In 2012, the Canadian Bar Association conducted a study on the mental health and wellness among legal professionals. The results of the study showed that 58% of lawyers, judges, and law students experienced significant stress and/or burnout, which has contributed to lawyers being among the top three professions to experience depression, substance use issues and suicide.
We asked Elizabeth M. Khean, a business and real estate lawyer at KZEL, about what makes being a lawyer so challenging. “As lawyers, we are constantly trying to find solutions for our clients, which is what makes our job interesting and exciting. However, the ongoing pressure to meet billable and non-billable targets and to ‘justify’ your position at the firm can be consuming.”
The normalization of working long hours and sacrificing your personal life is often rewarded in firm environments.
“There is a culture of lawyers exchanging stories about working throughout vacations, missing out on special occasions and spending endless nights at the office preparing for a trial or closing a transaction, but these stories are conveyed in a boastful manner, which contributes to the culture of prioritizing work above everything else, including mental health.”
We asked Liz about what she does for her mental health in times of stress. “First, I think it’s about working at the right firm. It would be difficult to prioritize mental health if you are working at a place that normalizes working 12+ hour days and expects you to be available at all times. Second, I think prioritizing your mental health and understanding your boundaries is important. For me, I have made the personal decision to stay away from alcohol if I am stressed, as I do not want to use it as a coping mechanism. It’s an important boundary for me as alcohol impedes my quality of sleep, which directly impacts my ability to manage stress.”
Substance abuse and alcoholism rates within the law community have risen over the years. The largest known study about substance abuse in the legal profession was conducted in 2017 by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association, also referred to as the ABA Study. The study revealed that 36% of respondents reported problematic drinking. It was also reported that 60% of lawyers participating in the study experienced anxiety and 45% experienced depression.
Law is a demanding profession and it is not uncommon for legal professionals to work excessive hours, which can lead to isolation, sleep deprivation, and a poor overall mental health. Working under the conditions of a COVID-19 global pandemic is an added stressor.
Though the pandemic has been stressful for many, including herself, Liz adds that there have also been silver linings. “The pandemic, in some ways, has made life simpler and more focused. I don’t take my health and the health of my loved ones for granted anymore and I am learning to actively prioritize my mental health.”
If you are a legal professional experiencing mental health issues, check out the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia for resources and support.