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“Across the board, we noticed that we have a moment here. The data is in. It’s undeniable. We cannot just sit here and fail to take action and let these studies go on a shelf somewhere because we know that lawyers, law students, and judges are suffering.” – Bree Buchanan, co-chair of the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing
In this episode of the Mindspace podcast, Dr. Joe focuses on well-being in the legal profession. Working in law is one of the most demanding and stressful jobs in the world: tight deadlines, long hours, a hyper-competitive culture, and the weight of supporting demanding clients. In 2016 a study showed that lawyers and law students suffer from substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and stress in far greater numbers than the general population.
Joe and Yan discuss:
- Yan’s struggle with depression, anxiety, and stress as a young lawyer
- The therapies that helped him recover
- How he maintains his mental health these days
- How the culture in law firms is slowly changing to support mental health
In the second half of the podcast, Joe speaks with Bree Buchanan, co-chair of the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing. Bree is leading a cultural transformation that will help promote mental health in the legal profession.
Joe and Bree discuss:
- The 2016 study showing that lawyers and law students disproportionately suffer from substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and stress
- How lawyers can cope with these problems
- Her personal struggles with substance abuse, anxiety, and depression
- How her work in this space aligns with her life purpose
If you would like to find out more about Bree and the work she is doing, check out the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing’s site here.
Here are some highlights of the conversation with Yan:
3:16 Can you tell us what you do? And how did you into this line of work?
3:44 You’re a champion of mental health at Osler. How did your interest in lawyers’ well-being develop for you?
Well-being, mental health, balance is something that is near and dear to me simply because, like many, when I started out in private practice, I struggled with it. A lot of hours, a lot of pressure. You may have been someone, at least me, who may have excelled in school, but then you’re in a high performing, high achieving work environment with everyone who finished first, second, third in their class, and with leading minds in their respective fields who excel at speeds and rhythms and who juggle schedules and who are satisfying demands both external and internal, both with family.
That can be both motivating and awe-inspiring and you want to emulate that and you want to be like them. But can, at times, be quite overwhelming. Anyone who comes in even keeled in terms of their mood will see and recognize that.
I’m programmed a little bit differently, having done quite a bit of self-awareness and soul searching over my time. I’m someone who traditionally, whether I was programmed by this or whether this was my environment or I was born this way, but I do know I’m someone who has traditionally suffered from irrational guilt and excessive anxiety.
So facing a challenge as daunting as private practice and the demands that come with it, my reaction would be to feel a little bit of anxiety and the levels can depend.
It’s only later on in life–I’m approaching 40–that you realize that’s just how I react. It doesn’t mean that I’m scared of the challenge or I’m not willing to deal with. But when you’re in your early twenties and all you want to do to please, satisfy, and accomplish, both for yourself and for those you are working for, it’s hard to kind of filter it through and stay focused.
Through the last 15 years of my practice, yes, you become a little bit more seasoned and you know what to expect when something huge comes in, you react differently. But being more aware of triggers of why you feel what you feel and what you can do to make yourself feel better is something that over the course of my career, I’ve become a lot more aware of. I’ve become a lot more proactive in responding to those triggers that would either be negative in terms of my reaction to big work projects, tough deadlines, a testy client.
I just don’t want people to go through the same stressors that I went through because I now have the benefit of the information and benefit of hindsight and perspective that maybe someone who has just finished school doesn’t necessarily have.
7:30 Do you feel comfortable talking about what you actually went through?
9:33 How did you get back on track?
Part of it was the demands of the profession and part of it is my programming. And that’s not something that you know how you’ll going to react until you’re faced with it.
And in going to therapy weekly and having proper inward reflection and discussions about why I react, how I react, why I feel what I feel, what are triggers to certain of my feelings, that helped me become a lot more aware. Then with the therapist you get tools. I’m sure this is something that you assist your clients with as well is how to cope.
The awareness lessens the blow.
What I really appreciated about therapy was the objectivity of it and the perspective. Going into it, I thought, ‘Well, this person is not going to care about me. So how are they going to be able to give me the proper advice?’ But it was quite the opposite. I think they are very invested and coming at it from a place without bias.
I was able to see things a lot clearer when it came my personal relationships, my family, and, quite frankly, my job and how to attack those challenges and how to deal with different people within my workplace and how to deal with my work tasks.
14:14 For many people there is this fear that these kinds of feelings are irreversible. ‘I’ll never be able to handle the emotional demands of my job.’ Yet you came out the other side and are now an award winning lawyer.
17:41 I do appreciate the nuance. Anxiety or depression is not a moment that you triumph over and that you never have to think about again. We need to maintain a certain amount of mental fitness.
So it is possible to be in that dark place and then come out of it. Your story is very inspiring.
20:09 You mentioned that it is not always obvious for lawyers to be vulnerable. It is part of the culture of the profession to not come forward.
Can you tell us about the culture and why it is a part of the culture? And what do you think we can do about it?
We have to talk about this stuff more. It has to become more of a way of being as much as, ‘Did you get this done on time?’ Because no one is going to get it done on time if they’re not in the proper state to do it.
25:09 I have a lot of respect for the leadership you’re taking in this space. How can people keep in touch with you?
* * *
Here are some highlights of the conversation with Bree:
26:35 Tell us what you do.
28:00 What exactly is the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing?
We’re a rogue band of individuals who really care passionately about lawyer wellbeing.
Helping lawyers who are already experiencing depression, anxiety, substance use disorders and helping them overcome and deal with them and go into recovery for those impairments. And it’s also looking to support lawyers who are really not thriving in their profession and just have a sort of general malaise in their life and are not happy. We have something to offer everybody in the profession.
Those of us who work on this on a national level came together a couple of years ago, commandeered an empty conference room at the American Bar Association because we were all already there wearing the chair of this or the commissioner of that. We were already in one location.
And the reason we got together on that day in August of 2016 is two big reports had just been published that made it so clear and undeniable that the state of lawyer well-being was dire. Prior to this we didn’t really have good studies or statistics. We certainly had anecdotal evidence of what had gone on.[…] One study showed incredibly rates of alcohol abuse, substance abuse, high, high rates of depression and anxiety disproportionate to the general population.
The same year a study was done and published of law students across the United States. […] What we saw very clearly was that these issues are starting in law school.
If you compare these rates of impairments in law students with people in the general population, you can start to see that there’s something about the experience of entering into the legal profession that has almost a pathologising effect. Anxiety goes up, substance abuse goes up, depression goes up. One of the most of concerning things out of these two studies that we saw that really turned things on its head is that the younger the lawyer, the greater the rate of impairment, regardless of what type it was. We used to think that the people who did the work the longest would have the higher rate of problems.
All of those of us who are coming from different parts of the law, the lawyer assistance programs, the people who regulate the profession, the bar counsel, the disciplinary folks. Across the board, we noticed that we have a moment here. We have an opportunity because the data is in. It’s undeniable. We cannot just sit here and fail to take action and let these studies go on a shelf somewhere because we know that lawyers, law students, and judges are suffering.
How does that impact society in general? When you have people attending to the judicial system and our system of laws and our access to justice who are not doing well in their work, it affects all members of society.
We decided that we were going to use this opportunity to nothing short of create a movement to change the legal culture and how it takes care of its own, how it treats the lawyers and law students who come into this profession. To institute a culture change and a real shift in how that work is done. We knew would not be easy.
So the first thing that we did is started bringing in the other leaders of their profession, other stakeholders who have an interest in this and bring them to the table. So we started having conference calls every couple of weeks and broke into work groups. And started looking at each of the stakeholders within the profession. What do they need to do to bring about a culture change within their area?
And we all got together to find out, what are some recommendations for the entire legal profession and recommendations for each stakeholder–judges, legal educators, law schools, the people who regulate and manage the profession, the legal employers?
At this point in time, it really is a movement.
36:35 Why do you think this work has been so well received?
39:53 You mention that the doors are being opened. Are there any other signs that you’re having an impact?
41:40 What impression did you get from Yan Besner’s story?
It sounds par for the course for what lawyers are experiencing.
There is an uncertainty. It’s part of the profession. High stress is part of the profession. That’s never going to change. High stakes. We’re dealing with people with the most urgent issues, sometimes of their entire life that has landed in our laps and we’re being look to to fix that. That’s not going to change about the law profession. […]
How do we build up the lawyers so that they can endure this inevitable chronic stress, uncertainty, and difficulties that are part of the profession?
It’s around resilience. Thinking of it through that lens. How do we improve the resilience of lawyers to be able to deal with the inherent adversities and setbacks of practice and life? Giving them tools to be able to do this like meditation, mindfulness is an automatic go to out of my toolkit for my personal life, but also something that I try to teach lawyers as well. There are practices around gratitude, positivity, a variety of skill sets that can lift one up to be able to better endure what is thrown at us on a daily basis.
45:08 Yan spoke about when he was younger he was reluctant to go to talk to somebody about what he’s going through. That was an important finding in one of the 2016 studies that young lawyers don’t make themselves vulnerable in that way. I was wondering if you heard of that kind of story as well.
49:53 I’m curious to hear how lawyers of the legal profession respond when you expose yourself like that.
51:56 Are there still people who think that you’re just weak and it’s not necessarily mental illness?
I believe that there are. And people engage in defence mechanisms. Play old tapes and are not comfortable with that self revelatory experience and don’t think there’s a place in a CLE program. And I’ve gotten beyond that.
I know that when I am saying my story that there are people who are going to be uncomfortable. And I’m okay with that. I get up there knowing that I’m not going to please everybody in the room. But my mission is that if I can get up there and reduce the suffering of someone in the room and maybe even save a life down the road somewhere, my discomfort and the passing discomfort of someone in the room because they had to listen to my story, is well worth it.
53:26 If you’re up for it, how did you get into your difficulties with substances and how did you get yourself out?
I’ll give the short version because we don’t have all that much time [laughs].
To sum all of it up, I had a very uncomfortable and painful childhood. And I, like so many people do when they experience that, found pretty quickly that substances medicated that pain and discomfort. So in high school, it was alcohol. And undergraduate, it was marijuana. I went to law school, and I said, ‘I better leave aside the illegal drugs.’ So I turned to what is so sanctioned in law schools and the legal profession which is alcohol in copious amounts.
I had an anxiety disorder by the time I finished my first year of law school. The go to to deal with that was to drink, and drink a lot.
Fast forward through my profession, I got to do a lot of really cool things. I got to work and represent victims of domestic violence and really threw myself into some tough, tough areas of the law that brought up stuff for myself. I didn’t take care of myself in the best ways. And I continued with that quick easy fix, go-to of alcohol. They say it works, until it doesn’t.
And a lot of times it made me feel better. But it is insidious and over time, you pour enough alcohol onto somebody who is genetically predisposed because of family history to develop an alcohol use disorder, that starts to change the brain, the actual brain chemistry. That’s what happened with me. It goes from something you choose to something you don’t really have a choice over. It took me a long time to get there, but I definitely got to that point. Through all of that, I’m self-medicating anxiety, I’m self-medicating depression and covering all of that up.
And at one point, in my 40’s, it all started–it was like a game of Jenga–it all just came crumbling down. I lost my marriage. I lost my job. And boy, when a lawyer loses their job, it really gets their attention. It’s terrible, but it’s the truth.
At that juncture, which was my low point. Some other people need to get to the point where they also lose their house. Losing a marriage and losing my job was my bottom. And then I started looking for a way to find my way out. I did that through getting into really regular therapy, getting on also the right medication, getting into a mutual support group that supported my recovery, and also getting into a community of meditators. That really helped save my life as much as anything else, developing a meditation practice. So I could get real with myself and stabilize my mind.
I spent some time out of work, putting myself back together again. Then I was truly blessed to get a job here at the Lawyers Assistance Program. So for the past 8 years I live and breathe recovery. It’s an amazingly blessed life and one I could never have imagined with those dark days in 2009 and 2010.
57:36 Thank you for sharing.
Could you tell us about some of the specific changes that you’re trying to create on the ground for the profession?
1:01:40 Is there anything else you want to speak about?