Derek Lacroix, QC has been at the helm of the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia (LAPBC) since December, 1996. LAPBC provides confidential outreach, education, support and referrals to distressed members of the bar. Their clients and volunteers include judges, lawyers, articling students, paralegals, legal assistants, support staff and other members of the legal community.
How have the stresses, issues or crises that LAPBC assists with changed in recent years?
The nature of the issues has changed, as has the range. Take alcohol addiction for example. We saw a lot of severe crises associated with substance abuse and addiction in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Lawyers were losing their practices, houses and/or relationships by the time they or their families sought help. The damage was really deep.
Now, people tend to look for help at an earlier stage of addiction. I think this has a lot to do with changes in society and generational differences. Addiction isn’t as tolerated in the profession as it once was. It’s also become more difficult to hide.
And although things have changed, in many ways they’ve stayed the same. Lawyers and legal professionals wait longer than they need to before seeking help. A low proportion – only 7% of addicts and 37% of people with mental health issues – seek any help at all.
Lately, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of new lawyers who feel trapped between high amounts of student debt and low levels of career satisfaction. Many are in well-paid positions, often at large firms. They believe they don’t have much choice except to stay at those firms if they want to build lives in places like Vancouver, where the cost of living can be extraordinarily high. Part of my job is to help them understand their options and find a path forward.
There are also a lot of senior lawyers who need help preparing for retirement and transitioning their practices.
Are there any issues that seem especially difficult to overcome?
Yes. Gambling is one. Eating disorders are another. These are among the toughest afflictions to address, and there is a lot of misunderstanding about each of them. I think lawyers often underestimate the treatment necessary to find healthy ways of coping with both issues.
What are some of the practical solutions available to distressed lawyers?
Well, an addiction or mental health issue can be addressed through various means: treatment, counseling, therapy, recovery groups, etc. Firms and colleagues can play a role in actively supporting a lawyer who needs help rather than standing by and wringing their hands (or, worse, gossiping). We can help with solutions that range from full-scale interventions to discrete outreach.
Another solution is for lawyers to feel like they are in more control of their practice. Most lawyers don’t go to law school expecting to have to deal with the more challenging realities of operating a business after they graduate (i.e. collecting fees, communicating with difficult clients or navigating workplace conflicts). Having a good business plan and some ongoing support in reaching individual goals can help. The plan doesn’t need to be onerous or ambitious, but it does need to be holistic. It should centre on a way of practicing that is meaningful to the lawyer and connected to his or her values, obligations and opportunities.
Lawyers Assistance Programs are available across Canada and throughout the United States. Their services are confidential (i.e. they do not disclose any information to Law Societies or regulating authorities). LAPBC and similar organizations help thousands of distressed lawyers, judges and related professionals each year.