I worked for several years as in-house counsel helping develop title insurance in western Canada. When I joined Assist (Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society), an organization whose purpose is to help lawyers with personal problems, a colleague commented, (tongue-in-cheek) that I would still be providing lawyers something they think they don't need. As Executive Director of Assist, it has been my experience that lawyers are increasingly aware of the importance of seeking help for personal problems and before problems turn into crisis.
Assist has been focussed on increasing awareness in the hope every lawyer knows that there are free, professional and confidential services available to those in need of help for personal and professional issues.
The ongoing work involves ensuring that we are doing everything possible to help remove stigma associated with physical and mental health issues.
What distinguishes Assist from other employee assistance programs is that we are lawyers helping lawyers. In addition to professional counselling, lawyer assistance programs across Canada provide peer support: the ability to offer a lawyer seeking help support from a lawyer who has a particular understanding of the person or situation at hand.
Time and time again, I have seen the power of peer support help with a mental condition, a medical diagnosis, dealing with a career transition, relationship or family conflict, addiction, or adapting to pressures of home and work. Peer support eliminates isolation and provides an individual with hope and encouragement. Within a non-judgmental, collegial relationship, the person seeking help is empowered to develop skills and access resources to deal with the problem at hand.
Often, I am asked whether lawyers, compared to other professions are a) more stressed, b) have more career challenges, or c) have particular idiosyncrasies leading to more personal problems. Research shows that all of these factors can lead to more incidents of problems for the lawyer population. A possible compounding factor is the need to maintain a professional image of competence, while meeting challenging responsibilities as lawyers.
It is important that we do everything we can to ensure the culture of our legal profession is amenable to lawyers seeking help for personal problems, when needed. Lawyer assistance programs across Canada, along with the national Legal Profession Assistance Conference of the Canadian Bar Association are taking important steps to raise awareness of the importance of health and wellness for lawyers and of the programs and services available. Engagement events, communication and education initiatives are designed to bring the profession together to help talk about issues relating personal wellness. I encourage you and your firm to support these initiatives.
More importantly, as lawyers helping lawyers, we can each play a significant role, by encouraging a lawyer to seek help, if needed. Whether it is an initial referral to support or ongoing peer support, here are suggestions to consider when offering support to a lawyer in distress: -
1. For lawyers or articling students, the legal profession’s Code of Conduct may bear upon the situation. Familiarize yourself with responsibilities under your Code of Conduct. While reporting obligations are limited (especially when you are trying to help another lawyer seek help), if concerns about ethical obligations under the Code, cause you to hesitate to reach out to a colleague, make a confidential call to Assist to work it through.
2. Consider the distressed person may be:
Denying or ignoring the issue
Unaware of changes in their own behavior
Confused and not knowing what to do or who to talk to
3. You are not alone when reaching out to help someone else. Call Assist and receive advice and coaching on dealing with a distressed friend, colleague, or family member.
4. Assess how you are feeling. It may not be the time to reach out to help someone else if you are in the middle of a work or personal crisis yourself.
5. Free yourself of any judgments, assessments, or diagnoses you may have and enter the interaction as a compassionate observer.
6. Be clear about the goals of your conversation:. Is it about expressing concern and encouraging the person to seek help?
7. Be clear about your role. Typically, you will want to be there to express concern and be a catalyst. You are not a medical professional and are not there to “save” someone.
8. If initial prompting to seek help has been unsuccessful and an individual is in severe distress, a planned intervention involving professional help, colleagues, peers, family members, or others may be warranted. The professionals at Assist can help you and other concerned parties make that determination.
9. If an individual is threatening harm to themselves or others, call 911.
10. Keep brochures or information about assistance programs on hand. If you are part of management in the firm, consider including references to the lawyer assistance program in your employee orientation manuals.
The fact that you took the time to read this article means that you care about the profession and your colleagues. Supporting a peer is a simple act of human kindness. The reward is a stronger profession for everyone.
To obtain a guideline for a conversation with an individual in need of help, and other information, call Assist at 1 877 737 5508 or visit www.albertalawyersassist.ca.
Written by Marian V. De Souza, LL.B., Executive Director, Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society