Elevated Incidence of Mental Illness in the Legal Profession

Contributed by Darena Muça

Mental illness is a serious problem that impacts all members of society. Mental illness or addiction issues will affect approximately one out of five Canadians in their lifetime, according to the Center of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). In 2004, the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology issued an Interim Report on Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction, which revealed high rates of psychological distress (depression and anxiety) among the Canadian workforce. However, certain professions are more acutely affected by mental illness. According to a survey from 2012 by the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), 58% of lawyers, judges, and law students surveyed had experienced significant stress/burnout, 48% had experienced anxiety and 25% had suffered from depression. This article examines how excessive working hours, difficulties balancing work and life, and a high-pressure and competitive environment may contribute to high incidences of mental illness in the legal profession.

Excessive working hours

The standard number of hours worked by employees in federally regulated industries is 40 hours per week, with a maximum of 48 hours per week in some cases. However, these provisions do not apply to all employees, and certain professions such as lawyers, are excluded from these national standards. As such, as suggested in the Senate’s report, lawyers might be at a higher risk of psychological distress because of excessive working hours.

ef843a43158535.56074014d570b.jpgLawyers may be at higher risk of psychological distress due to excessive working hours. || (Source: Creative Commons // Babusjka)

Excessive working hours can, according to the American Bar Association, lead to isolation and sleep deprivation. According to Statistics Canada, from 2014 to 2018, the average actual hours worked (full and part-time employment) was 37 hours per week. In the 2012 CBA survey mentioned above, 32% of lawyers overall worked 40 to 50 hours per week while 39% worked 50 to 60 hours a week. Moreover, 38% of respondents spent significant time working over the weekends, 60% spent significant time working during the evenings past 5:00 pm and 62% remained connected in some way during their vacation.

Within the profession itself, some members tend to work even longer hours. Sixty percent of respondents in the CBA survey who were likely to work 50 hours or more per week were employed in larger firms. This is also supported by an article published in the Western Journal of Legal Studies where Professor Seto argues that lawyers working in large private practice firms tend to work longer hours than lawyers working for government or in corporations. In addition to directly contributing to poor mental health, research suggests that excessive working hours might also negatively impact work-life balance.

Work-life Conflict

A Canadian study conducted in 2018 indicated that “overwork and work-life conflict” are two main stressors that contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety amongst lawyers, particularly in the private sector. Working long hours can impact an individual’s ability to spend time with their families and friends and live a healthy lifestyle, suggests Owen Kelly, an expert in the assessment and evaluation of organizational stress. In a 2018 online article for the ABA Journal, lawyers shared their thoughts about depression, substance abuse and other issues affecting the legal profession. James A. Fassold, a shareholder at Tiffany & Bosco in Phoenix, stated that “[…] lawyers have nothing to sell but their time and advice. […] As their workload grows, something has to give. First, it’s vacations. Then weekends. Then evenings. Then family and friends.” His comment demonstrates how working long hours can affect lawyers’ abilities to balance work and life priorities, which could lead to. Thus, an incapacity to manage workload and private life could lead to feelings of failure.

6d654971216777.5bbdd26a54b6e.jpgWorking long hours can affect lawyers’ abilities to balance their work and personal lives. || (Source: Creative Commons // Michael Driver)

Ronit Dinovitzer, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, argues that working long hours puts a strain on lawyers’ abilities to balance their work and personal lives. As a result, they might feel like they are failing in more than one aspect of their lives. Whether that be as a friend, a parent or even a lawyer, such feelings can contribute to poor mental health by placing an unnecessary strain on one’s life. The legal culture might also contribute to feelings of failure or pressure.

The Legal Culture

Law is a profession characterized by a high-pressure and competitive environment. Lawyers might need to fight their competitors for business, but they might also need to fight within their law firms for recognition. According to the 2004 Interim Report of the Senate Standing Committee, “unyielding pressures by law firms for increased billable hours” and the competitive environment can lead to anxiety and/or depression for those working in it. A study in 2016 conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs found that 19% of lawyers experienced symptoms of anxiety and 28% had experienced symptoms of depression. Staci Bougher, founder of Bougher Law Office in Fort Wayne, Indiana, shared with the ABA journal that:

As attorneys, we are our own worst enemies. We are used to being high achievers in school, and then we work in a field measured by how much we continue to achieve. We put so much pressure on ourselves that we forget to give ourselves a break. Our lives would be better if we could accept that we are human and that all humans make mistakes. Those mistakes don’t define us. It’s OK to be human.

Her comments provide some insight on how the high-pressure environment, which seems to be prevalent in the legal culture, impacts lawyers.

Some lawyers might refuse to disclose that they are suffering from a mental illness or refuse to seek help out of fear that doing so might negatively impact their career. Lawyers may be discouraged to show vulnerability because it could be perceived as a weakness, according to several personal testimonies in an article published by Precedent Magazine. When faced with personal or professional distress, “lawyers judge themselves harshly for even feeling that way,” according to Doron Gold. Gold, who used to be a lawyer, is now a social worker for Homewood Health in Toronto, a mental health and addiction facility in Canada.

9b63cb64256211.5be91e2b0e514.jpgLegal work, according to Kevin Chandler “combines all the elements that contribute to substance abuse and other disorders into one toxic pot.”|| (Source: Creative Commons // Post Office Studios)

Certain lawyers might face stigma for mental illness because of an unrealistic depiction of perfection within the legal profession. This expectation can make it more difficult for them to admit to struggling, making mistakes and needing help. If facing mental health issues, this could lead to fears of being judged by others or feeling vulnerable. As a result, some lawyers might develop imposter syndrome, meaning they sometimes feel out of place, ashamed, or unworthy when they fail to live up to the standards of excellence that are prominent within the legal culture. They might also develop feelings of inadequacy and be fearful of being discovered as a fraud, as suggested by an article in the American Bar Association Journal. Such irrational fears and feelings are a consequence of the perfection standard that is reinforced within the legal culture, which causes an unnecessary strain on mental health.


Ultimately, many factors can contribute to poor mental amongst lawyers. As Kevin Chandler, attorney and director of the legal professionals program at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation states, “[…] legal work combines all the elements that contribute to substance abuse and other disorders into one toxic pot.” Overwork, work-life conflict as well as high-pressure and competitive environments within the legal profession are all plausible explanations for the higher incidence of mental illness amongst lawyers. The Canadian and American Bar Associations, along with other organizations, provide lawyers with helpful resources to sustain and improve their mental health. However, a shift within the legal profession regarding the way personal and professional challenges are addressed would help to prevent the deterioration of mental health of both current and future attorneys.

The Lawyer Assistance Program is a free service offered in each province that provides support for personal and professional issues. More information on this confidential service is available here.  Further, the Canadian Bar Association offers a free mental health and wellness course online. Details can be found here.

Darena Muça is a Junior Online Editor for the McGill Journal of Law and Health and a first-year B.C.L./ LL.B. student at McGill University’s Faculty of Law. Darena holds a B.A. with distinction in Political Science, with a minor in Human Rights, and a Co-op Program degree. She has a keen interest in mental health and the intersection of health and the law.

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