Blue Monday reminds lawyers that we report rates of mental illness, substance abuse, self-harm, and debilitating anxiety at rates higher than the population average. The Law Society of BC has set up a task force on mental health in the profession. The Canadian Bar Association recognizes it as an issue to be studied at leadership levels. Given that we are paid for our ability to think, empathize, and communicate, I respectfully suggest that we, as a profession, do more than create task forces and discussion groups (but that’s another story). As individuals, one thing we can do to advance this cause of maturely dealing with this workplace hazard is to eliminate the “get over it” culture of our profession.
What do I mean by this?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to say, “I’m having a tough time today”, “I’m just not in the mood to really dig into this bench memo”, or “stuff is happening at home and it’s really affecting how I work today”, and I didn’t because I just knew that the reaction would be, at best, casual indifference, or at worst, something to the effect of “just get over it”.
We can, and should, do better.
For my team, I aspire to foster a place where every team member can say “I'm having a bad day and it’s affecting how I work”, and each one of us responds in a candid and compassionate way. At that moment, I want to affirm that a human being in front of me is having a problem. For my clients, I want to make sure that they aren’t paying for anything less than our best. And, importantly for this article, I want our place to be one in which it’s okay to say, “I’m having a problem” - because if a team member can’t tell me that they are just having a bad day, how can I expect them to tell me if they are suffering from something more threatening?
In the short term, what we want to be able to do is to affirm the value of the person in front of us who is really truly struggling with something. It is also good for our clients because we certainly don't want to be telling them that we have a lawyer who is not at their best working on their matter.
As lawyers, we’re already halfway there. We constantly tell ourselves that it is the professional thing to do to consult fellow lawyers when we have trouble with a technical problem - debating a point of law, working out a thorny ethical issue. I’m confident in saying we don’t extend this professional habit to our personal challenges. Let’s ask ourselves why not.
For those of us who hold ourselves as leaders in this profession (not saying that I hold some formal rank, but I do own a firm with people who depend on me), we set the tone and pace. Are we proud of our physical working environments - seriously, seasonal affective disorder and poor lighting IS an issue? Are we making formal and informal time to connect with our team to talk about something OTHER than files, clients, and performance? Are we consistent in expecting respect and compassion from ourselves AND the clients and suppliers we work with?
This small habit won’t change the profession’s real issue in addressing our high rates of mental health problems. But, I think it’s a necessary step toward making our profession healthier and more effective.
Happy Blue Monday everyone. Let’s talk.
Are you a person in the legal profession who is having a challenge and need to talk to someone? Call me.
PS If you need help or more resources and need someone to talk to who understands, consider talking to the Lawyers Assistance Program of BC.