AW FIRMS NEED to protect their most valuable
assets — their staff. And, as the International Bar
Association conference in Vancouver heard this
month, that involves recognizing and dealing with
mental health issues when they arise.
It’s an area where Canadian firms and law societies are
active in ensuring highly trained staff are not lost due to
stress and resulting concerns such as performance issues,
erratic behaviour, substance abuse and possibly suicide.
“If you address the problem and you address it poorly,
one of your biggest performers may leave,” said Montreal-
based Richard Cherney of Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg
“You can’t ignore the problem as eventually the person
will destroy themselves or destroy the firm or cause it sig-
And, said Florida-based psychologist Lisa Walker John-
son, it’s not just strictly work-related issues that can cause
“Simple things like lack of a partnership agreement or ill-
defined expectations can cause stress,” she said.
She said sustained treatment results can only come about
if a lawyer or partner works in concert with the firm.
“It’s important there be…a willingness on both parties,”
Robert Sharpe is a U.K.-based psychologist who’s worked
internationally with many professionals, including lawyers.
He said problems can be turned around if they are spotted
and dealt with early. And early signs may be as simple as
underperformance or consistent lateness, he said.
But, he said, other lawyers concerned about a colleague
applying a professional reasoning processes to mental
health issues are not a solution. “There’s a big difference
between building a case against someone and trying to find
out what’s going on,” he cautioned. “If you wait to make an
inquiry because you doubt you have sufficient evidence, the
only problem you may have is when someone takes their
own life or walks into your law firm with a gun.”
Further, Sharpe added, “partners don’t have a respon-
sibility for diagnosing the problem. You can leave that to
He said the legal mind can be stubborn, analytical, confi-
dent, ambitious, self-motivated and able to handle conflict.
But, Sharpe said, a trait many lawyers won’t admit is
“If you weren’t skeptical, suspicious, paranoid, you
wouldn’t be nearly as good for clients as you are,” he said.
“It often translates into conflict. Legal fact, actual fact,
personal moral judgment. You have to juggle all these things
in one mind.” But, warned Walker Johnson, that is where
stresses can converge and begin blockages in the legal mind.
“Lawyers very often operate on very thin reserves,” she
said. “They’re pushing to the point where they’re physically
and mentally exhausted. When you couple that with being
achievement-oriented and serving your clients, the block
starts to set in.”
At that point, she said, it becomes harder to concentrate
and evaluate options both personally and for clients. “When
performance drops…self-esteem drops,” Walker Johnson
“It all kind of converges and we begin to doubt our-
selves — the downward spiral.”
Walker Johnson said the bottom line costs for untreated
mental issues can be huge. The costs can include errors, risk
write-downs and team breakdowns. Loss can include part-
ners, leverage, clients and referrals. She said dealing with
such issues as business ones can make them easier to
“You’re going to have to deal with it sooner or later,” she
said. “The longer you wait, the more it costs…as the behav-
By Jeremy Hainsworth
By the numbers
Male lawyers are two to six
times as likely to commit suicide
than members of the general
public, according to a 1992 report
by the National Institute of
Occupational Safety and Health.
In a study of more than 100
occupations, lawyers had the
highest rate of depression,
according to the 1990 study
Occupations and the Prevalence
of Major Depressive Disorder by
W. W. Eaton, J.C. Anthony, W.
Mandel and R. Garrison.
A 1990 Johns Hopkins
University study found that of 28
professions studied, lawyers were
most likely to suffer depression and
were 3. 6 times more likely than
average to do so.
A 1996 study by psychologists
discovered that 23. 4 per cent of
attorneys in the State of
Washington reported significantly
high levels of depression.
A 1991 survey by the North
Carolina Bar Association found 26
per cent of respondents exhibited
clinical depression symptoms and
12 per cent said they contemplated
suicide once a month.
Fifteen to 18 per cent of
lawyers meet the criteria for
alcohol abuse or dependency,
according to Andrew V. Hansen’s
1987 study Alcoholism in the
The rate of alcoholism among
lawyers is estimated at twice that
of the general public,according to
Michael J. Sweeney in Lawyers
are at greater risk — It’s an
impairment to take seriously from
the American Bar Association’s
Bar Leader magazine.
See Mental health Page 24