A recent legal study found that when a lawyer was fired from his or her job, the rate of death by suicide increased by almost two-thirds.
The study by the University of Waterloo’s School of Law was commissioned to examine how lawyers were treated under a new law that came into effect in Ontario in November.
The law requires lawyers to be fired if they fail to meet certain conditions.
According to the report, one in five lawyers who were fired had at least one suicide attempt.
“We did find that the rate [of suicide] was higher for those who had failed to comply with the requirements of the new law,” said Professor Christopher Purdon, a lawyer with the law school’s program on professional suicide.
“For example, in cases where the failure to comply was due to an emotional or mental disorder, or a personality disorder, there was an increased risk of suicide.”
In the past, the province has been cracking down on lawyers who don’t comply with workplace policies that mandate the use of anti-depressants and mental health professionals, such as counsellors, are trained to work with lawyers, and that lawyers must adhere to workplace policies and have regular meetings with supervisors.
Under the new legislation, lawyers must also comply with anti-discrimination and harassment policies.
They must also provide regular reporting to the province on how many lawyers have been fired, how many had been fired and who the reason was.
Purdan said the province’s new measures are “a step in the right direction” but that more work is needed.
“I think this is a very important first step and it is good that we are doing this right now, rather than later on,” he said.
“But this does not mean that we’re ready to move on to something else.”
When lawyers are fired from their jobs, they may not be able to appeal to a court, and there is no recourse for those that do not comply.
That means many lawyers will be in limbo, unable to do their jobs and facing the possibility of losing their jobs.
“It can be a really tough time to deal with a loss,” said Heather Leong, a spokesperson for the Ontario Association of Independent Counsels.
“They are also the ones that are responsible for the mental health and well-being of the people who work with them.”
Some of the reasons for lawyers to leave the profession include “disgruntled employees” who are dissatisfied with the outcome, financial stress and the inability to meet client needs, said Leong.
“When you have people in their late thirties and forties who have been struggling for years, it’s hard to get through that.”
Leong said that in the last two years, lawyers have reported a higher rate of suicide than they did in the 1990s.
A new law could help address some of those concerns, but it also highlights the need for more support and counselling for lawyers who have lost their jobs because of mental health issues.
“If you are a lawyer and you lose your job and you don’t want to get out of it, you should see a mental health professional,” said Purdo.
“What we need to do is to find a way to make sure that the legal profession is a safe space for people who have mental health conditions to go into.”
With files from The Canadian Press