AJEFO Conference 2019 Panel 4: Ethics and mental health

Posted: 10/09/2019

By Geneviève Proulx

As part of the fourth panel of the AJEFO Conference, the presenters gave an overview of the different aspects of mental health and cultural competence.

Mental Health

We all need to be sensitive to mental health issues among law students and those in the professions. There is growing anxiety among students when they realize, for example, that their performance is lagging and when they find themselves in the race for an articling position. Counselling services have noted an increase in suicide attempts when students do not receive a call for an articling position. They suffer from classification processes, a feeling of isolation when they leave their environment and sometimes a feeling of insecurity with regard to French. Fortunately, universities provide services to their students such as mentoring, volunteering, pet therapy and even colouring.

Are there any limits to the development of coping mechanisms? The number of students with anxiety problems has increased significantly over the past five years. Universities and the Law Society provide many accommodations for exams, but how will the market accommodate these future workers and how can we strengthen student resiliency? One way to reduce anxiety would be to disconnect from the devices. However, it becomes more and more difficult to disconnect when universities encourage young people to do the opposite.

How the Law Society Tribunal deals with mental health

The Law Society Tribunal is very open in terms of accommodating people with disabilities, such as allowing recording devices, written examinations, odourless courtrooms or service animals. In addition, health can be a legitimate defence against an allegation of professional misconduct, or at least a mitigating circumstance in a decision. The Tribunal offers accommodation in proceedings such as slowing down, taking several breaks, showing empathy while setting limits, maintaining a firm but understanding tone, speaking directly to the person, and finally, not assuming that you have understood, but rather checking what has been said. Please note that you can consult this presentation, like all the others, on the pratiquO Website.

Unconscious bias

We all have explicit prejudices. If you do sociological research, you will be looking for students who have certain qualities specific to sociological research. However, implicit prejudices are pernicious. They are based on attitudes, stereotypes and preconceived ideas. Working conditions generally favour men in the legal profession, which contributes to women leaving the profession. Women are judged a lot on their appearance. A student was told she’d be a better speaker if she smiled more! Black women are told that they should relax their hair to be taken seriously.

Even people committed to substantive equality will have unconscious prejudices. One study demonstrated the power of implicit associations: a picture of a Black man was shown holding something, but the majority of the people tested “saw” a gun. This is what happened to a young Black man shot by police in his grandmother’s garden in the United States with a cell phone in his hand.

A recent study of law firms in New York is particularly relevant. Nextions, a consulting firm, recruited five lawyers from various New York law firms to write a research note on intellectual property issues related to trade secrets. Nextions then inserted 22 deliberate errors into the research note. Nextions created two different versions of the note. In one version, the author was identified as Thomas Meyer, a white lawyer, employed for three years and a graduate of NYU Law School. The other version identified the author as Thomas Meyer, a Black lawyer, employed for three years and a graduate of NYU Law School.

Apart from the author’s description, the memos were identical and contained the same 22 deliberate errors. These memos were sent to 60 different partners from New York law firms who agreed to evaluate them to establish “the drafting skills of the young lawyers.” The results of the study are striking. When the partners who reviewed the memo perceived Thomas Meyer as Black, they consistently noted more errors in the memo and assigned a lower overall score for his writing ability, compared to when the author was perceived as white.

The examiners also found more spelling errors for the “Black” Thomas Meyer, compared to his white counterpart. Specifically, the same memorandum obtained an average score of 3.2 out of 5.0 for Thomas Meyer’s “Black” writing ability, while the white Thomas Meyer obtained an average score of 4.1 out of 5.0. In addition, qualitative comments on the memo were always more positive for the version written by the white lawyer than for the version written by the Black lawyer.

In addition to race, there are also gender dynamics at play in the legal professions. Women lawyers are often seen as assistants, even when they are partners. It was noted that on average, they are interrupted four times more than lawyers. To address these problems, it is good to have a mentor, be conscious about the impacts of prejudices, and cultivate allies at the firm management level. These deviations from respect can be denounced with a dose of humour or in a more direct way. Institutional changes must also be made and pro bono work with disadvantaged minority communities encouraged. Finally, trainers must be recognized in terms of their pay, hours recognized, etc.

Diversity and inclusion in the Law Practice Program (LPP)

Officials of the French LPP have put in place strategies to raise awareness of diversity and inclusion among their participants, and to prepare them for the future in the labour market. In general, if an employee does not conform to the culture of the environment, he or she may feel excluded. Indeed, we know that employees who do not embrace the majority culture and do not participate in social activities or devote all their personal time to their work can be ostracized. However, the society is no longer homogeneous and there is a great deal of effort to be made to ensure full representation. Tools must be developed and implemented to achieve this. There is no one-size-fits-all plan to address all the incidents of unconscious biases, but a sincere and deliberate effort must begin at workplaces.

Member Assistance Program (MAP)

Finally, the Law Society works with the Member Assistance Program to provide all members with confidential counselling, health and wellness information, and self-care services at no cost to them. Please be sure to check them out.

Geneviève Proulx is the French Language Service Advisor at the Law Society of Ontario. Geneviève is responsible for the provision of French translation and communications within the External Relations and Communication division.