Yves Faguy speaks with lawyer Jason Ward about his life in law and how he had to walk away from it all after falling into alcohol and drugs to escape the demands of running a law firm.
In October, CBA National reported on findings from a recent national study, spearheaded by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the CBA, that rang the alarm on the wellness of legal professionals. The study shone a light on the heavy toll that daily work takes on legal professionals. The research revealed significantly higher levels of psychological distress among legal professionals than experienced by the Canadian working population (57.5% compared to 40%) and similarly higher levels of anxiety (35.7%, compared to 13%). It also showed that alcohol and drug use among legal professionals has reached worrying levels. According to the study, the proportion of men with risky drinking behaviour increases from roughly 27% to 34 % between five and ten years of practice. For women, the figures run from 18% to 24% in the first five years.
But let's not forget that behind the number are real people. It's why I'm so appreciative to have had the opportunity to speak with Jason Ward – a well-known and highly-regarded litigator from Lindsay, Ontario, who has recently retired from the practice of law. Jason started his career as a Bay Street commercial litigator before deciding, with his wife, to launch their firm in 2003. Over the following couple of decades, they grew Wards PC into a thriving midsize law firm. Then, in his early- to mid-forties, when discovered that alcohol and drugs gave him an escape from all the demands of running a practice and building his firm's brand.
Please take the time to listen to Jason Ward's story. The legal profession needs to have these conversations, as unsettling as they are, if we want mental health outcomes to start moving in the right direction.
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Episode 18: A personal story about alcohol
and substance abuse in the legal profession
[Start of recorded material 00:00:00]
Yves: Hi, I’m Yves Faguy. Welcome to the show. In this episode of Modern Law, we talk to a lawyer about his struggle with mental health and substance abuse.
Intro: You’re listening to Modern Law, presented by the Canadian Bar Association’s National magazine.
Some of our listeners may have read our coverage at CBA National Magazine about a recent national study spearheaded by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the CBA on wellness in the legal profession.
The study was disturbing, if not necessarily surprising, sadly. As it really shone a light on the heavy toll that daily work takes on legal professionals. The research revealed significantly higher levels of psychological distress amongst legal professionals than that experience by the Canadian working population, and similarly high levels of anxiety as well. The report also showed that alcohol and drug use among legal professionals has reached worrying levels.
According to the study, the proportion of men with risky drinking behaviour increases from roughly 27 percent to 34 percent between years five and 10 of practice. For women, that kind of risky drinking behaviour also increases from about 18 percent to 24 percent in the first five years. I encourage everyone to read the report. There’s a lot in there. We’ll leave a link in the episode notes. But let’s not forget that behind the numbers are real people. Which is why I’m so appreciative to be able to introduce my next guest.
Jason Ward is a well-known and highly regarded litigator from Lindsay, Ontario. Who has recently retired from the practice of law, and he’ll explain why.
Jason started his career as a Bay Street commercial litigator before deciding, with his wife, to start their own firm in 2003, which they built together in Lindsay, in the Kawartha Lakes Region in southeastern Ontario. Over the following couple of decades, they grew their firm, known as Wards P.C., into a thriving mid-sized law firm. They built a family, very implicated in the community. Good fortune, it seemed, smiled upon Jason.
I’ll leave it at that for now and let Jason tell his story, but please take the time to listen to this. The legal profession needs to have these conversations, as unsettling they may be, if we want mental health outcomes to start moving into the right direction.
Welcome to the show, Jason Ward.
Jason: Thank you, Yves. It’s great to be here.
Yves: It’s great to have you. Before we kind of really get into it, tell me a little bit about your life, your path to becoming a lawyer. What made you gravitate towards law as a career?
Jason: I think, to a certain extent, it was a bit of a natural fit for me. My father is a lawyer. My wife’s a lawyer. I have a sister who’s a lawyer. I have aunts and uncles who are judges and lawyers. So, I had a lot of exposure to the profession growing up. But also, like many others, you know, I found the mystique of being a lawyer alluring. And, you know, the financial stability aspect of it, as well, appealed to me.
Yves: Yeah. I mean, it’s no doubt. Tell us a little bit about the kind of law that you ended up practicing. What kind of practice did you develop?
Jason: Well, I got trained on Bay Street, which was probably the biggest asset I acquired throughout my education. And after leaving Bay Street after two or three years, I opened up my own firm in central Ontario, a place called Lindsay. And it was just me initially, and now it’s grown to 10 lawyers.
And my practice, from the get-go, really involved exclusively civil litigation, without personal injury. So, in a place like Lindsay or central Ontario, that means anything and everything can come in the door. And often, you have to pick up, you know, one of your law school textbooks to look back on what type of law applies to your problem, et cetera.
But since then, that’s been my focus. And recently, last year, I was designated by the Law Society as a Certified Specialist in Civil Litigation.
Yves: And so, give me a sense of how long have you been practicing? What’s your year of call?
Jason: I’m a 2000 call.
Jason: And I’ve been practicing up until January of this year.
Yves: And what, did you always have your mind set on litigation? What work do you do to litigation?
Jason: I think I can’t say exactly what guided me into that. I think it was just a natural fit for my personality. I’m like many others in this profession, somewhat of an overachiever. Like the challenge. Have sort of a must-win personality or demeanour. And I think that’s just what naturally pushed me into this area.
Yves: Were these qualities or characteristics of your personality that, looking back now, were present in your youth as a teenager, or as a child?
Jason: I don’t think so. I was fairly normal as a young person. I think when I hit university I – in undergrad university I did very poorly in my first two years. I was very into football and was playing some of that at the time, and flunked out of university early in my undergrad career. And after that, sort of made a snap decision and I went from flunking out to, you know, having the highest grades at my university in my program, which happened to be economics.
And so I – some switch inside of me turned, turned on. And from then on, I couldn’t really stop that over achieving got to be the best mentality.
Yves: OK. That’s interesting. So, you practiced for several years as a civil litigator with, you know, a strong reputation in your area of practice. You know, how did you first realize that you were beginning to struggle, perhaps, with certain mental health issues?
Jason: Looking back, I think some of the key signs that I now understand are my life started to become much more organized, and it had to be organized. So, including at home, I became much more autocratic in my home. I have three teenage children.
I became very task-oriented, more rigid in the way I was behaving, both at work and at home. Eventually, that developed into a certain level of resentment with work. So, for example, my policy in my practice was, no matter what time of day or night it is, if you email me, you will always hear back from me within minutes. And I did that for most of my career, including, you know, whatever – 11 o’clock at night. And I started to quietly resent that.
And that resentment kind of grew over time. So, at some point, for me, I became a bit of a desk bot, both at work with my associate lawyers and at home with my own family. Which I had awareness of and I knew I was doing. But it was really an unstoppable freight train at that point.
Yves: When was the onset of this, would you say – you know, you say you’re 2000 year of call, when did this start manifesting itself in more acute ways?
Jason: I think it materialized, really, for me, at the age of 45. Up until that point, I had not really used alcohol at all. I was, you know, a drinker, maybe two or three times a year, often not to excess, very much a social drinker. Alcohol was not part of my life. I didn’t keep alcohol in the home. My wife didn’t really consume alcohol.
And then, again, something happened to me at age 45. I happened to have been on a southern Caribbean vacation and I discovered rum and Coke. And starting on that trip, I started to, all of the sudden, drink excessively. I recognized it and felt it to be a release and a relief. And that happened for me immediately. And that developed, or progressed from drinking – you know, being drunk on vacation most of the time, and then it crept back and found its way into my home here in Ontario where I started to drink, and then it just got out of control and I started drinking uncontrollably.
Yves: You were talking about, also, you know, this idea that you’re behaving a bit like a desk bot at work or in the family, and this coincides with the alcohol and the drinking. Or was that there before?
Jason: No. I think, you know, whether I had addiction issues before in my life and I just supressed them successfully, I’m not entirely sure about that. But certainly, whatever underlying issues I had materialized and took control, probably, in my early 40s and progressed to mid-40s, where alcohol became a real factor in my life.
Yves: Were there other earlier warning signs that you might have missed that something was amiss?
Jason: I don’t think so. You know, regrettably, for me, I’m an all-or-nothing guy, including when it came to my cases in the law. I was also very, I think, business driven as in addition to being striving to be the lawyer I could, so a lot of my focus was also on ‘how do I build and maximize this law firm’, which now has gone from zero to the second largest in central Ontario.
And I did a lot to promote the business, promote myself. I was an incessant self-promoter for much of my career, and had no qualms or shames about that, because I rationalized it as I’m building a brand, I’m building a business. Which continually expanded. So, for me, I think, really, there was a real confluence of things that came together in a perfect storm right around my mid-40s, whereas I’d historically been very controlled. I, you know, I don’t really have a lot of other issues in my life that I can’t control, or that I think I can’t control.
And all of the sudden, I was having these issues and feelings and thoughts that I just couldn’t manage anymore.
Yves: Did you notice the reaction of your colleagues and co-workers to some of what was going on? We’re talking about four or five years ago. Am I correct in my timeline?
Jason: Yeah. I’m just 51 now.
Yves: OK. And so, what was the reaction of your colleagues?
Jason: They didn’t say anything to me. They didn’t let on. Like they believed they realized I was having an issue or a problem. Certainly, my immediate family did. They were well aware and seeing what was going on with me.
Yves: And just to be clear, you do share this with your spouse?
Jason: Yes. Yes. I have a very supportive spouse who is also a lawyer. And who now continues on with the firm that I started and we built together. She’s been very supportive, and she was always very aware of what was going on. And frankly, I had a pretty good open dialogue with her about what was going on until maybe towards the end, when I hit about 49, closer to 50. Where I started to be less communicative about what I was experiencing.
Yves: How did you cope with all these – I mean, you know, you’re running a firm. You’re building a firm. You’re building a brand. You’re running your own practice. I mean, just that, I could ask you how did you cope with just that. But you’re managing people; you’ve got a family; you have three teenage children, which is also something else to deal with and manage and grow as well; how do you cope with all of that while managing a mental health issue? And I understand, too, you also ran for office.
Jason: Yeah. I did back in 2003. When I left my Bay Street firm in Toronto, I actually ran in the Ontario general election. Liberal Candidate in my home riding. How did I cope? I think the more my issues happened, the more I got – the more extreme I got.
So, a good example is, during COVID, when everybody was working from home, I worked at the office, but for some reason I took it upon myself to be this public informer about COVID and all things COVID. So, every day I would come in and I would write five to 10 blogs per day on all the things that were going on that I thought my community should know about. And this took off. It gained a very wide audience in my area, in my region. It became a very popular go-to source.
And, you know, at the end of the day, I was given an award by the city for being the COVID hero. But all the while, I wasn’t coping well at all. And that translated into ‘do more’, ‘do more’, ‘try to garner more recognition’, ‘try to be more publically known’. And that’s how my behaviour sort of paralleled my addictions and my problems.
Yves: And so what happened ultimately?
Jason: Ultimately, you know, I don’t like to use the term burnout, because I don’t think that’s a medical term. But at age 48 and a half, I stopped drinking. And that was not easy for me. Up to that point, an example of the volume that I was drinking would be, you know, there’s a restaurant, a beautiful Italian restaurant in Lindsay, and I happen to know the owner. And at that point, that owner would deliver to my porch, once per week, 24 bottles of nice red wine. And every Monday he would do this. And every Monday I would be out and need more.
And that was in addition to the rum and Cokes that I would start with, generally, after work. My day started to go shorter, so I’d start coming home earlier, because I could start drinking earlier. I was always fairly good about not drinking while working, at least at the office. So I wasn’t a day-drinker, per se. But, you know, I started to come home at 3:00 or 3:30, primarily because that’s when I wanted to start to drink.
I then realized I had a very big problem, and my wife intervened. And we decided that the only option for me was sobriety. I disguised it in my own mind that this would be a temporary step; I would temporarily be sober. Once I could show I had it under control, I could return to managed drinking. And that’s how I got to the point of being able to stop, was tricking myself into thinking that.
I then hired a sober coach in Toronto, who specializes in working with professionals who have addiction issues, particularly alcohol and drugs. And I went sober in the summer of . So, just after COVID started.
The problem I had is when I went – and I’ve successfully been sober since them. The problem I had is I kept working. I turned it up a notch. And I couldn’t be without a mind-altering experience. So, I had never done drugs in my life. I had smoked maybe one joint as a young person in my teenage years. And all of the sudden, I found myself buying a lot of THC pills.
So, not smoking drugs, not, you know, not doing lines. But you can buy the pills that are just concentrated THC. And, you know, they’re about 10 milligrams per pill, and that generally is enough to get somebody moderately high. And after I stopped drinking, I discovered this. And all of the sudden I was going into my recently legalized cannabis store once per day.
And I found myself walking around with a pocket of about 30 or 40 of these pills a day. That would all be gone by the time I went to bed. So, you know, the average person probably uses 10 to 20 milligrams of THC to get high. I was – I eventually started using up to 35 to 40 milligrams per day. To the point where I couldn’t remember the night before when I woke up in the morning with no hangover, mind you. But I just substituted THC for the alcohol.
Yves: It’s extraordinary that all this happened at quite a later stage in your life, when none of it seemed to be part of the landscape in your younger years.
Jason: Yeah. It really wasn’t. Drugs were not a part of my life, nor did I ever think about them or considered doing them. Alcohol was not a factor in my life. Now, you know, I don’t have childhood trauma that I could identify that precipitated this. You know, repressed memories didn’t come forward or nothing of that nature. It was that trip to Puerto Vallarta where, all of the sudden, I realized alcohol gave me an escape. And that was it. Once I made that connection with alcohol, it just became abuse and abuse. And it got, you know, out of control where I had to get professional help.
Yves: Can I ask what is it that you were escaping from?
Jason: It just turned my mind off. It just numbed my mind. I wasn’t – you know; I had a rule in my practice that, you know, I wouldn’t go home unless my inbox was empty that day. And you know how many emails lawyers get in a day, and my rule was I’m going to stay here and finish until I get all – nothing can be in my inbox.
That was part of my ‘you’ve done a good job today. You can go home and reward yourself’. That went away. Thinking about cases and clients all the time went away. Worrying about what others were doing at the business or, you know, what I had in court the next day or was I prepared or not, should I do some more research before – all that went away with alcohol.
And all of the sudden, I just found myself in a nice quiet place where I – and I was not a conversationalist when I drank. I was one of those guys, or people, who sort of went insular while drinking. So it wasn’t a loud, boisterous exercise, it was a very quiet exercise. And I just found this is peace, this is tranquillity, this is quiet. I really like what I’m doing right now.
Yves: So, you’re really kind of getting away from the deadlines, and the callbacks and the responses that are expected of you?
Jason: Yeah. I think it gave me – you know; it gave me an escape patch to ‘Jason, you have to be and be perceived to be the best all of the time’.
Yves: Yeah, always on call.
Jason: Always on call, always on show, always be, you know, be that public personality, be that leader amongst, you know, your local colleagues, be the best of the best. All of that got turned off by rum for me. And that was for me a life-changing event.
Yves: And so ultimately, you did have to walk away from the law, or walk away from law practice.
Jason: I did. I hired a psychiatrist who I worked with three times a week, 45-minute sessions, three times a week, for a year. I worked very hard with that psychiatrist to try to regain control and try to stay in my profession. So, I put a major investment into, you know, ‘I can’t leave. I’m only 50. You know, I’ve got bills to pay. I’ve got teenage kids. I own this big firm. There’s no way I can walk away from this’.
I worked on that for a year to try to stay. The drugs got worse for me. They got heavier and worse. I worked with my sober coach during that entire time. But that was mostly focused on alcohol sobriety. And eventually, it got to the point in early – in late last year, where I was just – I was just, you know, an automaton. I was – you know; I was high all the time.
Even at work, I started getting high in the afternoon. I couldn’t wait until I got home. I’d start popping my THC pills, you know, at one o’clock instead of 3:30 when I got home. And it got so out of control that, you know, I couldn’t – in the evenings I had trouble communicating with my family. I had trouble keeping up. I was just high all of the time.
And eventually, my wife said to me, “We’re done here. You’ve got to do something. This can’t continue”. So I quietly announced that I was going to be retiring from the law and I would like to run for mayor of my municipality. And I left abruptly, and I went to rehab. I went on a 30-day stint in a great immersive place in Montreal to try to get control, because at that time, my drug use had escalated.
And I realized then that I was heading into, you know, even more dangerous waters with, you know, with heavier drugs that I was coveting and staring to use. And I knew that would be the end of me. I knew if I let that continue, a) I probably wouldn’t live much longer; and b) I’d certainly lose my family and probably my finances at that point.
Yves: And so, when was this decision to go to Montreal?
Jason: That was in February of this year.
Yves: And so you haven’t really returned to the office in a meaningful way since then?
Jason: I have not. And in fact, I find it very difficult; you know. But before I went to rehab, leading up to the end of last year, I mean, I own a firm in Lindsay, and it’s a large building, I would sit in my F150 pickup truck outside the office on average for an hour every morning, working up my ability to go into the office and face the day. And that happened for about a year.
Yves: What were you afraid of?
Jason: I just couldn’t go in and deal with it. I just didn’t want to deal with it. I resented it. You know, I experienced tremendous physical symptoms. So I had lots of headaches all of the time. It got to the point for me that, you know, before I went to rehab, when I would get a work-related email at night, I felt physically sick. And I often had issues of – you know, I’d get an email from a client on a problem or an issue and I vomited. Because it got so bad for me that I couldn’t process anything, I couldn’t receive anything. And I started to just delegate excessively.
Yves: Was there an employee assistance program in your firm?
Jason: Interestingly enough, I appointed – I created something called a mental health first aid officer. I did that about two years ago when I went sober. And that person’s role at the firm is to be a go-to person from mental health assistance and help and they sort of direct a person to various resources that are out there that they need to get help. I think this was a relatively new thing for lawyers to be doing at the time. Maybe now there’s a little more of it. But I can remember encouraging other lawyers locally to do this and it just fell on deaf ears. There was really no reception to it at all.
Yves: How come do you think?
Jason: I don’t know. They didn’t tell me why. It just never happened. You know, I even sent an email to my local Bar Association with the by-law that I enacted appointing the first mental health first aid officer and the role and defining the role and responsibilities. And said, “Hey, you guys are free to adopt this”, you know. “Adopt your own policy and stick it up on your bulletin board too”. And it just – it was never received.
Yves: So, I’m curious to know – I mean, you’ve been in practice for some time. You’ve started up your own firm. I mean, you must have had some interactions with other lawyers struggling with mental health issues. Had you noticed them? Or is it really only when it came upon you that you realized that there was something there?
Jason: I witnessed substance use disorder amongst other lawyers, particularly local ones. But, you know, I had a lot of cases with Toronto lawyers as well. My practice was probably a third focused on Toronto litigation, which I do from Lindsay. And I just didn’t have the opportunity to see lawyers outside of that conflict culture that you’re engaged in all the time as a litigation lawyer, or, you know, a business lawyer, or any other type of lawyer.
But certainly, my best estimate is, probably, that amongst my local colleagues, I would say my observations are upwards of half I’ve observed, or witnessed, what I think are mental health-related issues or substance use disorders.
Yves: And they run the gamut from what, stress, depression, anxiety, alcoholism.
Jason: A lot of alcoholism, yeah. A lot of alcoholism. There is drug use. And I’ve seen that. But more, it’s disengaging. It’s lawyers who I just see over time disengage, because I know they’re having either depressive episodes or anxiety or other conditions that I know are there that they haven’t pursued, they haven’t explored on their own.
Yves: You talk about conflict culture; you used that term. What does that mean?
Jason: Conflict culture is that – when I was practicing, every other lawyer in my world was an enemy. And I don’t mean to say an enemy in the sense that I disliked or hated that person, but I had to win every single case that I did. And I had to go to the ends of the earth to do so. And every time I would communicate with other lawyers it was always, you know, rarely was it we see things the same way and agree to do the same things, sometimes. Sometimes I was able to do that.
But by and large, my communications and experiences with other lawyers are conflict driven. And that’s because, you know, it’s the same reason that I felt compelled not to disclose what was going on with me. It’s not so much the stigmatism of having a mental health issue, for me. I don’t think that was the issue. And certainly, now, I’m very open to talking about it.
But it created the possibility of, you know, being deprived of a comparative advantage. It was a weakness that other lawyers could sense, that the public could sense, that may impact the business of my law firm. And in my own mind I would never risk that. And that was a big motivator for me in why I was an aggressive litigator. I think a fair litigator, but an aggressive one. And why my relationships with other lawyers often were very conflict ridden.
Yves: But this conflict culture in law, you know, first of all, I mean, obviously, I can see it in an adversarial system where, you know, you’re litigating against an opposing party and all that. Does that conflict culture extend into the law from itself and the law firm the workplace itself?
Jason: I think the real issue, for example, at my small to mid-sized firm is not so much the conflict within colleagues at the firm, but more so the pressure that I probably directly and indirectly put on the other lawyers to perform, to perform legally, to perform financially. And, you know, that goes into the billable hour business model for lawyers and other things.
But even in, you know, although I did litigation, my wife who is a business corporate lawyer, I mean every day you’d come in and you had problems. Your entire day is dealing with being presented a problem and often having to argue with another lawyer about the problem. And imagine how that impacts you personally and emotionally after years and years and years. And I don’t think lawyers fully appreciate that. Because I know of no other profession like that, where from the minute you start in the morning until the minute you end at night most lawyers are dwelling with conflict, problems, high expectations. And for me, that caught up with me in a terrible, terrible way.
Yves: So you know, you’re aware of this national study, which is a bit of a first of its kind in Canada and it’s a study of the legal profession and looking into mental health issues. So it’s national in scope, essentially it’s a combined effort of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the Canadian Bar Association, and the University of Sherbrook, a group of researchers there, led by Dr. [unintelligible 00:29:16] who ran this survey on lawyers, and it is quite stunning. I mean, you know, it perhaps doesn’t come as a huge surprise that there are higher levels of anxiety in the legal profession than in the general Canadian population.
But the figures that came out of this study are just off the charts. The research basically shows that there is significantly higher levels of psychological distress among legal professionals compared to the Canadian working population. We’re talking about close to six out of 10 legal professionals versus something more in the order of four out of 10, 40 percent of the people in the Canadian population, which is already quite high. And it’s similar for higher levels of anxiety; it also applies to substance abuse. Are you surprised at all when you see these figures that came out of that report?
Jason: I’m not. I didn’t find the report overly revelatory. I mean, it’s great to be able to put numbers on these things. Because I think it helps us understand sort of the insidious prevalence of mental health issues and wellness in our profession. It did not surprise me about the numbers that they were ascribing to what’s going on out there.
Yves: Right. And you know, there’s an incredible figure too, which is almost a quarter of legal professionals have contemplated suicide. I mean that’s – I find that sky-high.
Jason: Yeah. It is. I mean I, personally, I’ve had two lawyers locally who did that. Now, I don’t know if it was – you know, what else might have been going on in their lives that caused them to do that, but it is out there. I’ve always admired – you know, throughout my career I’ve admired those lawyers that seem to be able to turn it off at five o’clock. You know, they’re there, they work all day; they go home at five o’clock; and it seems like they just change personality. And they have a wonderful home life. Or they appear to. They’re not answering emails after five o’clock, they detach. And they’re able to detach.
They’re not checking their phone. I’ve always had great appreciation and admiration for lawyers who can do that. I never could have in a million years. And you know, lots of the litigators I dealt with I don’t think could do that either.
Maybe it’s just the nature of personality that litigation attracts. But even in my later years, I realized even the lawyers who were doing that, or who I perceived to be doing that, were having issues as well. Because it’s such a demanding business, it’s a full – it’s a 24-hour cycle business, in my view now. If you want to be the best at it, if you want to be the busiest, if you want to be, you know, regarded as a high-end lawyer, it’s a 24/7 business. You’re on all the time.
And the lawyers who chose not to do that, I think do experience, a) comparative disadvantage in the marketplace, and b) I think personal issues, because they’re just not able to perform and keep up with the lawyers who are doing that. And I think that creates issues for them as well.
Yves: So, how do we change that?
Jason: Well, you know, the report gave lots of great recommendations. Some of which had been bantered about, you know, amongst our profession for years. For example, the billable hour model. I’m a strong proponent of the billable hour model becoming our secondary market practice, not our first. I believe very strongly that much of our profession could be geared or switched to fixed-fee billing, or project based billing.
You know, an example for that may be in family law. It’s a fixed fee for your lawyer to go to the series of conferences leading up to the trial management conference. Or it’s a fixed fee for a pleading. You know, a statement of defence is x, rather than billable. Of course, there’s some risk in that approach for lawyers, because, you know, you can have clients where you have to spend a great deal of time ascertaining facts before you can plead the case. But I think lawyers should be able to contemplate that in their price structures. And at the end of the day hopefully it all averages out.
I think there’s still a place for the billable hour in our profession, but frankly I’m surprised that you know, corporate clients and in-house counsel haven’t been more aggressive in trying to get rid of the billable hour up at this point, that still shocks me.
Yves: Well, I think it’s just, you know, I think it’s something that we’re so familiar with, and it’s hard to replace and it. I guess – you know; it seems to be a measurement by which, you know, a lot of people can agree on, somewhat imperfectly, perhaps. But it does seem hard to get rid of.
I am wondering, though, like let’s contemplate a world where the billable hour does become secondary, as you say. What about the pressure from the clients? That’s still – that’s another driver that’s there.
Jason: I think the client base who’s going to impact the billable hour model the most are, as I said, you know, the more sophisticated corporate clients.
Yves: Just by way of that, you’re describing to me a situation where you want to be that guy who is the most responsive lawyer, the guy always returning that call, emptying the inbox by the end of the day, that sort of thing, and that – somewhere that is – it strikes me. And maybe I’m wrong, but it strikes me. And correct me if I’m wrong, that that is about trying to please the client.
Jason: I think you’re exactly right. There’s people-pleasing inherent in my behaviour and activity. I’ve sort of realized that in my journey since I got sober, about what was going on with me personally. And I think that filtered into my professional time as well. No question about that.
But also, I think, for me, it had to be that that point needs to say, “You’ve got to go to this lawyer, he’s the best. There’s no exceptions no matter what that lawyer costs. It’s worth it. It’s worth it”. And, you know, that was part of my misguided branding of what I wanted myself and my firm to be viewed as publically, and that sort of fuelled me as well as the client, people-pleasing aspect of it.
Yves: So, I mean, I think the world of business and industry, and workplaces, all these different worlds are trying to come to grips with this rising mental health challenge; it almost seems like it’s a bit of a crisis. I don’t know if it was brought on by COVID, or whether that was more of a catalyst? There is a lot more open talk about mental health in the legal profession and other professions as well.
I’m just wondering how important is it for us to start preparing young lawyers, who are entering into the profession, how do we prepare them to be more resilient from a mental health perspective? Do we need to – do law firms, do law societies, do law schools, I don’t know who it is, do the various stakeholders need to get them in a position where they’re thinking about their long-term health and is there a way to do that?
Jason: Yeah. Obviously, an excellent question, and I think my response is there’s probably a bifurcated or two-part plan that has to happen. One is, we’ve got to be more influential in the regulation of the profession. And I think that’s the Law Society. I think that’s Law Pro in Ontario, our insurance company. And I think, to a certain extent, it’s the associations, including the CBA.
So there definitely has to be a coordinated effort to regulate this issue more. And by that I mean, why can’t we in our annual survey have a section dedicated to wellness? Why can’t we have an obligation in the profession that if you experience a wellness issue, you’ve got to notify somebody? Why can’t we have spot-audits for lawyers about wellness in addition to financial audits? Or are you running your files properly?
Why can’t we have dedicated non-lawyer treatment providers available 24/7 who can come to you? You know, who can – if you call and say, “I’m having a real problem. I’m not handling it well”, why can’t we have somebody go to that law firm, sit with that lawyer, and come up with a plan? How are we going to deal with this? What do we need to do for the next step? What resources do we need here to help this lawyer?
Because while we do have the practice advisory line and we do have the help line, at the end of the day, I’ve tried those. And they were ineffective for me. And my problem or at least I perceive my problem to be far greater in scope than, you know, having a half an hour conversation with a lawyer from Hamilton on the phone about, you know, things are going to hell in a handbasket over here. That didn’t work for me. I needed far more intervention. And I needed somebody – it would have been helpful to have somebody guide me to that intervention rather than me having to navigate that entire process myself. Why can’t we have that?
Yves: And should some of that guidance come from, you know, for example, a law firm leader, a managing partner or partner, mentors, should they now be more attuned to this and being on the lookout for signs of desperation in their younger lawyers, or the younger associates, or even their younger partners?
Jason: Absolutely. And in fact, someone might argue in the future that all of the recent changes to Occupational Health and Safety in this province creates somewhat of a duty on owners or seniors in law firms, particularly larger ones, to monitor and oversee this, because they have a responsibility to keep a safe and healthy workplace.
And I’m not aware of any lawyer arguing that to date, but I could see it as being, you know, a great talking point going forward. Particularly when you’re dealing with, you know, first or second year associates that are given $1800 billable hour targets, you know, in their first or second year; and not a lot of guidance on wellness, if any. So, I mean, I think that’s got to come. I think that’s where we’re heading. We have to be able to head.
Very interesting is, I think that the lawyers that I’m meeting now or hiring, the new lawyers, there’s kind of three generations. There’s lawyers that are usually older than me that are what I call the old-school lawyers in terms of how they practice. Not so tech focused, you know, they can detach and turn it off and go home for the most part.
And then there’s my generation, who are kind of – they know we need to balance work life and we say we’re doing that, or trying to do it far more than maybe my previous generation. But I’m not sure it’s happening. And you have the new generation of lawyers coming out who, I think, recognize that about the profession and have gone to the extreme. And, you know, at 4:30 they’re leaving and they’re not checking their phone in the evenings. They’re detaching.
You don’t see that as much at the larger firms in Toronto, but there’s a lot of lawyers outside the GTA and a lot of law firms where I expect there’s a whole bunch of new lawyers that are really prioritizing the work life balance. And I don’t think the profession is ready for that. I don’t think the profession is ready for the same work ethic that we’ve exercised and practiced as a profession for many years to be upset like that so soon.
Yves: Because the type of thing that you often hear from – I’m not going to name anybody, but what you hear from some partners out there is, you know, at this certain age, is well, you know, “So and so is putting an emphasis on work life balance”. Which is fine. Which is fine. But don’t expect you’re going to become a partner”.
Sometimes, my reaction that is, “Well, that’s awfully quick judgement”. Perhaps the person who – you know, perhaps that young lawyer is not really thinking about becoming a partner now. But that could change in five years, that could change in seven years when they decide, “Well, OK, now I am ready to pick up the pace. I am ready to give it all I got. Put in some extra hours and stuff like that”.
Are we thinking a little too much in linear terms about what the path of a lawyer – from lawyer to partner is? I guess, another way of putting it is, do law firm leaders need to start thinking a little bit more creatively about what a career path can be for a young lawyer?
Jason: Yeah. You know, you raise an excellent point. And as you were speaking all I could think about was, you know, my second year at a major Bay Street firm, where I can remember being in the end-of-year evaluation meeting and being told, you know, unfortunately you didn’t hit your billable target of 1900 hours this year, and as a result there’s no bonus. And really nothing more positive was said. And that’s always stayed with me.
And that, at least – and that wasn’t that long ago, that was only 20 years ago. I think the culture in larger firms has somewhat changed and adjusted from that approach. But I think it’s still there. I think it’s still, you know, an undercurrent of how firms are operating. But, you know, even if you look outside of the GTA, there’s not a lot of firms, I don’t think, that focus on ‘you’ve got to make partner’. I don’t think that’s nearly the goal or ambition of many lawyers in the province who are outside of the larger firms.
Maybe in some of the larger centres like London, Ottawa, those places, there’s more of that. But if you look at places like Lindsay, Peterborough, you know, and you go down towards – all the smaller centres, those lawyers I don’t think are driven nearly as much about becoming a partner or becoming an equity participant in the firm, generally. I don’t see that as being as much of an issue outside of the large firms.
Yves: But they’re also proof that there is an alternative career path in law that involves you working in a law firm servicing clients, even hitting certain targets, but you know, where you can somewhat remove yourself from the rat race, so to speak.
Jason: Yeah. I don’t – again, I’ve been removed from that environment for enough years that I probably am not qualified to say. But, you know, I think there is an expectation on zero to 10-year associates to perform very hard. Including, you know, nowadays, there’s expectations to be published, right? To do things that are published, like, you know, CLEs, and to do blogging and to do articles that get published and gains notoriety for you, the lawyer in the firm.
So, I think, if anything, it’s got – the expectations have grown on lawyers in that environment in the sense that not only did they have to contend with the minimum billable threshold each year, but there’s these expectations on, you know, pro bono gratis work, there is publication and notoriety. There’s other things that they expect you to do to be part – to build a profile of the firm, including CLE and other, you know, memberships in other organizations. So, if anything, I think it’s as bad or worse than it was when I was there.
Yves: what would you, if you had one major recommendation that you think is absolutely necessary for – let’s think of private law here, private law organizations, what would be one major recommendation that you would suggest they pursue to meaningfully address the mental health crisis in the profession?
Jason: I think if I was a bencher at this point in time, at least in Ontario, and I know there’s a wellness committee, and I know they do great work, and the lawyers on that wellness committee are very motivated to effect change for mental health. I think if I had one thing I could say at a bencher meeting about this issue would be, look; I think the Law Society has a responsibility to require that all practicing firms and lawyers, whether it’s one lawyer in that office of 500, have a wellness policy.
And that wellness policy has to do certain things, including appointing people in the workplace there as resource sources, including disclosure about issues that lawyers may be having, including the options for lawyers to get help outside the firm if they need it. And I think that’s got to be mandatory.
You know, you may recall in Ontario we had that enormous lawyer debate about the diversion or the diversity and inclusion policy that went through the Ontario Law Society not long ago. And I just don’t think there’s room for that anymore. I think the Law Society has, in my view, a positive obligation to take things to the next level and require mandatory wellness policies in all workplaces, which has some teeth to it. Which isn’t flowery language. Which has cogent, relevant and very, you know, direct help lines and resources for guys like me who need it in the workplace who really didn’t find it helpful at all to call the 1-800 help line.
Yves: Would this involve some sort of obligation on the managers of those firms or the owners of those firms, and is it something that can be enforced?
Jason: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I think there has to be accountability and responsibility in the firm if the wellness policy isn’t followed and complied with strictly. No question about that. And I think the firm should have an obligation to appoint certain people to ensure that’s monitored and overseen. And that’s in addition to having, for example, like at my firm, a mental health first aid officer, you know, who is a more neutral person, who Is not management, who is you know, another staff person who other staff people are comfortable going to.
Yves: So, another question. So, if you did some work where you were suddenly face-to-face with a younger you, it doesn’t have to be you you, but you know, a younger you’re hungry young litigator entering the profession, what would you tell them?
Jason: You know, that’s – I’m really – I’m struggling these days with that very issue that you’ve raised, Yves, because it’s a conundrum for me. Because, on the one hand, I’m here talking to you about, you know, forced exit from the profession because of mental health and burnout. And on the other hand, I’m thinking to myself, if I was a young Jason Ward who just got into Western Law School, I’m not sure I’d do it another way, or that I’d be capable of doing it another way. Unless someone intervened and told me I had to do it another way.
Yves: It’s just the way it’s done?
Jason: It’s just the way I did it. And to your point earlier, is, you know, lawyers are individuals, and it’s going to be an individualized experience. There’s so much latitude and room for lawyers to do whatever they want in their profession, you know, subject to some by-laws and guidelines at the Law Society about what you can and can’t do with some things. But by and large, we’re not regulated. We’re regulated financially, you know, we’re regulated in terms of our practice behaviour, but not on everything mind you, but we’re not really that regulated.
And because of that, I think there’s a lot of space and room for lawyers to, you know, move ahead in life in ways that are deleterious for their own mental health and no one’s telling them that. No one’s stopping them and saying are you sure you want – you know, are you sure this is the way you want to go? What about these other options? Or if you do have a problem, here are some resources that I can get you with right now, right? And that’s what I had to struggle with when I needed help. Is I couldn’t call someone and say – I couldn’t call my colleagues because, again, I perceived that as, you know, weakness and losing comparative advantage.
Not that I wasn’t prepared to tell my colleagues I was having mental health issues, I’m OK with that, I could have done that. But I wasn’t prepared to lose what I thought to be strength in the marketplace, including with my colleagues.
Yves: At the same time, when you talk about that space that lawyers have to chart their own path, I suppose, a little bit individually, there is something a little hopeful in that, is there not? That, you know, a new generation of lawyers can start to put their foot down about some of these things. And I think – realistically, I think they are beginning to do that and saying, you know, listen, I’m not signed up for this 12 to 14 hour day every day six days a week. Do you see anything there?
Jason: Yeah. I agree with you. I think this generation of lawyers, within the last five years, is taking a different view on the practice of law. I think they recognize that the profession itself can have these inherent issues that can be harmful, and I think they are pushing back. I don’t disagree with you. But it’s in a very unorganized way. It’s on an individual one-off basis. And I struggle to think how we’re going to affect enterprise-wide change for the benefit of everyone if this is how change comes about.
Because, frankly, it’s going to take a generation to outgrow the way that we practice now, because the people that own firms, like me, even though I’m a progressive lawyer with, you know, a very strong – I very strongly believe in work life balance. At the end of the day, when that young articling student is leaving at 4:30 every day and detaching, I’m starting to ask questions, right, because that’s not good for business. And, you know, so there’s that aspect of it as well, there’s that.
There’s always going to be that pressure until a younger generation of lawyers completely takes over with their own principles and policies on how they want to operate. The change isn’t going to happen.
Yves: And perhaps their own business model.
Jason: And their own business model. And I don’t think the profession can afford to wait that long.
Yves: Can I ask you one last question? I’m wondering, you know, is it too soon to ask, but, you know, would you ever return to the law, or is that too early to say? What do you envision for yourself?
Jason: I am dealing with that. I don’t know. All I can say is, currently, the way I feel is I can’t return to the office. I’m not a medical doctor, but it feels like what people describe as PTSD. That’s how I feel when I have to go back. When I get lingering emails from former clients about work, I experience that.
So, currently, I feel that I don’t see the pathway forward that I could return to the profession in any capacity, and that saddens me to a large extent. Because I am only 51 and, you know, I was doing so well in my career. You know, I had lots of notoriety, and making great money and designated as a specialist. Things were going very well for me. It’s not something that I would have chosen to walk away from, but, like I said, I had no choice. I couldn’t continue at all. And I don’t see that changing for me today.
Yves: Well, Jason Ward, I do want to thank you for joining us today and sharing your experience very candidly. It’s an important topic. I’m convinced that this will go some way to – you know, I know that you felt that it wasn’t about destigmatizing the issue for yourself, but it might help destigmatize the issue for others, and I just want to thank you for having an honest conversation about this. And really, just wish you the best of luck on the rest.
Jason: Thanks Yves. And you know, I’d like to thank you as well, and the CBA for continuing to make this a focus, and an important focus.
Yves: Thank you and take good care of yourself.
Jason: You too.
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