The mental-health crisis in law // Cover Story
On Tuesday March 6th, 2018Print
On Tuesday March 6th, 2018Print
Malini Vijaykumar is haunted by her own thoughts. Not all the time, though. For the most part, they lie in wait, emerging at unexpected moments to terrorize her mind. The first time she heard them, she was eight years old. She was reading A Little Princess, a novel about a rich girl whose parents die, condemning her to live in a decrepit orphanage. As she read, intrusive thoughts began to blare inside her head. Your parents are going to lose everything. They will go bankrupt. You’re going to spend the rest of your life in a poorhouse.
It was a preposterous thought. Her father had a steady job as an accountant at CIBC; her mother was a successful violinist and music teacher. There were no signs of financial stress in their home.
“But yes, as a child, I was terrified of bankruptcy!” recalls Vijaykumar, sitting in Mercatto, a busy café at King and Church. Now 26, she works in the neighbourhood at Stevenson Whelton MacDonald & Swan LLP, a 14-lawyer litigation boutique. Vijaykumar, who wears a floral black blouse and gold earrings, has a remarkably bright personality. Even when retelling dark moments from her past, she can hardly resist smiling, as she laughs at the absurdity of her own mind.
“My dad noticed how distraught I was,” she says. “Once I explained what was wrong, he was, like, ‘First of all, they don’t have poorhouses anymore. And, even if they did, we aren’t going to go bankrupt!’”
Over the next few days, the thoughts faded and Vijaykumar returned to her normal, happy childhood. “To be perfectly honest, I mostly just read in a quiet corner,” she says. “I was content.”
But the thoughts never completely left. They continued to flare up a couple of times a year, often after she earned a middling grade. One moment during her undergrad at Queen’s University stands out. “I remember getting a 70 on a paper — a perfectly fine grade, by the way! — and my heart sank. I started to sweat.” Then she heard it: You’re worthless. You deserve nothing. “It made no sense,” she says. “It’s not like my family put that much pressure on me to be a perfect student.”
Vijaykumar never sought help. Such episodes were so rare that she never saw them as a major problem.
That changed when she began law school, in 2013, at the University of Toronto — and the thoughts took a potent hold of her mind. One month into first semester, the professor of her legal-research class handed back an assignment: a case-brief research memo. And she received, as her overall evaluation, “needs improvement.” Terrible thoughts flooded her head: You are worthless as a person. You deserve nothing. You’re absolute garbage. If you disappeared, no one would care.
These thoughts grew increasingly regular and cruel, so she decided to make use of the on-campus counselling service, which wasn’t that helpful. But she leaned on friends and family for support, going on to earn solid marks and to win a string of mooting competitions. (In third year, she won the John D. Arnup Trial Moot Cup, a prestigious contest between the six Ontario law schools.) She also landed topnotch summer jobs. In the summer after first year, she worked at what’s now called Innocence Canada; the next year, in 2015, she summered at the Ministry of the Attorney General’s downtown Toronto office. The future looked bright.
But then she failed to land an articling job through the traditional recruitment process. This setback triggered her worst-ever mental-health episode. “My body shut down,” she says. “I could barely get out of bed for two weeks.” Her friends reached out, offering to help, but Vijaykumar refused to get together. “The same thoughts kept running through my head: You’re not worthy of their attention. You’re worthless.”
Through a lawyer friend, she learned that, in Ontario, every lawyer and law student can book free counselling sessions at Homewood Health, a mental-health and addiction centre at Yonge and Bloor. Vijaykumar went to see one of the counsellors, who, in short order, told Vijaykumar what she was going through: anxiety.
Most mental illnesses, broadly defined, operate the same way: they give rise to moods and emotions that are disproportionate to a person’s circumstances. Take depression. Truly traumatic events often trigger the onset of this condition, but the chronically depressed cannot shake their feelings of acute sorrow even when nothing in their life is particularly sad.
Anxiety, for its part, causes people to be fearful of events that bear few genuine risks. So when Vijaykumar worried that she was worthless and deserved nothing after she performed poorly on a single assignment, she inhabited a false reality. But that’s what a mental illness creates — a worldview untethered to real life.
Once Vijaykumar discovered she had anxiety, she started to attend one-on-one counselling sessions at Homewood. Her regular counsellor practises cognitive behavioural therapy, a method of treatment that helps patients identify “irrational thought patterns,” which are, in essence, persistent thoughts that are out of step with reality. This brand of therapy has been of enormous help to Vijaykumar.
Her articling-recruit breakdown was revelatory. Vijaykumar began to appreciate the degree to which law school had been gradually exacerbating her anxiety. In the most basic terms, anxiety causes her to see small problems as big ones — and in law school, it became especially hard to guard against this tendency. “Everyone was actively telling you that every problem is huge,” she says.
The articling recruit was a perfect example. “I came to think that all of the firms that hired outside the traditional process were the dregs of the dregs. When I didn’t get a job, I thought my life was over,” she says, laughing. “That response wasn’t even remotely proportionate.”
Of course it wasn’t. Two months later, after sending off a handful of applications, Vijaykumar landed an articling gig at Stevenson Whelton MacDonald & Swan. One year after that, in the spring of 2017, the firm hired her back as an associate. Today, as she nears the end of her first year of practice, she handles her own files, negotiates with opposing counsel and argues contested motions.
Yet Vijaykumar finds that the culture of the legal profession is as flawed as the one that permeates law school. “There’s this notion that everyone in law is perfect,” she says. “We are such a high-achieving profession. Everyone seems so smart. And no one is willing to show any weakness. It can feel like you’re the only idiot who doesn’t know everything.”
This makes it difficult to see the world through rational eyes. For instance, on the rare occasion she sends an email to a client with a mistake, the thoughts return: Your firm will fire you. Your parents will disown you. None of which is true. By all accounts, her firm is delighted with her work. Her parents are kind and supportive. But legal culture — at law school and in the workplace — has the power to distort her reality. And that, according to Vijaykumar, is one of the core reasons that lawyers are at such a high risk of mental-health problems.
That lawyers are vulnerable to mental illness is not breaking news. The statistics have long been clear. In 1990, the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry published what became the gold-standard study on the mental health of lawyers. It revealed that 19 percent of lawyers had depression, a figure that sits at 8 percent in the general population.
No researchers updated this data for close to three decades. Then, in 2016, the American Society of Addiction Medicine published a new blockbuster study on the topic. Based on interviews with 12,825 lawyers across the United States, it showed that the rate of depression had skyrocketed to 28 percent. It also found that 19 percent of lawyers have anxiety, a condition that afflicts 12 percent of all adults. “I think we all knew things were bad,” says Patrick Krill, one of the study’s co-authors and a law firm consultant in Minneapolis. “But I was surprised to see that things have gotten worse.”
The best predictor of mental health is class. The less money you have, the more likely you are to have precarious access to housing and health care. At the same time, those who sit below the poverty line are the most vulnerable to physical and sexual violence. Such factors are known to cause mental illness. So the fact that lawyers, one of the wealthiest social groups, possess such poor mental health is puzzling.
Vijaykumar’s story offers a partial explanation: legal culture itself can make people sick. But that doesn’t paint the full picture. Ronit Dinovitzer, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, has spent her 12-year academic career studying the legal profession. In her view, one of the main drivers of mental-health issues in law is the number of hours lawyers work.
The data is indeed bleak. According to a 2012 study, published by the Canadian Bar Association, 39 percent of all lawyers — and 60 percent of big-firm lawyers — work more than 50 hours a week. And 38 percent of all lawyers “always or often” work on the weekend.
“The problem is not the hours themselves,” explains Dinovitzer. “It’s that those hours make it difficult for lawyers to balance their work with their personal life.” As a result, they sometimes feel like they are failing in every aspect of their life: as a lawyer, as a parent, as a friend. Sociologists call this phenomenon “role conflict” and Dinovitzer argues that this can give rise to mental-health problems.
That theory certainly meshes with the experience of Sarah, a 50-year-old government lawyer in Toronto, who suffers from depression. For most of her life, Sarah — who asked that we not use her real name — had a clean bill of mental health. Her childhood was, much like Vijaykumar’s, one of contented introversion. “I read a lot,” she recalls. “Had imaginary friends. I read the whole Anne of Green Gables series like four times.”
When she attended law school, in the early ’90s, Sarah felt an uptick in stress, but it was never debilitating. Even when she started her legal career, as a busy litigator at a small boutique, there were no signs of depression.
But when Sarah had a daughter, as a seventh-year associate, her mental health began to flag. “I felt this need to be an excellent lawyer and a super mom,” she says. “I didn’t know that it was impossible.”
If she worked late, she felt like she was neglecting her daughter. And if she spent extra time at home, she worried she was abandoning her clients. It was a classic case of role conflict. Her mood lowered, along with her satisfaction with life.
Close to one year after the birth of her daughter, Sarah was conducting a two-week trial out of town. The hours were exhausting. Then, when she returned to her office, she looked at her desk. “Work had been piling up the entire time,” she recalls. “I burst into tears.”
Sarah immediately booked an appointment with a therapist. “He just couldn’t believe how much pressure I’d put on myself to be perfect at work and perfect at home,” she says. “He said, ‘Why can’t you just tell people this is too much?’”
So that’s what she tried. Instead of seeking long-term treatment, she scaled back her hours. A few years later, she left private practice for the government. That decision helped, but her overall mood remained low. Her sleep patterns were out of whack: she went through regular periods of insomnia.
In retrospect, Sarah believes that gender norms contributed to her anguish. “Women are thrust into the caregiving role,” she says. “My husband stepped up, but the pressure fell hardest on me.” Statistically speaking, women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression. There’s little doubt that the burden they carry at home is a big part of the reason. Research also shows that when women don’t have a supportive partner, they are at a greater risk of postpartum depression.
For about a decade, Sarah muscled through her pain. Then, in 2011, a disagreement with her colleagues about the direction of a file triggered a six-month bout of insomnia. She wept all the time.
Sarah went back to a doctor, but not to seek treatment for her declining mental health — she wanted sleeping pills. “The doctor said, ‘I’m not giving you sleeping pills. They’re incredibly addictive. You have depression. I’m putting you on antidepressants.’”
Sarah started taking Celexa, a drug that boosts serotonin levels in the brain. At first, she felt worse. “I had dry mouth, heart palpitations,” she says. “It seemed to exacerbate all of my problems.” But within three weeks, she felt, well, better. “For the first time in years, I felt normal. It was incredible. I just didn’t feel bad. I can’t overstate the difference it made.”
For some, antidepressants are magic. “I’ve been in a great place since then,” says Sarah. “I love my job.” Parenting has also become more enjoyable, as she no longer places absurd demands on herself. “I no longer feel the desire to be a super mom,” she says. “And I feel a strong responsibility to tell young female lawyers how it’s fucking impossible.”
Toxic masculinity is, indeed, an oppressor of women. It is also a killer of men. Though men are half as likely as women to suffer from depression, they are twice as likely to die by suicide. The main reason? Men often refuse to seek help.
One man who resisted treatment for decades is John Hoyles, who grew up in Val-D’Or, a mining town in northern Quebec. In 1980, he launched his legal career by setting up his own civil-litigation firm in New Liskard, a small town two hours north of North Bay. He, like so many of his peers, worked an unhealthy number of hours. He would get to the office at 6:45 a.m., head home at 6 p.m., spend an hour with his wife and two daughters, then work until midnight. He also worked on the weekend.
None of this made Hoyles happy. “At first, I loved being in court,” says the 67-year-old. “But I worked so hard that I started to hate it. I’m also a workaholic, so the worse I felt, the more I would retreat into work. It was a vicious cycle.”
Worse still, he often took his frustration out on his family. “My wife tolerated the most outrageous behaviour,” he says. “I’d have temper tantrums. I’d walk into the house, sweep stuff off the counter that I didn’t think should be there. In the middle of arguments, I’d drive off in a rage.”
One day in 1990, he woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. “It felt unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” he recalls. “It’s like I was in a black hole. I felt so down. I could barely move.” It lasted two weeks. Still, he refused to seek help. “I was very old school,” he says. “I thought you only saw a psychologist if you were crazy. There’s no question that male pride played a role.”
Instead, Hoyles decided to leave the firm he founded and move to Ottawa. He worked in government for a few years, until, in 1996, he saw a job posting in the newspaper: the Canadian Bar Association was looking for a CEO. “I was still a member, so I applied,” he says. “They took a gamble on me. I got the job.”
He never quite recovered, though, or even identified what made him so miserable. His short temper never faded. He continued to work himself into the ground. At the helm of the CBA, he logged 60 hours a week. This went on for another decade.
His mental illness hit a terrifying climax one morning in 2008. “I was driving from the office to go play golf,” he recalls, “when a person cut me off on the highway. I got so mad, so angry, that I started to chase him.” Hoyles pressed his foot down on the gas pedal; his speed quickly reached 155 kilometres an hour. “I was driving like an absolute maniac.”
Both cars went through a speed trap. When Hoyles got pulled over, he started to weep. His body convulsed. “The police officer came over and said, ‘I’m only going to fine you for being 29 klicks over, but you need to get some help.’”
The next day, Hoyles saw his family doctor, who sent him to a psychologist. Hoyles finally learned he had depression. It took 18 months of therapy, while he kept working full-time, until he had the condition under control.
Hoyles also discovered, for the first time, what lay at the root of his depression. “I know it sounds crazy, but I believed that I was a fraud,” he says. “I had imposter syndrome. That’s why I worked so hard. I was trying to prove myself, prove that my accomplishments weren’t a fluke. It took a year to reach that conclusion. And it was hard. I would bawl my eyes out.”
Patrick Krill believes that imposter syndrome is a pandemic in the legal profession. “I think that is an enormous piece of the mental-health puzzle,” he says. “There is this notion that lawyers are supposed to be perfect. This makes it hard for them to admit they’re struggling.”
In 2016, Hoyles left the CBA and began to work part-time as a business consultant. And in November 2017, he became the executive director of the Community Information Centre of Ottawa, which helps connect people to social and government services in their community.
He now spends every weekend at a small cottage he bought in the Gatineau Hills. “I always dreamed of having a place near a lake,” he says. “I can go for a paddle in the canoe. I can sit on the dock and watch the sunset. I can be at peace.”
His marriage, meanwhile, is strong. “My wife hung in there with me,” says Hoyles. “I think we are more in love than we’ve ever been.”
Frankie Wood sees people at their worst. Throughout her 20 years as a family lawyer, she has seen how far people are willing to go in order to cause their former spouse pain. “At worst, I’ve seen people make false criminal allegations against their former partner, hoping to rob them of all custody rights,” says the 50-year-old, one of the founding partners of Wood Gold LLP, a small family-law firm in Brampton, Ont. “They might refuse to let their ex see their children over the holidays. And sometimes it’s my client whose animosity overshadows their ability to see what would most benefit their own child.”
When Wood started her career, she could stomach any case. But once she had children — a daughter in 2007, and a son two years later — that changed. “The strangest thing started to happen,” she recalls. “When something traumatic happens in a case, especially when it involves a child, it’s as if what’s happening to my client is happening to me.”
In other words, she literally feels like she’s in a toxic dispute with her husband, on the verge of losing her children. “On the most bitter custody battles, I lose sleep. I’ll have a hard time concentrating.”
In such moments, Wood is suffering from something called vicarious trauma. The definition is simple enough: when we observe other people go through something truly awful, we may take on some of their emotional turmoil. Research on this phenomenon is scant, but it’s common among both social workers and first responders. “This is an under-reported mental-health issue,” says Krill, “but it’s a major hazard in the legal profession. This is a growing concern.”
To cope, Wood talks about her feelings with colleagues. She also lunches, on a monthly basis, with a tight-knit group of family lawyers in Brampton. When they’re together, they always make time to discuss their emotions. “You need a support group,” says Wood. “It’s essential. If you keep things bottled up, it is so, so dangerous.”
Wood also passes the most distressing files off to other lawyers. “If my work is destroying my sleep or my ability to be present with my kids or my husband, then it’s time to hand it off. It’s just not worth it.”
Family lawyers are, of course, not the only ones who deal with vicarious trauma. Counsel at the Barbra Schlifer Clinic, which represents survivors of sexual violence, are another at-risk group. “We’re alert and alive to the issue,” says Deepa Mattoo, the clinic’s legal director. “We have annual vicarious-trauma training. In our benefits package, people have personal days, so they don’t have to use up their vacation to have extra time with family.”
The criminal-justice system is also flooded with trauma. In recent years, jurors from several gruesome murder trials have spoken up about how the evidence ravaged their minds. At the outset of 2017, in response to these complaints, the Ontario government agreed to provide free counselling to jurors.
If jurors are suffering, then so are prosecutors and defence counsel. More than two decades ago, two defence lawyers, Tony Bryant and John Rosen, represented serial-killer Paul Bernardo. Over the course of the trial, they reviewed all of the evidence: photographs and videos of violent assault. “I don’t think there’s any question that I personally struggled after the Bernardo case,” says Bryant. “Some of the images you simply can’t get out of your mind — and they can be triggered by any number of things.”
Bryant has, like Wood, always dealt with trauma the same way. “Most defence lawyers,” he says, “rely on talking to other people in the business to get things off our chest.” Time off also helps. “It’s just to cope with the crap in our brains.”
In the research from three decades ago, older lawyers reported the most instances of mental illness. When seen through the prism of role conflict, this made intuitive sense: as lawyers aged, they took on more responsibilities — parenthood, partnership, ageing parents — and yet worked the same number of hours, causing mental anguish.
“But this has flipped,” says Krill. In his 2016 study, the youngest lawyers are the sickest. That, in turn, could explain why the overall mental-health numbers are now so high. But it raises the following question: why are young lawyers suffering so much?
For starters, the mental health of young people currently sits at an all-time low. In just the past three years, the rate of depression among Canadian university students has doubled. So, too, has the number of suicide attempts.
Most experts explain this crisis by pointing to technology and social media. “Human contact has taken on a different form,” says Bonnie Kirsh, a professor of occupational therapy at the University of Toronto, whose research focuses on workplace mental health. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat — all of these platforms, she explains, are isolating: young people often use them as a substitute for in-person human contact. Indeed, a Pew Research Centre study shows that only 25 percent of teenagers hang out in person, outside of school, with friends every day. This, argues Kirsh, has made them feel more alone.
Social media, which encourages users to post images and stories that show them in the best light, also perpetuates the myth that your friends are always happy. “This can amplify feelings of sadness or anxiety,” says Kirsh. “I think this is a serious problem.”
Elsa Ascencio has struggled with depression since she was a teenager. But regular therapy and antidepressants kept the worst symptoms at bay. When she started law school, four years ago at the University of Ottawa, she got off to a great start. “I was like Lisa Simpson,” recalls the 26-year-old. “I always piped up in class. I got great summer jobs at legal clinics. I was on my way to a career in human rights. Everything was falling into place.”
But one month into third year, she began to feel achingly sad. “I’m naturally a bubbly person, but I stopped talking to my friends,” she says. “I cried all the time. I felt nauseous. When I went to class, I couldn’t focus. During lectures, I’d doodle all over my page, go to the bathroom to cry, then come back and doodle some more.”
What was the trigger? Ascencio felt like she was falling behind her friends. They had stable careers and long-term partners; some were buying houses. “In law school, you’re supposed to be a rock star — on your way to a great job, about to make tons of money and, on top of that, be in a relationship. That’s the image.”
But that wasn’t her. And without a doubt, she says, the picture-perfect social media profiles of her peers intensified this sadness.
Ascencio took a two-week break from school and went home to Toronto. With the help of several therapy sessions and an adjustment to her medication regime, she recovered. And, later that school year, she landed an articling job at Jewitt McLuckie & Associates LLP, a labour and human-rights firm in Ottawa. She was back on track.
One month into her articling term, however, she failed the bar exam. It was crushing: she was supposed to be brilliant. “What made it even worse,” she recalls, “was going on social media and seeing my friends post, ‘I passed! I passed!’ It was a deeply isolating experience.” Social media had taken one of the hardest things about a legal career — feeling like you’re the only one who has any setbacks — and put it on steroids. This exacerbated her depression; she had thoughts of suicide.
Ascencio found it so difficult to concentrate at the office that she decided to disclose her mental illness to her articling principal, Randy Slepchik. “I said, ‘Randy, I’m struggling. I’m thinking of leaving and going home.’”
Slepchik took action. He eased her workload, offered words of encouragement about the bar exam and postponed her performance review until she felt better. “I think it takes real courage for someone to come forward,” says Slepchik. “It’s so important to be open about these struggles.”
That support helped Ascencio rebound. “It gave me amazing confidence,” she says. “Their support has been just amazing.”
In his two decades at the helm of the CBA, Hoyles came to believe that the big-firm business model is incompatible with good mental health. The pressure to meet obscene billable-hour targets is, in his view, what forces lawyers to work so many long, high-stress days.
“I have a proposal,” he says. “Every big firm partner should take a 10-percent pay cut and use that money to hire more young lawyers. Then, instead of asking associates to bill 2,100 hours a year, they should ask them to bill 1,500 hours.” Two things would happen. “First, associates will be happier. Second, the quality of their work will go up.”
Hoyles is not sanguine that partners will make this change without a fight. “There’s so much greed,” he says. As Hoyles sees it, young lawyers must demand a shift. “If junior lawyers band together and refuse to play the game, I think they could compel firms to put an end to this.”
While the largest law firms may not be overhauling their business models any time soon, there are some who are making a genuine effort to improve the mental health of their workforce.
As the national director of diversity and inclusion at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, it’s Laleh Moshiri’s job to make sure the firm recruits and retains a diverse workforce. Over the past decade, diversity initiatives on Bay Street have centred on gender and race. But two years ago, Moshiri took on another responsibility: to spearhead the development of the firm’s comprehensive mental-health strategy.
“We’ve put in place a range of initiatives,” she says. For instance, Moshiri sends out monthly bulletins that feature mental health statistics and wellness tips. And she schedules registered mental-health professionals — psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors — to offer sessions at the office once a month. Lawyers, clerks and assistants can meet with them at the firm’s expense. “We’re working really hard,” she says, “to get the conversation started.”
In her first year as a litigator, Vijaykumar has found that the adversarial culture of the practice area can inflame her anxiety. “During settlement negotiations,” she says, “I’ve had opposing counsel, who are always more senior, laugh at me and tell me I’m ridiculous. One counsel, once we got on the phone, said, ‘Who even are you? Are you the assistant?’”
Such comments cut deep. “I know they’re just performing, trying to project an image of strength, and that laughing at me is their way of doing that,” she says. “But they’re also voicing out loud what I hear in my head — that I’m worthless, stupid, not deserving of anything.”
This sort of behaviour is not a necessary evil of litigation. It’s bullying. “We’re only just starting to study it, but there’s so much bullying in the workplace,” says Kirsh. “It usually takes the form of the powerful abusing the powerless.”
That often translates to the old abusing the young, but Vijaykumar believes she’s also a target because she is a South Asian woman. “Sexism and racism are at play,” she says. This is not up for debate. In a 2014 survey of 1,000 second-year lawyers across Canada, conducted by Ronit Dinovitzer at the University of Toronto, 83 percent of white lawyers said they were satisfied with their decision to become a lawyer. That number fell to 71 percent when the respondents were South Asian, 50 percent when they were Asian and 33 percent when they were black. “When you’re from a marginalized background,” says Vijaykumar, “it’s very difficult to survive in the legal profession.”
What all of this leads to is a persistent feeling of failure. “I definitely suffer from imposter syndrome,” says Vijaykumar, echoing the same condition that afflicted Hoyles. “It can feel like everyone is perfect except me.”
Contrast that insecurity with how Maureen Whelton, the managing partner of Vijaykumar’s firm, describes Vijaykumar’s job performance. “She’s smart, capable and creative,” she says. “She’s also very, very good on her feet. She’s persuasive and articulate. She’s a first-rate associate in every way.”
So is Whelton surprised to hear that Vijaykumar worries she’s an imposter — a shoddy lawyer who has somehow passed herself off as a good one? “Not at all,” says Whelton. “This problem isn’t limited to junior counsel. I think all counsel feel this way at some point.” She adds, “In fact, I sometimes feel like one.”
We want to keep the conversation on mental health going. Join us in Toronto at Borden Ladner Gervais on March 26 as we sit down with a panel of lawyers from this story. This will be an exclusive opportunity to hear their personal stories of resilience and to discuss what we can actually do to make things better – for lawyers who struggle and for the profession as a whole.