tell me how these softer elements of well-being have a north-star quality when it comes to how they feel on a daily basis.”


Natalie Zinman, Director of Student Programs in Toronto for Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, is a former social worker who became a lawyer. Practising as an employment lawyer, Zinman developed “an acute awareness of the challenges and social dynamics faced by employees and employers in the workplace when grappling with issues associated with stress, mental health and trying to achieve balance.”

Now transitioned into a management role, Zinman works with students shifting from the academic world to the professional context. Zinman says “for many students the transition to this ‘first’ professional experience can be overwhelming, sometimes exacerbated by a less certain market, a significantly increased student debt load and personal life pressures. Some are reluctant to admit they are struggling because of concerns over perceived weakness or fear that it may impact their long-term career potential.

“I wanted to have a dialogue with our students on these topics and debated how to frame the discussion to ensure that we addressed strategies to cope with these transitional challenges not just in the short term, but over the span of one’s career,” she says. Instead of hosting a session on managing stress or mental health at work, Zinman focuses on resilience as a core competency, the ability to adapt or bounce back. “I strongly believe that life and one’s career are not linear and how you adapt to that change can have broad impacts on your career success and overall sense of well-being.” 

So far, the presentation, developed with and presented by an outside consultant, has been offered to two groups of articling students, whom she finds express an openness and willingness to have this dialogue. In the future, Gowlings hopes to offer a similar session to associates as well. In addition, the firm’s advanced leadership program, offered to selected junior partners who represent tomorrow’s firm leaders, also addresses how to achieve lawyer wellness in a high-pressure practice, both from a mental and physical perspective.

In September 2014, a consortium of the seven law schools in Ontario, with Osgoode Hall Law School in the lead, launched, designed to provide law students with mental health and wellness information. According to Melanie Banka Goela, Student Success & Wellness Counsellor at Osgoode, by the end of February 2015 the site had been accessed by more than 5,000 individual users. While Banka Goela can’t say for certain that every user was a law student, as the site received affirmative press, to put the usage into context, there are a little more than 4,000 law students in Ontario.

Banka Goela says while there is general information about mental health concerns, both the research and the evidence at law schools shows a need for context-specific support for law school students addressing specific nuances such as recruitment, the grading curve and the debt load that goes with law school. When students come to see Banka Goela, whose high-demand service means her calendar is full every slot in every week during the school year, “in the early years of law school it’s usually more about anxiety than depression. If we take out the medical language, what we are talking about is that basically these students are unhappy.”

One often-cited root of dissatisfaction is grades. Prior to law school, most of these students have excelled academically, “but the system here does not allow everybody to get that same kind of validation anymore,” she says, referring to the grading curve. “So students have to shift their definition of success, which is a transition, altering what measures their competency and their worth.” Often, she asks students “why did you come to law school in the first place?” and for many students, including those whose passion is toward being a lawyer in a social-justice or public-interest setting, the question, she says, alters the trajectory as the student sets about value shifting and working toward their passion.

In addition to bringing Banka Goela on board, Osgoode has instituted, among other initiatives, a Mental Health Week and there are free meditation and yoga classes. Says Lorne Sossin, Dean of Osgoode, “we know the pressures on law students are growing, whether in terms of the competitive environment and high academic expectations, or financial and career-related stress. Studies suggest that law students and lawyers have higher rates of depression and anxiety and are more prone to substance abuse. This can have a dramatic impact on student success.”

As a result, continues Sossin, in addition to providing academic resources for students in need, “it makes sense to provide mental health and wellness resources that are responsive to student needs, too. These resources include more access to advising and counselling, along with a review of how we teach and evaluate to see if there are ways law school itself can be better aligned to the mental health needs of our students. For example, if we know 100 per cent final exams create greater stress and do not serve pedagogic ends, then a mix of different evaluative methods and greater student choice may alleviate that anxiety and enhance the quality of the learning experience.”

Other Canadian law schools are instituting programs to help students with wellness. Among a number of initiatives at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia, “we offer first-year law students one-on-one free peer tutoring in study skills and strategies with upper-year students,” says Kaila Mikkelsen, Assistant Dean, Students.

“The peer tutors are trained in wellness strategies and include positive messaging around wellness and mental health in their monthly academic success lectures to students and in the tutoring sessions. The peer tutors also receive training in mental health, how to identify a student in crisis, suicide prevention, and making referrals to Student Health and Counselling Services,” she says. “By equipping our students with the skills to make positive wellness choices, and know it’s okay to seek assistance when mental health challenges arise, we are creating future lawyers who can thrive in an often challenging profession.”

A recent wellness initiative of the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University is its eight-week non-credit “Mindfulness in Law” course, offered to students in both academic terms. “As an effective means of stress reduction and a powerful tool to increase personal and professional effectiveness and life satisfaction, mindfulness meditation is particularly well-suited to law students. The student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Sarah M. Kirby, Assistant Dean, Student Services, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Lawyers may want to attend to their wellness but time and work pressures can get in the way. The Medcan Clinic, a private health care facility in Toronto, “has hosted numerous wellness events at law firms, where few among the participants are lawyers, as they are often tied up with projects and client needs,” says Yolanda Billinkoff, Vice President, Sales and Corporate Accounts.

“The challenge,” she says, is “when do they have time for wellness? Clinics that have more flexible hours or virtual consultations may make sense for these firms in providing these services, options that could help to make wellness a priority.”

Still, the new generation of lawyers may have a very different sense of their career, work-life balance and just what it means to be a lawyer. Catie Fenn, an associate with Brown & Burnes in Toronto who makes time to volunteer with the OBA, coach inner-city youth, attend yoga classes, travel and try new restaurants, says, “I think that my generation has been raised with the notion that being a lawyer is just one aspect of who we are. The general sentiment is ‘I’m a lawyer, but I’m also x, y or z.’ This is perhaps because admittance into law school now requires participation in a wide breadth of extra-curricular activities, which we then continue to participate in while there.”

As a result, says Fenn, “when we graduate and start practising, more of us are becoming unapologetic about ensuring that we are able to satisfy all parts of ourselves, which includes making time to explore all of our interests outside of law that make us happy. I think many of us were raised seeing others burn out or become entirely consumed by their jobs and thought ‘there has to be a better way.’ The concept of ‘work-life balance’ is more than a buzz phrase; I think many of us are endeavouring to truly find that balance.”


Norman M. Steinberg