In “The Litigator and Mental Health“, Chief Justice Strathy writes about mental health in our profession and what we can do to improve it. Unfortunately, practicing law can be damaging to one’s mental health. In fact, there is a strong correlation between traditional markers of success in the law and depression in lawyers.
One of the recommendations, Justice Strathy makes is eradicating the myth of the “fearless gladiator”. The fearless gladiator powers through long work hours with pride, never breaking emotionally, never taking time off, focuses exclusively on work, and has a stay-at-home spouse to take care of him. He plays hard. He works harder. He never makes a mistake. He is perfect.
This gladiator does not exist. But the myth pervades. And in doing so, it feeds into feelings of imposter syndrome. This feeling is made worst for lawyers from traditionally marginalized groups, who rarely see themselves reflected back in the top echelons of the profession or who are forced to deal with the micro-aggressions that undermine their confidence.
Justice Strathy adds that “Feelings of isolation, uncertainty and stress experienced by Black, Indigenous, racialized, LGBTQ2S counsel, women, those with different accents and internationally trained lawyers are too frequently viewed as an individual issue rather than understood as the result of subtle acts of exclusion. It is hard not to feel like an imposter where a person’s feelings of not belonging are exacerbated by signals that they were never supposed to be there in the first place. Overcoming imposter syndrome requires an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model“.
One solution towards addressing this problem is switching from the gladiator myth to the growth mindset. “A growth mindset views intelligence and talent as abilities to be cultivated through effort and practice, learning from mistakes, and sticking to it when it is not going well. By contrast, the gladiator litigator sees every success or failure in litigation as a measure of self-worth. It is easy to chalk up wins, but it is how we respond and learn from losses that will determine our level of stress and success in a litigation career”.
Justice Strathy’s point that it’s how we respond to the losses that matter is critical. To quote the great basketball player Michael Jordan “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”.