Ethics and Wellbeing: How the elevated incidence of mental illness is impacting the profession

  • September 23, 2021
  • Roza Milani


The prevalence of mental illness in the legal profession is alarming. Studies indicate that the law school experience can induce significant distress in students, leading to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Moreover, lawyers experience mental illness more than the general population as well as the majority of other professionals. The elevated incidence of mental illness in the legal profession is particularly concerning considering the connection between mental illness and disciplinary complaints. This paper comprises the following sections. Part I provides an overview of the prevalence of mental illness in the legal profession and summarizes studies on the root causes of mental illness in the profession. Part II describes the role that mental illness plays in professional misconduct and incompetence cases. In doing so, it provides an overview of the relevant provisions in the Law Society Act and the rules and commentaries in the Rules of Professional Conduct. The section also reviews various Law Society of Ontario (“LSO”) decisions where mental illness was held to cause or contribute to professional misconduct. Special attention will be placed on how the licensee’s mental health impacted the disciplinary measures pursued by the LSO. Part III proposes ways to address the prevalence of mental illness in the legal profession by examining what can be done at the law school and workplace levels. It does so by relying on the discussed literature on the root causes of mental illness in the profession.

This paper was originally submitted to the CBA Health Law Student Essay Contest in the spring of 2021. Although not selected as the winning entry, the jury panel believed this was an excellent essay and worthy of an honourable mention to recognize Roza Milani for her important contribution to the issue of mental health in the legal profession.


Mental illness is a serious concern that impacts all members of society. In Canada, 20% of individuals experience mental illness or addiction problems. By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, there is a 50% chance that they have, or have had experienced, a mental illness in their life.1 According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, almost one in four employees is affected by mental health issues that lead to higher rates of absenteeism, presenteeism, and employee turnover.2

It is well documented that lawyers suffer from mental health disorders; lawyers have been found to suffer from much higher rates of depression, addiction, and anxiety than that of the general population, respectively.3 The same is true when one compares lawyers’ struggles with mental health disorders with others who share the same socioeconomic traits, such as the majority of other professionals. An often-cited 1990 research paper from Johns Hopkins University, which reviewed the range in prevalence of major depressive disorder between 104 occupations, found that lawyers have the highest incidence of depression.4 Since 1990 the profession has not become easier. A recent comparison between attorneys and other professionals, including doctors, indicates that lawyers suffer from substance abuse problems at a much higher rate than other professional populations. For example, the equivalent rate for hazardous drinking/alcohol dependence among physicians is 15%, when compared to 36.4% among lawyers.5 The prevalence of mental health problems in the profession is also quite troubling. According to a survey by the Canadian Bar Association (“CBA”), which surveyed 1180 CBA members, 58% of lawyers, judges, and law students surveyed had experienced significant stress and burnout, 48% had experienced anxiety, and 25% had suffered from depression. Stress and anxiety were two issues perceived as most prevalent in the legal profession (94% and 68%, respectively).6 A question that inescapably arises after studying these statistics is “Why?” A joke published in a 2011 Psychology Today article presents the quandary that most lawyers face. In that article, Dr. Tyger Latham, a licensed clinical psychologist, noted that “as long as there are lawyers, there is always going to be a need for therapists… because the very thing that makes lawyers so depressed is the very thing they are unwilling to give up.”7 Research has found that certain personality traits possessed by lawyers, as well as the nature of the profession (being one that causes high stress with low decision latitude), are the primary causes of these grim statistics.

1.1 Personality Traits as a Risk Factor

Psychologists have identified two personality traits that make lawyers more prone to depression than other professionals: perfectionism and pessimism.8


Perfectionism is a personality disposition characterized by striving for faultlessness, setting unreasonably high standards for performance and a tendency for overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior.9 It is not surprising that the legal profession attracts and rewards perfectionists. A law student’s commitment to excellence, acute attention to detail and organization skills translates into excelling in school and ultimately an entrance into the endeavor of law practice. However, it should be noted that perfectionism does not only consist of positive personality characteristics and behaviors, but it also brings in a host of negative effects. For example, although perfectionism has a positive correlation with intrinsic reasons for studying as well as conscientiousness, self-esteem, and goal attainment, the trait is also correlated with psychopathological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, somatization (expression of distress through physical symptoms) and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Another concerning finding is that it is harder to treat depression and anxiety in perfectionists with either therapy of medication, and that they are much more likely to commit suicide.10

The positive and negative traits of perfectionism are not separable in lived experience. This personality gives the lawyers the desire to do well and helps them put in conscientious effort to win their next big case; however, there is no perfect perfectionist. There is always something that could have been done “better,” followed by negative self-talk and self-blame. Perfectionism fosters a dark side, leading to a chronic feeling that nothing is good enough. It magnifies the failure when lawyers make the inevitable mistake. Moreover, in the legal profession, success is not directly proportional to the effort a lawyer puts in a given argument or factum to perfect it. The quality of a lawyer’s work and the degree of his/her effort is not always reflected in the outcomes achieved. A litigator could do a stellar job conducting a case and still lose in court. Yet, frequently, the measure of a lawyer’s success is cast in terms of the very outcome that is beyond their control.


In addition to rewarding perfectionists, the legal profession also rewards a pessimistic explanatory style.11 An explanatory style refers to the manner in which one usually explains to oneself why events happen. Pessimists tend to view negative events as enduring and unchanging, while optimists believe that negative events are temporary. The former see reality more clearly, whereas the latter act on the hope that reality will turn out better than it usually does. What’s interesting is that while optimists tend to do better in life, pessimists excel in the legal profession. Pessimism is considered prudence in the legal profession as it enables the lawyers to see catastrophes that may occur in any given matter.12 It’s not surprising that the profession does not reward optimism since it could make one overly confident in one’s position, ignorant of opposing arguments and facts, and reluctant to examine every aspect of an issue. None of these tendencies are prized or desirable in the practice of law. It helps lawyers prepare for a bad outcome before they happen, and mitigate the outcomes that cannot be averted. According to Dr. Seligman, a leading authority in the field of positive psychology, although pessimism is highly adaptive for lawyers, it also demoralizes them. He notes that the trait which results in a higher success rate, is also highly correlated with depression since pessimism does not only help lawyers see clearly how badly things might turn out for their clients, but also, how badly things might turn out for themselves, their family and friends. A tendency that could result in depression and substance abuse.13

1.2 High demand positions and low decision latitude as a risk factor

Decision latitude refers to the number of choices one has or the choices one believes one has on the job14, the lack of which is often cited as a source of unhappiness for lawyers. Studies have found that high job demands, combined with low decision latitude, is unfavourable to one’s health and can lead to depression.15 Young associates are tasked with completing a never-ending flow of legal work, constantly worry about meeting the billable hours, follow an unpredictable schedule, and often have little control over their work. Many remain isolated in their offices conducting research and preparing legal memoranda for the partners without having a say in their topic of choice. Partners and senior lawyers at big law are not immune to the impact on their high demand positions either. Gabe MacConaill, a partner at an international law firm Sidley Austin LLP, committed suicide on October 14, 2018. He was only 42. In an open letter, his widow said that “big law killed [her] husband.” She noted that her husband “felt like he was doing the work of three people” and “was in distress and ... work[ed] himself to exhaustion”16 MacConaill suffered in silence for many years before taking his own life. This harrowing story is hardly unique. Many senior lawyers and partners suffer from mental illness and exhaustion due to their high demand jobs. In fact, a new Canadian journal article suggests that lawyers are more likely to experience mental health issues, such as depression, the more successful they are in their field. Moreover, they cite overwork and work–life conflict as two stressors in the legal profession that are more prevalent in the private sector and increase with firm size. 17


The elevated incidents of mental illness in the legal profession impacts not only individual lawyers but also the legal profession as a whole. Untreated mental health illness can lead to an inability to manage caseloads, case stagnation, neglect and client harm, which can ultimately result in the lawyer being subjected to law society complaints and disciplinary procedures.18 Studies have shown that mental health concerns are involved in a large percentage of lawyer disciplinary cases.19 Certain provisions of the Law Society Act (Act)20 and the Rules of Professional Conduct21 come into play where mental illness plays a role in professional misconduct.

2.1 Law Society Act (Act) and Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules)

Lawyers must comply with the Act, its regulations, and by-laws since the LSO has the statutory duty to regulate lawyers and paralegals as assigned by the Legislature of Ontario. Lawyers have the duty to respond promptly to all communications received from the LSO per rule 7.1-1. Where the complaint and the evidence provide some support for the concerns raised, the LSO will take remedial actions such as having a discussion with the lawyer regarding their conduct. LSO may also conduct a further investigation under sections 49.3(2) or (4) of the Act. In doing so, investigative staff may enter the premises of the licensee, require production and examination of documents related to the matter, and question the licensee’s colleagues for information related to the matter. The LSO does not take action on all complaints, but where the issue is of a nature where formal disciplinary sanction is deemed necessary, it imposes one or more disciplinary sanction(s). Available sanctions include issuance of a formal warning or temporary license suspension, fines, revocation of license (disbarment), or granting permission that the defendant lawyer surrenders his or her license (permission to resign).22

Mental illness is indirectly addressed under rule 3.1 which deals with competence. Rules 3.1-1(e)–(k) state that a competent lawyer is one who performs their functions “conscientiously, diligently, and in a timely and cost-effective manner,” applies “intellectual capacity, judgment, and deliberation to all functions,” recognizes “limitations in one's ability to handle a matter or some aspect of it,” manages “one’s practice effectively,” and pursues “appropriate professional development to maintain and enhance legal knowledge and skills,” and adapts to the changing professional requirements and standards. Commentary 3.1-2[6] notes the importance of self-awareness and that lawyers have an obligation to “recognize a task for which the lawyer lacks competence and the disservice that would be done to the client by undertaking that task.” Although this rule does not directly refer to mental illness, the above requirements deal with facets related to functioning, which would likely be impaired if a lawyer suffers from mental illness. For example, one who suffers from depression may experience one or more of the following: “diminished ability to think or concentrate, insomnia, fatigue, indecisiveness and diminished interest in most or all activities.”23 Similarly, those who suffer from anxiety disorder may experience one or more of the following: “fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep disturbance, and restlessness.”24 A lawyer who has diminished interest in most or all activities as a result of depression, may not be able to perform his or her tasks diligently and timely in accordance with rule 3.1.

Rule 7.1(3) and its commentary, directly addresses mental illness and creates a positive obligation on other lawyers to report to the Law Society the conduct of a lawyer that raises a substantial question about the licensee’s ability to provide professional services, unless to do so would be unlawful or would involve a breach of solicitor-client privilege. Rules 7.1(3)(d) and (e) necessitate that lawyers report conduct of their colleague(s) where there are serious concerns regarding their honesty, trustworthiness, or competency as a licensee, or their capacity to provide professional services. Rule 7.1(3)(f) notes that where clients are likely to be severely prejudiced by the lawyer’s conduct, that conduct should be reported. Commentary 7.1-3[3] then lists “mental or emotional conditions, disorders, or addictions” as examples of conduct that triggers the duty to report. The commentary also creates a positive obligation for lawyers to encourage one another to seek assistance for their emotional disturbances.

2.2 The role that mental illness plays in professional misconduct

In determining the proper penalty, the hearing panel will consider the blameworthiness of the member’s conduct, the extent of injury to others, penalties imposed by the tribunal in similar conducts as well as existence of mitigating factors. Mitigating factors include the absence of a prior disciplinary record, the existence of remorse, cooperation with the Law Society; the extent and duration of the misconduct, whether there was an admission of misconduct and whether there are extenuating circumstances–such as a medical condition–that might explain the misconduct.25 A licensee’s medical condition, including mental illness, has been a mitigating factor in disciplinary sanctions where the illness sets the stage for an unintentional misconduct.

It has been recognized that a licensee may not be able to respond to the regulator by reason of mental illness. In Vader26 a paralegal continuously failed to respond to Law Society correspondence and did not cooperate with the LSO investigation. In deciding whether the evidence constituted professional misconduct, the tribunal turned its mind to the fact that such behavior occurs often with people suffering from depression and held that her mental health was a complete defence to her non-compliance. The tribunal also noted that the application of the principles of specific and general deterrence has no place in cases where inappropriate conduct is caused by mental illness.27 McAllister28 also involved a case where the licensee was in contravention of the Rules. In that case the licensee was practising while suspended and repeatedly failed to cooperate with the LSO in breach of rule 20. The Law Society sought a suspension of four to six months as well as an imposition of fines, emphasizing that such penalty was required for the purpose of general deterrence and maintenance of the public confidence in the legal profession. The member testified that he was not aware of his administrative suspension and failed to properly deal with the Law Society by opening and responding to letters because of his struggles with depression and anxiety disorder. While no medical evidence was tendered, his evidence was not challenged. The tribunal accepted that the difficulty in responding arose from mental health problems and imposed a 60-day license suspension and supervised practice for one year upon his return to practice.

Mental health can also come into play in reducing the penalty in cases of unintentional overbilling. In Kennedy,29 the licensee overbilled Legal Aid Ontario $25,000. He testified that his alcohol consumption contributed to his inadequate billing practices. The tribunal noted that in a case of carelessness where the lawyer has not been intentionally overbilling the client, the penalty ranges from a reprimand to a 14 months suspension of license. In that case the tribunal ruled for 12-months license suspension.

Where a lawyer has engaged in serious calculated dishonesty, such as fraud and misappropriation of funds, a revocation of license is the ordinary or presumptive disposition.30 In such cases, there must be some extraordinary or exceptional circumstances to justify a departure from the presumptive disposition. To meet this threshold, the lawyer may introduce compelling psychiatric or psychological evidence that credibly indicates that (1) why the misconduct occurred; (2) it was out of character; and (3) unlikely to be repeated in the future.31

Unintentional misappropriation of small sums may meet this threshold. In Lewarne,32 for example, the member deposited retainer funds amounting to $5,175.00 into his personal account instead of his firm’s trust account and used the funds as his own. Although the case involved misappropriation of funds which ordinarily leads to revocation of license, the tribunal accepted that revocation was not required after reviewing the mitigating factors. In reaching this conclusion the tribunal considered the member’s psychiatric evaluation. The evaluation indicated that during the interval when he misappropriated the funds, he was experiencing pervasive anxiety, sleep deprivation and fluctuation of appetite. The deposit of the fund to his personal account accrued the day after he was notified that his ex-wife was alleging that he had sexually assaulted their adopted daughter. The tribunal also took into account the fact that he gained no material advantage as a result of his actions since he rectified the shortages in the trust account before the matter was reported to the LSO. The tribunal was also satisfied that reoccurrence is unlikely. He was suspended for four months, restricted to practice under supervision for three years, and was mandated to seek psychological counselling.

Assertion of mental illness as an explanation for a member’s conduct has failed to meet the threshold of exceptional circumstances necessary to justify imposing a lesser penalty where the licensee engages in calculated, repeated, dishonest conduct. In Bishop,33 the Superior Court of Justice reaffirmed that the presumptive penalty in cases of knowing participation in mortgage fraud is a revocation of licence. In that case, the lawyer, who was not suffering from any mental health issues, knowingly assisted a fraudulent real estate flipping scheme. The lawyer was wilfully blind to the fact that the transactions were not bona fide. Similarly, in Mucha,34 the member knowingly participated in mortgage fraud in connection with 16 real estate transactions. After reviewing the submissions by various character witnesses, one including a sitting judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, the Hearing Panel suspended the member’s license. However, on appeal, the Appeal Panel revoked the member’s license noting that the disposition was outside of the range of reasonable dispositions available in the circumstances.35

In cases of calculated misappropriation of funds where mental illness explains the misconduct, the penalty may be reduced to granting the permission to surrender the license. Another consideration is whether there has been restitution of all or some of a substantial portion of the misappropriated funds. In Flumian,36 for example, the licensee with a history of depression misappropriated money from eight clients totalling over $420,000 and fraudulently registered three mortgages to cover his wrongdoing. He reimbursed a portion of the funds to the victims of his scheme and the rest was financed by the Compensation Fund. Although his actions were sufficiently serious to justify disbarment, the tribunal permitted the licensee to surrender his license. The granting of permission to resign is in many ways the same as revocation, however an admission committee may consider having the lawyer’s license restored should they apply under rule 7.6-1.1.

As previously noted, Rule 7.1(3) creates a positive obligation on other lawyers to report to the Law Society the conduct of a lawyer that raises a substantial question about the licensee’s capacity to provide professional services. The rules impose no direct obligation37 of self-reporting on lawyers whose work has been affected by their mental illness, however self-reporting misconduct may be considered as a factor in mitigation of penalty. In McNamara,38 for example, the licensee self-reported misappropriating $490,000 and failing to maintain proper books and records. He was suffering from bipolar disorder which played a role in his decision-making. The tribunal noted that his mental illness is not a defence to his misconduct, but it would provide an insight into the misconduct.39 Although the presumptive penalty was license revocation, McNamara was permitted to surrender his license given the role his mental illness had played in his misconduct.


Although the percentage of post-secondary students struggling with mental illness has increased since 2013,40 law students are amongst the most depressed of any student population.41 Research has found that the law school experience is a unique producer of psychological distress. Law students report significantly higher drug and alcohol use,42 with close to 44% of them meeting the criteria for clinically significant levels of psychological distress.43 Law schools’ heavy workload alone cannot explain the high prevalence of mental illness amongst law students. Studies have shown that other overworked populations of graduate students, such as medical students, do not suffer from high-level stress symptoms and alcohol abuse to the extent that law students do.44 In fact, the mental health problems law students experience seem to be directly related to their law school experience: they enter law school as healthy individuals, but within six months of undertaking their law degree they start experiencing mental health issues.45

The reasons behind the high prevalence of mental illness in law schools have been studied by scholars and psychologists. Using a bell-curve grading system, fierce competition for grades, the law schools’ heavy workload, decrease in students’ intrinsic motivation to do well at school, and law schools’ attraction and fostering of certain personality traits, such as pessimism, have been cited as reasons why law school leads to mental health issues.46

Given the shortage of articling positions in Canada, it’s not surprising that students are fiercely competing for grades given that ranking the candidates based on their GPA helps law firms to sift through thousands of articling applications. Although the traditional method of letter grading (A, B, C, and so on) is advantageous for law firms, and allow students to keep their exact scores private,47 the practice of evening out the grade distribution to a bell curve has some serious shortcomings. Bell curving the grades is based on the assumption that most students would be receiving a B average. It can arbitrarily limit the number of students who can excel and strive for B+ or A range grade. The inferiority of bell curving has been established by psychologists and economists. Since the bell curve compares the level of knowledge of students to one another, it creates an environment of toxic competition between students where they are less willing to help one another learn.48 Moreover, economists Pradeep Dubey and John Geanakoplos, explain that absolute grading (where 90 to 100 gets an A, 80 to 89 gets a B and so on) is a better grading system because it gives each student the maximum incentive to work, while bell curving provides no incentives whatsoever.49 The bell curve, by lowering students’ motivation, can also adversely impact their intrinsic motivation to learn.50 I wish to note that bell curving the grades may eliminate the stress of failing or doing poorly on exams, especially for first year law students who are new to studying law. It could also ensure that there is fairness across sections where the same course is taught by different professors with different styles of teaching and marking guides. Given these balancing factors, changing the law schools’ grading system may be unfeasible.

Although law school fosters certain personality traits, such as pessimism, steps can be taken to counter that by incorporating the language of optimism in law school. Teaching the law students concepts of positive psychology (a new field of psychology that complements the traditional psychotherapy by focusing on how one can prosper and avoid problems like depression and isolation) is one way of doing so. The University of Ottawa’s January intensive course, Happiness in the Law, is a great example. The course relies heavily on concepts of positive psychology, teaching students the skills needed to maximize their happiness in law school and their legal practice. Although offering this course has certainly been a step in the right direction, unfortunately many students cannot secure a spot given that the course is only offered in January with a class limit of 29 students. By offering a first-year mandatory course such as University of Ottawa’s Happiness in the Law, law schools could give all the law students an invaluable tool to manage their stress.

Lastly, although it may seem that not much can be done in terms of law school’s heavy workload, offering summer courses will effectively address this issue. It is no secret that law school can be challenging. Reading lists can seem never-ending and the deadlines can often creep up at the worst of times. To maximize their productivity many students cut on their sleep time in the hope that they would catch up with their readings, only to reduce their retention of information. Many ultimately find themselves debating on which material to cover and what to skip in preparation for final exams. Currently there are no peer reviewed studies on the impact of course load reduction and students’ mental health, however law school’s excessive workload has been cited as one of the stressors of law school.51 Accordingly, it is safe to assume that giving students an option of taking summer courses to reduce their Fall and Winter course load, would alleviate some of the anxiety associated with law school. Studies also suggest that reduction in course load can have a positive impact on student achievement and academic performance by reducing test anxiety.52 Offering summer courses is not an impossible task. In fact, the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law offered a selection of distance and online learning courses during the Spring-Summer semester to help students during the challenging times of COVID-19. The university also noted the high demand of summer programs and stated that allowing students the opportunity to lighten their workload as one of the reasons for this change.53 Student surveys on the impact of this option could shed light on the effectiveness of reduced course load on mental health and well-being of law students. The Student Unions can play an important role in assessing students’ support for these changes and if so, their implementation. For example, recently through the efforts of the University of Ottawa’s Student Union, the university implemented special grading rules that apply to the 2020-21 academic year where students can elect for one course in each of their terms to receive a qualitative grade in (i.e. Satisfactory/Non-Satisfactory). 5,328 students signed a petition echoing this call. Similarly, Law schools’ Unions could take steps in consulting the students about their interest in making summer courses available and petition for such change if sufficient support existed.

One may wonder whether increasing mental health resources for law students and informing students of the stigma associated with mental illness would effectively resolve the high prevalence of mental illness in the profession. Counselling services offered by law schools are not uncapped. Once students receive a certain number of therapy sessions at the university, they are referred to a therapist. Although there is room for improvement by increasing the number of sessions allocated to each student, providing students with additional support alone may not fully address the issue given law students’ unwillingness to use these services. Studies have found that only 20% of students who need such services are actually using them due to the stigma attached to mental health.54 The sessions may also not be as effective as seeking counselling elsewhere since the therapists are not psychotherapists or psychologists. Lastly, although addressing the stigma of mental health is an important step, it is important that it is supplemented with the above solutions that address some of the root causes of the issue (e.g. heavy workload).

While it is important that we focus on law school experience and not just dealing with the fallout after students become professionals, I think believing the road to mental health starts at law school is mistaken. Similar to how teaching one how to swim before a sea voyage would be a great boon to a traveller’s safety compared to only providing a life vest when they are onboard, offering incoming students a course focused on preparing them for their first year of law school (such as introductions on how to read and summarize case law, effective time management, how to create healthy and sustainable school-life balance, pre-empting some of the concerns that creep up e.g. OCI’s, 1L grades, articling) may help alleviate some of the stress associated with 1L law.

Lastly, attention should also be given to helping practicing lawyers who are struggling with mental illness. In 2016, the Law Society of Ontario approved a new mental health strategy. In its 2016 Mental Health Strategy Task Force the Law Society noted its commitment to address the mental health issues in the legal profession and listed their approach in doing so. Preventative measures included increasing awareness of wellness strategies, increasing awareness of mental health issues, addressing the stigma attached to mental health issues and its impact on licensees along with improving access to mental health resources to licensees who need it.55 As noted, informing lawyers of the prevalence of mental illness and addressing the stigma attached to mental illness do not address the root cause of the issue. Furthermore, similar to the law student’s survey on use of mental health services, it is established that not many lawyers take advantage of these services. According to the usage statistics from the Member Assistance Program, legal professionals in Ontario currently seek mental health assistance at a rate that is approximately half that of other professions.56

As discussed in part I, high demand positions and low decision latitude is a risk factor for mental illness in the legal profession. Finding creative solutions in allowing lawyers to have more personal control over their day-to-day tasks could be one way of resolving this issue. For example, taking into account lawyers’ preferences and providing them with meaningful choices about when and where to work could provide the lawyers a sense of control many don’t have. Such a choice is not unreasonable given how the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a shift to working from home for many Canadians whose jobs can be done remotely. Allowing young associates to have client contact and engage in mentorship of the articling students could also increase the level of intrinsic motivation and internal attributions for success,57 which could help in addressing the issue. Given the existence and the profession’s knowledge of the widespread prevalence of mental illness and addiction issues and the costs associated with them, law firms could benefit from implementing creative strategies to address the above.

I believe that addressing the mental health challenges faced by the legal profession at pre-law school and law school level is the most effective route since as the old saying goes, prevention is better than cure. The Law Societies, by enacting bylaws which enforce law schools and firms to implement some, or all the changes noted above, could also play an active role in resolving the prevalence of mental illness in the profession. As an example, given that the Student Society President of each law school in Ontario sits as a member of Law Students’ Society of Ontario (LSSO) and works closely with the LSO to resolve discrete issues facing law students, they could convey any petition (e.g. concerning making pre-1L course and 2L summer courses available) to LSO for their consideration and implementation. Just this past year, the LSSO after consulting with students brought about changes in relation to the articling recruitment timelines and bar examination processes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, a petition for making summer courses available could be submitted to the Law Societies for their consideration, and if feasible, implementation.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The elevated incidence of mental illness in the legal profession is quite concerning and calls for creative solutions to address the problem. Although addressing the stigma associated with mental illness would help lawyers and law students to step forward and receive the help they need, it does not address the problem’s root cause. Making summer courses available and relying on positive psychology to foster optimism amongst law students are implementable options that could better address the high prevalence of mental illness in law schools and amongst lawyers. Law firms can also play an important role in addressing this issue by striving to find creative solutions to give lawyers more voice and control over their work and increasing their level of intrinsic motivation. The collaboration between Law Societies and Law Students’ Societies in implementing bylaws directed at bringing about changes is also important in effectively addressing the issue.

Roza Milani is an articling student at Overholt Law LLP. She received her Juris Doctor (Law) degree from the University of Ottawa English Common Law program in 2021. During her studies, she developed a growing interest in the area of labour and employment law. Roza was one of five students selected to be a part of the University of Ottawa’s Employment Law Clinic fellowship program. Having been invited to participate in this new and innovative clinic allowed her to meet clients from all walks of life and guide them through the complicated field of employment law– especially given the tumult that COVID-19 has created. Throughout her Juris Doctor degree, Roza engaged in altruistic causes and volunteer work such as her involvement with the Ontario Pro Bono Clinic. Prior to her studies in law, Roza received a B.A. in psychology from Simon Fraser University, where she developed strong foundation in analyzing lab reports and scientific studies critically.


1 Smetanin et al, “The life and economic impact of major mental illnesses in Canada (2011), prepared for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Toronto: RiskAnalytica.

2 Melissa Pang, “Current Issues in Mental Health in Canada: Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace” (2013), Library of Parliament Publication No. 78-E.

3 Patrick J. Schiltz, “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical

Profession” (1999) 52 Vand L Rev 880. Also see: Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program, 2010 Annual Report: Rates of addiction and depression for lawyers were three times that of the general population, while anxiety disorders were estimated to affect 20% to 30% of lawyers as compared to only 4% of the general population.

4 Willaim Eaton, “Occupations and the prevalence of major depressive disorder” (1990) J Occup Med as cited in: The Law Society of British Columbia, “First Interim Report of the Mental Health Task Force” (2018).

5 The Canadian Bar Association, “Leading the way on mental health” (2015). Also see: Krill et al: “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys” (2016) Journal of Addiction Medicine 10:1.

6 The Canadian Bar Association, “Survey of Lawyers on Wellness Issues” (2012) at 4.

7 Tyger Latham, “The Depressed Lawyer: Why are so many lawyers so unhappy?” (2011), Psychology Today.

8 Richard G. Uda, “That Frayed Rope” (2003), Utah Bar Journal 16:6.

9 Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L., “Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues” (2002). In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 5–31), American Psychological Association.

10 Joachim Stoeber et al, “Self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism: Differential relationships with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and test anxiety” (2009) 7(5):423-428. Also see: Lynn Johnson, “Stress Management” (2003) Utah Bar Journal: Research conducted at Campbell University in North Carolina indicated that 11 percent of the lawyers in that state thought of taking their own life at least once a month.

11 Robert Lee Hotz, “Except in One Career, Our Brains Seem Build for Optimists” (2007) The Wall Street Journal. Also see: Martin E.P. Seligman, Paul R. Verkuil & Terry H. Kang, “Why Lawyers Are Unhappy” (2001) 23 Cardozo L Rev 52 at 56 [Seligman, “Unhappy”].

12 Ibid

13 Seligman, “Unhappy” Supra note 11. Also see Jane Reardon, “Is There a Healthy Dose of Pessimism?” (2015).

14 Seligman, “Unhappy” Supra note 11 at 56.

15 Robert Karasek et. al., “Job Decision Latitude, Job Demands and Cardiovascular Disease: A Prospective Study of Swedish Men” (1981) 71 AM. J. PUB. HEALTH 694-695.

16 Joanna Litt, ‘Big Law Killed My Husband’: An Open Letter from a Sidley Partner’s Widow, AM. LAWYER


17 Jonathan Koltai et al, “The Status-Health Paradox: Organizational Context, Stress Exposure, and Well-Being in the Legal Profession” (2018) Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 59(1):20-37

18 Saskatchewan Law Review, “Addressing the Elephant in the Legal Profession: The Lawyer’s Struggle with Mental Health” (2019). Also see: Alex Yufik, “Evaluating an Impaired Attorney’s Fitness to Practice” (2018), Law Practice Today.

19 Jennifer Moore et al, “Disciplinary tribunal cases involving New Zealand lawyers with physical or mental impairment, 2009–2013” Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 22(5).

20 Law Society Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. L.8

21 The Law Society of Upper Canada, Rules of Professional Conduct, Toronto: Law Society of Upper Canada, 2000 [Rules].

22 Law Society of Ontario, Information for Licensees: “If You Are the Subject of a Complaint”.

23 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR.

24 Ibid.

25 Law Society of Upper Canada v Aguirre, 2007 ONLSHP 46 at para. 12. Law Society of Upper Canada v. Jaszi, 2015 ONLSTH 211 at para 30

26 Law Society of Upper Canada v Vader, 2013 ONLSHP

27 Ibid at para 59

28 Law Society of Upper Canada v McAllister , 2016 ONLSTH 112

29 Law Society of Upper Canada v. Kennedy, 2014 ONLSTH 227

30 Law Society of Upper Canada v Bharadwaj, 2012, para. 61. This presumptive penalty was later generalized to dishonest acts by a licensee: The Law Society of Upper Canada v. Abbott, 2017 ONCA 525 at para 78.

31 Law Society of Upper Canada v Steven Michael Mucha, 2008 ONLSAP 5 at para 28. Law Society of Upper Canada v Kelly, 2014 ONLSTA 16 at para 33.

32 Law Society of Upper Canada v Peter John Lewarne , 2006 ONLSHP 105

33 Bishop v Law Society of Upper Canada, 2014 ONSC 5057

34 Law Society of Upper Canada v Mucha, 2008 ONLSAP 5

35 Ibid at Para 19

36 Law Society of Upper Canada v Flumian, 2015 ONLSTH 162

37 Note that the competency rules come into play, obliging the lawyers to perform their legal services to the standard of a competent lawyer. Commentary 3.1-2[5] and [6] note that: “A lawyer should not undertake a matter without honestly feeling competent to handle it, or being able to become competent without undue delay, risk, or expense to the client.” A lawyer must decline to act where they recognize that they lack competence. These rules however, do not create a duty for lawyers to self-report their mental illness.

38 Law Society of Ontario v McNamara, 2018 ONLSTH 155

39 Ibid at Paras 43-44

40 Ontario’s Universities partnering for a better future, online.

41 Abigail A.Patthoff, “This is Your Brain on Law School: The Impact of Fear-Based Narratives on Law Students” (2015) UTAH L. REV. 391, 424 (2015).

42 See for example: Gerald F. Hess et al, “The Teaching and Learning Environment in Law School” (2002) 52 J.

LEGAL EDUC. 75 (2002) at 79.

43 Todd D. Peterson & Elizabeth W. Peterson, “Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law

Schools Need To Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology” (2009) 9 Yale J. Health Policy &

Ethics [Peterson, “Stemming the Tide”].

44 Marilyn Heins, Shirley N. Fahey & Roger C. Henderson, “Law Students and Medical Students: A

Comparison of Perceived Stress” (1983) 33 J. LEGAL EDUC. 511, 511-14.

45 Peterson, “Stemming the Tide” Supra note 43 at 3. Also see: Krieger L.S. & Sheldon K.M., “Does Legal Education Have Undermining Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values and Well-Being” (2004) 22(2) Behav. Sci. Law 261.

46 Gerald F. Hess, “Heads and Hearts: The Teaching and Learning Environment in Law School” (2002) 52 J.

Legal EDUC at 78. Also see:  Seligman, “Unhappy” supra note 11 at 54-56; Peterson, “Stemming the Tide” Supra note 43 at 24.

47 “Students care primarily about their status (relative rank) in class, they are often best motivated to work not by revealing their exact numerical exam scores (100, 99, ...,1), but instead by clumping them into coarse categories (A,B,C)”. See: Pradeep Dubey & John Geanakoplos, “Grading exams: 100, 99, 98,... or A, B, C?” (2010), Games and Economic Behavior 69 (2010) 72–94. [Pradeep Dubey et al, “Grading exams”]

48 Macie Hall, “To Curve or Not to Curve Revisited” (2016), John Hopkin University.

49 Pradeep Dubey et al, “Grading exams”, supra note 47 at 80.

50 “Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials” see Kandra Cherry, “Intrinsic Motivation: How Your Behavior Is Driven by Internal Rewards” (2019), Verywell Mind.

51 Peterson, “Stemming the Tide” Supra note 43 at 24.

52 Sujit S. Sansgiry & Kavita Sail, “Effect of Student’s Perception of Course Load on Test Anxiety” (2005), AJPE, 70(2):26.

53 See “Information Sheet for English JD Students Spring-Summer 2020 Courses.”

54 Rosenthal et al, “Mental health services: Use and disparity among diverse college students” (2008) Journal of American College Health 57(1):61-8.

55 The Law Society of Upper Canada, Mental Health Strategy Task Force (2016), Final Report to Convocation.

56 LAWPRO, “Understanding mental health in the legal profession” (2020).

57 Megan Seto, “Killing Ourselves: Depression as an Institutional, Workplace and Professionalism Problem” (2012) 2:2 online: UWO J.