The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Rachel Schipper

Bad habits at an early age

November 1 2013 1 November 2013

Poor health amongst lawyers isn’t news.  The same goes for the negative side effects caused by poor health.  For many lawyers, it’s really just cumulative, and an exercise in getting used to a suboptimal way of living.  And yet, the truth is we made our own habits before we ever got to practising; after that, it’s our habits that have made us. Just think back to law school:

The laptops.

The summaries. 

The stress. 

The missing pages from short-term-loan books. 

The study groups. 

The pallor over the library at exam time. 

The incredible number of remarkably diligent and studious peers. 

The coffee consumption. 

The guy who read the footnotes in the property textbook (he made partner last week).

The rash of breakups that hit every first year class like a post-Christmas epidemic.

Case law jokes – at parties.  Even those that were funny.

It all seems mildly amusing thinking back on it, and I await the LLB/JD sitcom. But in the meantime, we have some serious business to attend to.

I revisited law schools this fall to refresh my memory and check out, as an observer, how students are coping with the early days of what will be a stressful profession.  Law can be rewarding, stimulating, and full of opportunity.  But what we’re seeing in law schools is a stunning pervasiveness of anxiety and stress-related symptoms.   You know what I’m talking about - depression, insomnia, disordered eating, pill-popping, headaches and a general feeling of overwhelm.

The thing is law students are driven, brainy, and accustomed to external validation for a job well done.  So it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem.  What came first?  The demands of the profession, or the culture of high-achievers who will sacrifice nearly everything to make meeting impossible demands seem normal?  In a pie-eating contest where the reward is more pie, something is not quite right.

Fortunately, the institutions that educate lawyers are taking this issue seriously.  This year there were 2000 applications for 1200 articling positions in Ontario.  But this is about more than supply and demand.  These conditions are highlighting the festering struggles with anxiety, stress and depression that pervade our classrooms and offices.  It is not serving our profession to continue in this way.

Last month, Osgoode Hall Law School spearheaded an initiative with four other law schools to address the health and wellbeing of law students in Ontario.  With the help of a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, the goal is to develop better support and mental health resources for law students.  Today, Osgoode Hall Law School is the first Canadian law school to hire a full-time counselor (by design she is also a former lawyer) focused on the wellbeing of students.  In the first year of this program, 12 per cent of students – that’s 105 people – have benefitted from confidential support services.  University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law is also paying close attention to the well-being of its student body, with programs including in-house yoga and meditation, doggie days, and green smoothies at exam time.  The dual efforts to de-stigmatize mental health challenges and provide programming to alleviate them are crucial steps in the right direction. 

But real change has to be an inside job.  If we’re talking about degrees of self-sacrifice over decades of study and work, then the antidote must be self-care and self-compassion.  This can seem like a tall order in a profession characterized by type-A personalities, but that’s only because a lack of education about self-care has driven a culture that has not yet responded to the pull of being, well, human. 

We hear about this condition before going to law school, we hear about it once we’re there, and we hear tragic stories and see evidence of these trends once we enter practice.  And yet there continues to be some cognitive dissonance that allows us to believe that this mild epidemic of diminished well-being applies to others, to strangers, and not to us. 

Until it hits close to home.  A recent CBA-commissioned study about lawyers and wellness reveals that a dismal minority (3 per cent) of Canadian lawyers believe that the legal profession provides enough support to lawyers who are confronting health and wellness issues, with a substantial majority (84 per cent) valuing live education sessions on health and wellness.  Stress, burnout, anxiety, poor physical health, and mental health issues (specifically depression) top the list of health and wellness issues Canadian lawyers face. 

There is, at the very least some recognition that we have a problem.  Now comes the hard part – being part of the solution.  On that front – we could use some time back in law school.

 

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Rachel Schipper is a former Wall Street lawyer. She founded Curated Wellness to provide practical and innovative wellness coaching and workshops to lawyers and other skeptics in a rush.

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