TORONTO – New Canadian research suggests lawyers are more likely to experience mental health struggles the more successful they are in their field.
The study from the University of Toronto, slated for publication in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, compares two national surveys of thousands of lawyers in both Canada and the United States.
In both countries, researchers found a strong correlation between signs of depression and traditional markers of career success.
Lawyers holding down jobs at large firms in the private sector, widely considered to be the most prestigious roles, were most likely to experience depressive symptoms.
Researchers say the findings buck trends found in the general population, where career success is typically equated with fewer mental health risks.
Lawyers say professional bodies have recently begun acknowledging mental health concerns, but say the research findings highlight the need to keep pushing for change within the industry.
A conference organized by the Law Society of Upper Canada and set to take place in Toronto and Ottawa this week is slated to tackle mental health as a primary discussion topic.
Study co-author Jonathan Koltai said the findings were notable for their consistency across both American and Canadian research subjects.
American data surveyed lawyers who were called to the bar in 2000, while the Canadian lawyers in the survey began their careers about a decade later.
Regardless of the fact that both groups were at different stages along their professional path, Koltai said the same patterns emerged. The larger the firm and the more lucrative the role, the more likely a lawyer was to experience depressive symptoms.
“In the population we know … that groups that are better off in terms of income are also better off in terms of mental health. But if you zoom in to this specific subgroup of lawyers, that pattern is reversed,” Koltai said in a phone interview. “People working in environments with more income on average actually tend to experience more depressive symptoms, and that’s because of their higher levels of stress exposure.”
Koltai said depressive symptoms were less evident among lawyers working in public sector roles, which typically pay less than similar positions in the private sector. One of the major drivers, he said, is the lack of work-life balance typical among those in positions that demand long working hours.
The findings came as no surprise to one Ontario lawyer who said professional accomplishments nearly always came hand-in-hand with significant deterioration in his mental health.
Orlando Da Silva, former president of the Ontario Bar Association and current lawyer with the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General, recollects major episodes of depression at several career milestones.
He never told his law school classmates of his mental turmoil as he took on the editorship of a campus legal publication.
Nor, when he began articling at a prestigious law firm upon graduation, did he share the thoughts of suicide and self-harm that plagued him when he went home at night.
Those thoughts culminated in 2008 as Da Silva washed 180 sleeping pills down with two bottles of alcohol. But even as he languished in hospital, he still tried to hide the depths of his depression for fear of losing the job that he said had come to define him.
“I was so afraid the stigma of mental illness would destroy my career,” he said. “Especially as a trial lawyer where you’re supposed to be strong. Certainly strong enough to fight the battles that others can’t fight for themselves.”
Da Silva said the fatigue and overwork he accepted as part of his climb up the career ladder helped isolate him from his family, further compounding the problem.
When he became bar association president in 2014, he made the focus on mental health a personal priority, sharing his story and setting up a web resource to try to remove the taboos around the issue.
He said he’s begun to see evidence that law firms are waking up to the perils of mental health problems among their employees.
Law schools have also started to clue in, he said. Several now have counsellors on staff with lengthy waiting lists of students grappling with the unique brand of industry pressure.
Calling the change in approach “fundamental” and “refreshing,” Da Silva said he hopes to see the conversation continue.
“If it can be caught early, if professionals can be made to feel comfortable seeking treatment without fear of scorn, judgment, ridicule and loss of reputation, it won’t get that far.”