When the Chief Justice of Ontario, Canada’s largest province and home to two of its busiest court systems, starts talking about mental health in the legal profession, people listen.
Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and the many changes it has wrought, Judge George Strathy has taken it upon himself to urge the profession to help “take the stigma out of mental illness.”
“These past two years, in which our lives have been dominated by the global pandemic, have enhanced our awareness of the importance of mental health in our society and in our profession,” he wrote in a recent piece, “The Litigator and Mental Health,” published on the Court of Appeal website. “People have been talking about mental health in an unprecedented way: openly, compassionately, and practically.”
Strathy, who is retiring at the end of the month at age 74, said he frequently reaches out to younger lawyers. They tell him that ever since the lockdowns and remote work policies prompted by COVID-19, they have felt that work has become “essentially 24/7 with no boundaries between work and life.”
This has created “a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety,” in the profession he said.
In his widely-read piece, Strathy writes, “the stereotypical barrister is held in high esteem: a fearless gladiator, wielding a razor-sharp intellectual broadsword. Always in control of their emotions. Erudite and articulate. Powering through long hours of work with pride and not breaking a sweat under pressure.”
This is the myth Strathy wants to dispel. And he believes change can only needs to come from the top.
Even for judges, the increase in the use of technology and remote hearings have been a mixed blessing, he said. They’ve allowed more flexible work environments that have helped those with childcare and eldercare responsibilities. But at the same time, “it has had the added stress of making work ever-present in your home.”
The Supreme Court of Canada recognized the changes and challenges its judges and staff faced during COVID and put into place a mental health strategy that built on the one in place for the federal public service. It included workshops on burnout and recognizing employees with the Royal Canadian Mint’s Mental Health Medal.
The court “is dedicated to protect the mental health of all of its employees,” court registrar Chantal Carbonneau told Law.com International.
Last year, Strathy opened up about his mother’s struggle with mental illness—she was bipolar, he says—and since then he has spoken and written frequently about mental health, emphasizing that leaders in the profession must be involved and “make a safe place for people to talk about mental health without any concern that it’s going to affect their career.” That includes ensuring legal work isn’t a 24/7 proposition and giving people the space to disconnect.
“They should be able to have a weekend with their family that’s not interrupted,” Strathy said.
The chief justice believes change needs to come from the top. And the country’s top law firms say they are taking a more active role in addressing mental health.
Blake Cassels and Graydon, one of the largest firms in Canada with about 680 lawyers across offices in five Canadian cities, London and New York, is taking a leadership role. In 2021, it was the first firm in Canada to sign on to the Mindful Business Charter—a document created in the U.K. in 2018 by the inhouse legal team at Barclays and two of its panel law firms—Addleshaw Goddard and Pinsent Masons—with a goal of removing unnecessary sources of stress and promoting better mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. It now has almost 120 signatories.
Even before COVID, Blakes had implemented what it calls the “Blakes mindset” program, which essentially formalizes being mindful, said Catherine Youdan, a securities law partner and co-chair of the firm’s legal personnel committee. But the program also recognizes that change doesn’t happen overnight and provides an ongoing, realistic focus on mental health issues, she said.
“There’s enough stress inherent in our job. We need to all work to reduce the avoidable stress,” she said.
That involves taking small, manageable steps like making people “pause” before they send emails outside of regular work hours, for example. Or thinking about whether a question can wait and be asked the next day, Youdan said.
Associates have also indicated that a great deal of stress and anxiety comes from worrying about whether they will get good work assignments. Blakes addressed this by introducing a proprietary work allocation system that uses an in-house technology platform that collects data related to capacity and hours worked, as well as the types of matters and which partner or senior associates assigned the work. It then combines this with a human component: A “human” ttakes all that data and allocates work equitably to junior associates.
“It’s intentionally designed to be quite disruptive,” said Youdan. “It’s designed to stop … a partner leaving their office, going to get a drink of water, running into someone, and saying, Hey, you, like I got this great deal….”
During COVID, many large law firms recognized that lawyers were dealing with psychological issues prompted by the pandemic and heavy workloads. In response, they upped the health benefits they offer for professional mental health services. Blakes raised its coverage to $5,000 a year for each lawyer and family member from $3,000. Torys, another full-service national firm, increased its coverage to $4,000.
Torys’ new coverage amount was based on the cost of a full course of cognitive therapy, said Emily Atkinson, the firm’s director of legal learning and professional resources. She said while the firm has been focusing on mental health issues for a number of years, COVID “caused us to do a really deep dive,” and the utilization of the bigger benefit has been “extremely high.”
Torys also has “wellness navigators” in each of its offices who are trained to recognize symptoms and signs of mental illness and confidentially help people find the resources to aid them, said Atkinson. The firm also has what it calls “on-site security,” a team of vetted therapists, including a former lawyer who understands the particular pressures of the job.
And like many other firms, during COVID, Torys had a designated person in each office connecting with people daily.
“We really kind of ramped up those check-ins over the course of COVID and a beautiful thing has happened: People now are reaching out and watching out for each other too,” said Atkinson.
Torys also offers a lot of mental wellness activities on its intranet, including having some “really brave people” share their experiences. It also monitors hours worked, and reaches out if it looks as if lawyers are overextending themselves, she said
Now that the lockdowns are over, firms are wrestling with return-to-office protocols. Youdan said Blakes lawyers must be in two days a week right now and that will likely increase to three in September.
But for some people who have been isolated and working from home for more than two years, coming back and interacting with others in the office creates its own level of anxiety and distress, said Joel Jones, the new chairman of the partnership board at Borden Ladner Gervais. That’s led to a lot of flexibility in his 725-lawyer firm’s return-to-office plans in its five locations across Canada.
“Our approach is to be as accommodating, flexible and understanding as possible,” he said. adding that mental health issues “won’t go away overnight.”