Offering Support

  • April 17, 2023

Dear Advy,

I am an associate at a large firm in Ontario. I do my best to champion wellness within my firm as I myself have dealt with depression. It isn’t a constant thing, but it is an ongoing issue for me. I am lucky that the team that I work with has been both receptive and supportive. More recently I have found that many of my clients seem to be struggling with the same issues and they don’t seem to have any support. My question is what can I do (if anything) to help them out?  I know I’m not a doctor and can’t solve all of their problems but I’m hoping I can help point them in the right direction without crossing a line.

Offering Support

Dear Offering Support,

It's great that you notice these issues among your clients. Not only are you concerned for the well-being of your clients, but you are identifying their unmet needs. Both are critical components of good advocacy that we often forget.

Of course you and I are both lawyers, so indulge me for a moment while I give you a disclaimer.

You do need to exercise caution. To quote that wise philosopher Mufasa from The Lion King:   Remember who you are. It is important to remember that you are not a doctor or mental health professional, as you’ve already noted. You are, when it comes to mental health and illness, an amateur. It is tempting to do a drive-by diagnosis of someone you are working with closely and try to offer help for the condition you think your client may have. You may misdiagnose someone and do more harm than good. Trying to diagnose or, worse, offer treatment to someone you are representing in a legal matter will also compromise your capacity to provide reliable unbiased advice. Arguably the most important job a lawyer does for a client is to tell the client things the client does not want to hear; often under circumstances that add to, not subtract from, the client’s mental distress.  In terms of providing help, you do need to stay in your professional lane.

On to some advice as to what you can do as opposed to what you shouldn’t do. Some of this advice – and another caution about it - repeats a recent column, so you may want to read that one as well for more ideas.

The best thing you can do for your clients going through difficult times is to model for them an attitude that is supportive of good mental health. Pay attention to your own needs, take constructive and proactive steps to support your mental health, get professional help for your own mental health challenges, and talk to your clients openly about it. Your clients are far more likely to be inspired by what they see you do than they are to follow what you tell them to do. Lead by example.

Legal disputes are extremely stressful for parties. Resilience is the capacity to maintain (or regain) one’s equilibrium during or after times of stress. We have historically thought of resilience as an individual attribute. However, resilience often has more to do with the social and cultural context people live in than their own individual characteristics. Having a support network, whether that be family, friends, professional helpers or some combination of those things is as important or perhaps more important than an individual’s personal makeup.

Sadly, among the things that tend to isolate people from their support networks are:

1. being involved in a legal dispute; and

2. having a mental health challenge.

Both can have the effect of (and be caused by) breaking up a person’s existing relationships with others who would otherwise be part of a support network. Both can cause (and be caused by) poverty. Both can cause people to forget healthy habits or interfere with routines they may have had in the past that supported good health. Bad sleep, poor nutrition, and similar difficulties often accompany both involvement in the legal system and mental health difficulties. None of those things is inevitable, of course. The point is that your clients may be dealing with a cluster of difficulties that both contribute to and arise from the legal issues you are helping them resolve.

Be aware of the complexity of that causal web of distress. Where possible, support them in building or re-building their support networks which may be stretched to capacity. Unless it is unavoidable, don’t let scheduling a meeting with you prevent them from engaging in things like picking children up from school or family meals.

If your client already has a relationship with a mental health professional, encourage your client to discuss the distress the dispute may be causing the client with that professional. Some will even attend court with their clients if asked. If your client does not have someone to help, have a list of local agencies that offer mental health support and make it available to your client. One place to start would be by contacting the Canadian Mental Health Association.

This is not something to leave until there is a crisis for your client. A good cognitive health strategy, like good legal strategy, requires anticipating what may happen and building a plan to respond to difficulties. You don’t distinguish the leading decision on a legal issue that is adverse to your client’s case by doing it on the fly at trial. You look the case up and analyze it well before you walk into the courthouse. Similarly, you don’t wait until your client is panic-stricken about testifying to figure out strategies to mitigate that panic response. You anticipate that reaction and make a plan to help your client deal with that contingency.

In fact, taking your client’s very human responses to the stress of a legal dispute is an important part of any viable legal strategy. Your case does not exist in a vacuum. It arises out of your client’s life and circumstances. Emphasize that your client is not wasting time or being weak or self-indulgent in discussing the stress of the legal dispute with a professional counsellor. Dealing with that stress effectively is an important dimension of handling the legal dispute effectively. It will help them make better decisions. It will help them focus on what they need to do.

It will also help them be happier human beings. Of course, letting it get out there that we lawyers actually care about our clients as human beings might ruin our professional reputation – not to mention the punchlines to countless lawyer jokes – so let’s keep that one between us for now.

Be well, 

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