Law Students: To Thrive in a Criminal Legal Career, Think “Perennial”
As the summer draws towards September, a new crop of promising, eager students prepares to enter law schools and begin their education towards a career in the law. Like Prof. Jochelson, as he said in this recent Robson Crim Blog Post, I find those students inspiring in their work ethic and sharpness. Yet, for those of us who work in the profession, and teach those students, it would be unreasonable not to have misgivings and some ambivalence about sending a new cohort of young, bright minds into a professional sector fraught with social and mental health issues. I certainly have concerns when I contemplate the future of the students I teach criminal law.
It is no longer a secret that there are major problems in the legal profession, with depression, drug and alcohol addictions, and suicide. The serious problems endemic to the legal profession are illustrated particularly well by this week’s New York Times feature: “ The Lawyer, the Addict.” Written in the first person narrative of a lawyer’s young widow after his untimely death, the article poignantly and starkly details problems with stress, addiction, burnout, work-life conflict and mental health, in the legal profession. The article, though written in an American context, resonates all too clearly with similar issues discussed by, for example, former Ontario Bar Association President Orlando da Silva, much closer to home. Without question, addictions, mental health, and toxic work environments are serious issues that need to be addressed in many corners of the legal profession. So too are inequalities along gender, race, sexuality, and other identity lines.
Law school orientations now commonly include conversations about mental health and depression, and open conversations about these challenges are held mandatorily and formally. While it is important to talk about these issues, I worry that we run the risk of perpetuating a self-fulfilling prediction if we omit to consider the numbers of lawyers who have found a path towards a life in the law that is satisfying.
Without victim-blaming, when we consider those who suffer from mental health issues in the midst of careers in law, it is important to emphasize that working as a lawyer can be rewarding, and that personal and professional self-realization within the profession is possible.
While, as former Canadian Bar Association President (now Justice) Michele Hollins has sagely made more publicly known, it is all too common for lawyers to experience depression and problems with addictions, it is also possible to work as a lawyer and score high on what Arianna Huffington has called “the third metric” , to live, “with meaning, purpose, and joy.. to thrive.” While a too-high 20% of lawyers face depression issues, this also means that 80% do not.1 My anecdotal experience reinforces these statistics. While I have seen friends and colleagues beleaguered by their legal work, I have also seen many who are not.
My own career in law over the past fourteen years has not been a linear progression along a traditional career path, and it has not made me especially wealthy. It has been more of a circuitous journey, through private practice, criminal defense work, policy and law reform roles, a PhD, and now balancing academic work with a role as an Assistant Crown Attorney. It has been an ongoing struggle to balance child care obligations for four children with the demands of a career in law. Yet, I have done interesting things. I have never been bored, and I have enjoyed practicing law, and continue to enjoy practicing in the field of criminal law, a great deal.
To help explain how I see a path towards personal fulfillment and career success for young lawyers and newly minted law students, I found another viral blog post attractive. This post espouses reframing of understanding of population segments away from the exclusionary discourse of “generations” as commodified units. It encourages us not to think about “millennials” but rather, without delimiting a specific age category, about “perennials”:
"ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who live in the present time, know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology, and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded, risk takers who continue to push up against our growing edge and know how to hustle. We comprise an inclusive, enduring mindset, not a divisive demographic."
To adopt a perennial mindset is to not be afraid to be a beginner, to try new challenges where success is not certain. It involves being willing to quit jobs that are destroying us. It involves being willing to start new ones at a lateral, or even lower, level. For me, it has involved, on occasion, the humility required to be trained at new tasks by gracious and patient lawyers who were once my students. It involves making mistakes, and acknowledging them. It involves maintaining a perspective distance from the demands of one’s career and the status of any particular job. It involves self-care. It involves time off. It involves breaks.
All of this is to say that, notwithstanding the real need to address social and mental health issues in the culture and institutions of the legal profession, I agree that, as Dr. Jochelson said, “this is a great time to be a law student.” Despite the fact that the profession is changing – or perhaps because it is changing, there are many exciting opportunities for perennials to have professional success, remunerative careers, and personal satisfaction through careers in law.
1 John Starzynski, “Battling Addiction in the Workplace.” The Lawyers Weekly (4 March 2011)