Despite changes, lawyers’ mental health crisis is getting worse, says Gowling WLG’s Michael Herman

Gowlings held four 90-minute mental health webinars during the COVID-19 pandemic, and expanded insurance coverage for different types of therapy

Despite changes, lawyers’ mental health crisis is getting worse, says Gowling WLG’s Michael Herman
Michael Herman

While firms have increased focus on improving mental health, lawyers and other legal professionals continue to experience a worsening mental health crisis, says Michael Herman, a partner of and general counsel to Gowling WLG in Toronto.

The firm, he said, has held four 90-minute mental health webinars during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has worked to improve insurance coverage for different types of therapy. It is particularly important at the moment, he said, as the economic downturn is forcing businesses like law firms to make difficult decisions that could impact mental health.

“The statistics for lawyers are dramatically higher than for the general population — not just for depression, but for anxiety for substance misuse and for other mental health issues,” said Herman in a virtual event, hosted by the Made of Millions Foundation on Friday. “The legal profession, in some ways, one could describe it as being in crisis. These percentages are bad and they're getting worse.” 

Many firms, he said, are recognizing the benefits of having a healthy workforce and realizing that honouring mental health needs is the right thing to do. Gowlings has gone a step further, training a large group of people in mental health first aid to ensure that no one who comes forward with mental health needs will be negatively judged. 

“We worry about how people are going to see us. We worry about our jobs; we worry about how we're going to be perceived. So, it can be scary,” he said.

Herman said part of the issue is the way that the legal field tends to favour pessimism and train people to be skeptics. 

“Throughout my whole life, in a sense, I missed the signs. And I think there's probably a variety of reasons for it. I think I was brought up in an environment where I was just the way I was. I was this ‘sensitive child’ and there was really nothing you could do about it,” he said. “In law school, the message was: You push through, just push through, no matter what the cost.” 

Law can be punishing in combination with depression, he said, because a “spiral” of negative thoughts left him feeling like he had no energy and nothing to offer. Yet, at work, he was expected to convey strength, and success was traditionally tied to offering more and more work and billable hours.

“Unlike virtually every other profession, where optimists are more likely to succeed than pessimists, law is the one profession where pessimists are more likely to succeed,” he said. “We're always looking for problems. And if you're always looking for problems and finding problems, that's going to take a bit of a toll over time on just about anybody.” Some of the discouraging aspects of law begin as early as school, when top-tier students are faced with the reality that most of them will no longer hold onto their “top of class” identity among their high-achieving law school peers.

“The nature of the legal profession is that it is highly competitive —not that much different from a number of other professions. But it's highly adversarial,” he said, referencing not only litigation but negotiations in the corporate world. “You tend to be living in this bubble of adversarial behavior.” 

Recent changes to the legal profession have added demands on people’s mental health, he added, particularly technology.

“It used to be, for the most part, lawyers were trusted advisors to their clients, and they had client loyalty,” he said. “We've seen a very significant shift away from that sort of relationship to one where clients are wanting their lawyers to do more for less, and are willing to change lawyers on a regular basis. And so, there's this constant feeling that you need to do more — to be able to maintain and sustain those client relationships. . . .  There's now an expectation that there will be immediate feedback. That you're available 24-seven, and that you will respond right away. There’s really no time to think.” 

Herman said that it’s not uncommon for lawyers to be “driven to succeed at all costs, even at the cost of their own health and well-being.”

“The GP that I have, who is a great doctor, he's a great guy. He would raise questions about stress,” he said. “Particularly those of us in the legal profession, we live with a certain amount of stress throughout our careers and, and life is just filled with stress. The problem for me was that it wasn't sinking in. It didn't resonate, it didn't connect, it didn't get me to start thinking maybe there's something else going on here.”  

In his case, Herman said that he never really faulted others for their mental health woes, but he didn’t extend that courtesy to himself.

“I realize I'm a human and every human makes mistakes. By definition, we make mistakes. But I couldn't tolerate the mistakes that I made. . . . While I may not have been stigmatizing others, I was when it came to me buying into stigma, hook, line and sinker. Self-stigma led to shame,” he said. “Until I was able to start to challenge and confront and look at the self-stigma, I really couldn't take the steps that I needed to take to seek the support that I needed, or to take the self-care because I didn't feel I was worth it. I felt like I had to solve these problems myself.” 

Herman found himself dealing with cold after cold, a constant onslaught of stomach pains, and would take temporary absences to deal with the issues. Yet, he said, it took time to realize that those symptoms were accompanied by feelings of depression: a feeling of wanting to hide under the covers, having no energy for anything except endless hours of TV, feeling numb, and feeling that there was no escape.

Eventually, he took indefinite leave for close to a year. 

“The firm support — I can't overstate how important it was, when I decided to go on indefinite leave, and told the firm why,” he said. “The firm said to me, ‘We want you back when you are ready to come back.’” 

There were three ways the firm supported him during that time, he said: By keeping up connectivity and checking in on him; by giving him flexibility to work from home a few hours at a time until he built up to a full work week; and by modifying his working plan to align with psychiatry, insurance and other providers. 

“When one is home alone, feeling depressed . . .  you can just imagine how isolating it becomes, so having that connectivity [felt] like people were interested in me and I still belong to the workplace community, really,” he said. “When one is focused entirely on one's recovery, the last thing one needs is to be having to deal with disagreements between the members of the team, so to speak, that are participating in that recovery process: my psychiatrist, the insurance companies and the firm. It was really important that they were aligned, and that they understood the plan was just a plan. There would need to be modifications made to the plan as things played out.”

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