Lawyers struggling with mental health issues are facing fatigue and burnout.
This is the third story in a series of five articles looking at mental health concerns in B.C.’s court system and the impacts they are having.
When Glacier Media asked the executive director of B.C.’s Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) if mental health issues were causing problems for lawyers supporting their clients, his answer was concise.
Derek LaCroix, a former criminal lawyer, said he’s been seeing a lot of criminal lawyers and more and more Crown prosecutors.
Criminal lawyers, he said, will show up to the LAP “when they’re almost broken down.”
“When they do come in,” he said, “they’re a couple years too late. I’m getting them when they’re in trouble. It has affected their work.”
“Access to justice is more than about having a warm body fighting for you,” he said. “Are you getting real representation when your lawyer is tired?”
The issue is one that has drawn the attention of researchers with some alarming findings.
In 2022, the Canadian Bar Association, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and Sherbrooke University released a report after two years’ work involving 7,817 participants, 770 of whom were from B.C.
Nationally, what researchers found was 59.4 per cent of lawyers (55 per cent in B.C.) were experiencing psychological distress and, of that, 57.5 per cent had high or very high levels of distress.
When it comes to the impacts of lawyers operating in the criminal courts, the report found burnout — fatigue or exhaustion — in those lawyers running at 62.7 per cent compared to 55.8 per cent for the profession generally. And, high or severe levels of burnout are happening in one-fifth of lawyers.
“This stress occurs when people feel that the constraints they are facing exceed the resources available to them, thus compromising their wellness,” the report said.
“Overall, the proportion of psychological distress observed among legal professionals is higher than in the working population in Canada,” research found.
The study contained anecdotal comments from many lawyers bemoaning the fracturing of a profession they love by stress and burnout.
And, for some lawyers, compassion fatigue arising from helping clients can also be a concern. It can add to burnout and create secondary traumatic stress found in 26.8 per cent of lawyers.
“The profession is broken,” one lawyer said. “The profession is all talk: firms do not actually care about the mental health of its employees. My heart is also broken that I can’t practice in the field I actually enjoy, because the legal profession demands so much of its lawyers and it is mentally and physically destroying me.”
And, said one criminal lawyer, “I may develop (post-traumatic stress disorder). I don’t currently have any symptoms of this condition. I am concerned that not enough is done for younger lawyers, who often work alone, to ensure there is adequate support for the mental trauma our jobs produce.”
Another said once their mental health challenges became known, their law society treated them as “criminally incompetent,” and they had to go outside the profession to get help.
Glacier Media has reported in the past that, while changes have been made, young lawyers felt stigmatized when answering questions about mental health issues on Law Society of BC articling forms. One said he was discriminated against in the loss of an articling position for his honesty — something done at the suggestions of a society board member and a law professor.
One lost position was at the firm of a now retired society past president.
What does it all mean?
LaCroix is again blunt in explaining the impact on clients and the courts.
“They would still be able to prep and do a trial when they can barely function,” he said.
He said lawyers’ practices, recordkeeping, office upkeep and partnerships as well as client relationships and representation suffer as they become less alert in a profession that demands perfection.
And, he said, by the time lawyers reach the LAP, they’re already on the burnout scale.
“The way their life is structured is not good,” he said. “And part of that has to do with the structure of the system.”
So does lawyers’ mental health hurt the functioning of the justice system?
“Of course it does. How can it not?” LaCroix said. “You get patted on the head for working really hard.”
Lawyers don’t turn off and don’t take holidays, he said.
“There’s a culture that promotes that,” he said. “At some point, people are doing a lot of stuff but is it good work?”
He believes there is far more to access to justice than having a lawyer or winning a case.
“There’s caring about the case, caring about the client and caring about the justice system,” he said.
And, he added, “I think there’s been a loss of faith. That’s bad from the point of view of the functioning of the justice system.”
Further, when it comes to criminal lawyers where clients themselves may be dealing with mental health problems, it can be a case of passionate people caring for clients when they themselves are suffering.
“You lose sight of taking care of yourself then you’re fatigued and it’s harder to focus,” he said. “At every stage, it’s harder to do.”
LaCroix believes the profession needs to do more than just preach about wellness in order to have mentally fit lawyers representing clients. Wellness talk is a Band-Aid, he said. The issue, he said, is well-being.
“The practice of law is much hard than it was 40 years ago,” he said.
It is important to remember that among lawyers working in courtrooms are the judges.
The stresses of caseloads, the impacts of brutal and horrific crimes and the responsibility of ensuring people’s rights are upheld cause problems for them as they would any other person dealing with such similar concerns.
Now-retired Chief Justice of B.C. Robert Bauman said in an interview with Glacier Media that it’s imperative to make sure judges get the supports they need in handling such stresses.
“We have a judicial counselling service that’s national,” Bauman said. “Individual courts would make available psychiatric counselling services as necessary.”
It’s something needed for “particularly traumatic trials,” he said.
Bauman cited the Paul Bernardo case where Bernardo and wife Karla Homolka sexually tortured and killed two young girls in Ontario.
“Even the judge in that case, who was one of the most experienced jurists of material … he’s talked about the trauma of that on him.”
“Has it increased?” Bauman asked. “I don’t know. I’m not qualified to say. However, people are more willing to talk about it now. That makes a difference.”
B.C. Provincial Court Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie told Glacier Media that the court offers professional development and ongoing education throughout a judge’s career.
“The court’s education committee provides twice-yearly programs that are relevant and responsive to changes in law and circumstances affecting judicial practice,” Gillespie said.
“It invites expert presenters from across Canada or beyond to share their knowledge and experiences with judges. Every program includes a session aimed at wellness,” she added.