The Litigator and Mental Health by Chief Justice Strathy
Chief Justice of Ontario, the Honourable George R. Strathy, recently published a paper to discuss mental health and the work of barristers, available on the Court of Appeal of Ontario website.
We share with you an excerpt:
These past two years, in which our lives have been dominated by the global pandemic, have enhanced our awareness of the importance of mental health in our society and in our profession. Perhaps it can be attributed to the cloud of stress and anxiety that has hung over us during the pandemic. Perhaps it is isolation from family, friends, and colleagues – our usual sources of comfort and support. Perhaps it is because many of us have been working from home and there has been no divide between “work” and “life”, making it almost impossible to balance the two. Perhaps many of us, having survived the past two dreadful years, are saying: “I have to make some changes in my life.” The description of 2022 as the “Great Resignation” may well prove apt.
Thankfully, whatever the causes, there has also been an increased commitment to addressing mental health in our society, in our profession, and in our own lives. People have been talking about mental health in an unprecedented way: openly, compassionately, and practically.
My focus in this paper is to discuss mental health and the work of barristers, but what I have to say probably applies to all areas of practice. My message is that we need top-down change in our approach to mental health in the legal profession. And that change needs to be driven by leaders of law firms and by leaders of the bar.
I do not purport to be an expert when it comes to mental health or to have all the answers. But I have close to fifty years of experience in the law, and I offer these observations in the hope that they inspire reflection and much-needed change in the mental health of litigators.
I begin with a question: Why is it that we never talk about mental health and litigation in the same conversation? I think it’s partly because mental health, like physical health, is common to everyone. We don’t think of mental health as something we all experience. Instead, we think mental health means mental illness or poor mental health, and that both undermine one’s ability to be a litigator.
Mental illness is stigmatized by our society and by our profession. Stereotypical thinking about mental health in the legal profession associates poor mental health or illness with an inability to control emotions or thoughts, a lack of judgment, the inability to work hard or withstand pressure, and unreliability.
By contrast, the stereotypical barrister is held in high esteem: a fearless gladiator, wielding a razor-sharp intellectual broadsword. Always in control of their emotions. Erudite and articulate. Powering through long hours of work with pride and not breaking a sweat under pressure. Sometimes wounded, but never defeated. Suffering in silence and quietly bandaging their own wounds, ready to fight another day. And able to “play hard” as well as “work hard”.
The grip of these two myths on our profession – that mental health is something that affects others, not us, and the gladiator litigator myth – means that we rarely discuss mental health in the same conversation as litigation because we believe one precludes the other. For too long, members of our profession have been beholden to the idea that our experiences in navigating mental health challenges, whatever they may be, are incongruous with a successful career in litigation. We have internalized the myth that only the invincible are successful. We need to call out these myths – not only because they are false, but also because they send the wrong message about who “belongs” in litigation. And because they cause terrible suffering for those who believe that they cannot or do not measure up to the gladiator ideal.
Let me digress for a moment and provide some context...
To read the paper in full, please visit the Court of Appeal of Ontario website.