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Mental health challenges in the legal profession are often ignored, stigmatized, and untreated. This not only leads to poorer quality of life for lawyers and their families, it is a contributing cause of many malpractice claims. This is why, for over a decade, LAWPRO and the Law Society of Ontario have co-funded wellness and mental health plans for Ontario lawyers. Since 2013, wellness and mental health resources have been available to Ontario lawyers at no cost through the Members Assistance Plan (MAP), operated by Homewood Health, an independent program provider.

The MAP, which was recognized with the 2018 Corporate Award of Excellence by the Employee Assistance Society of North America, provides a variety of mental health services, including:

  • Confidential short-term and crisis counselling, available in-person, online, or over the phone from experienced therapists, which address issues such as work and non-work related stress, anxiety, depression, and addiction;
  • Peer-to-peer support designed specifically for Ontario lawyers, which connects members with a peer who has experienced similar issues in their own lives; and
  • Coaching and learning resources on subjects such as childcare, parenting, elder and family care, financial and legal issues, nutrition, and smoking cessation.

All communications between lawyers and the MAP are completely confidential, and the only information provided to the Law Society or LAWPRO by MAP administrators are aggregated and anonymized statistics.

These resources and additional information about the MAP can be accessed online through myassistplan.com

Taking mental health seriously: What we can do

In any given year, one in five Canadians will struggle with mental illnesses such as depression, severe anxiety, or stress disorders. This is even more common among lawyers. According to a recent study conducted at the University of Toronto, not only are lawyers in Canada more likely to suffer from mental illness than the public at large, but lawyers with higher paying and higher status jobs are more likely to self-report depression and poor health than lawyers with lower-status positions.

The health consequences of poor mental health are wide-ranging and often serious. But the consequences to a lawyer’s legal practice and their colleagues’ practices can also be severe. Poor mental health has been linked to an inability to meet deadlines, respond to client communications, and complete important tasks. If unaddressed, lawyers and their colleagues can suddenly find themselves facing a large cluster of malpractice claims stemming from breakdowns in a lawyer’s mental health.

Thankfully, there are things that every lawyer can do to promote mental health within themselves and their coworkers and prevent potential malpractice claims:

1: Encourage positive communication about mental health and warning signs

Lawyers and support staff can be trained to look for signs of temporary or chronic physical or mental health problems. An assistant may be best situated to know if certain files are being left to linger or a lawyer is not responding to calls or important correspondence. But these warning signs may be left unaddressed if the staff member feels that bringing these concerns to others will make the problem worse or be seen as an attack on the struggling lawyer. Building a positive culture that responds to stress and mental health problems without judgment can prevent dangerous silence as claims pile up unbeknownst to colleagues.

2: Implement a claims notification policy

In both smaller and larger firms, management can ensure that it is notified whenever a claim is made against an associate or a potential claim is discovered. Inquiries can be made at that time as to whether this claim is symptomatic of larger problems, such as excessive workload or mental health issues, and steps can then be taken to assist the lawyer.

3: Promote mental health resources for lawyers

Building a healthy workplace is a team effort. Lawyers, staff, and management can all choose to be open about the importance of mental health and encourage one another to lead healthy lifestyles. Senior lawyers and management can set an example by taking advantage of lifestyle or health benefits, such as gym memberships offered by a firm, as well as the resources available to all lawyers through the Members Assistance Plan (MAP).