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Republication of an article originally posted on February 22, 2023 from Lawyers Financial.
Written by Frankie Barnet
Illustration by Kendra Yee
It’s a radical idea: what if your work, a profession that took you many years and cost thousands of dollars to study, didn’t make you miserable? Sara Forte is out to prove it’s not only possible, it’s happening as we speak. Her project, Not Your Average Law Job™, introduces its audience to lawyers from coast to coast who love their work and also find time for social issues, the outdoors, and even their saxophone. There’s Diann Castle, a senior litigator at her own small firm in Calgary, pictured in white in front of a hammock on the beach; Phil Dwyer, a Juno award-winning musician who turned to law in his 40s and now works in Indigenous and Family Law in British Columbia; and Toronto’s Alexandria Chun, whose gaming background fuels her dreams of one day having a practice dedicated to video game law.
Forte’s project may seem simple, but it’s bold within the context of Canada’s legal community at large. The recent National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada found staggering rates of “psychological distress, depression, anxiety, burnout and suicidal ideation” among members of Canada's legal community, with particularly high rates among women, minority groups and those new to the profession. The statistics are alarming, including the fact that 24% of the 5,836 of the legal professionals who responded to the survey have experienced suicidal thoughts, more than double the estimated rate (11.8%) within Canada’s general population.
So, what can we make of these two seemingly incongruous depictions of Canada’s legal field? Perhaps, what seems like a contradiction is more of a conversation. Forte, herself an employment lawyer and founder of Forte Workplace Law in Surrey, BC, launched Not Your Average Job in 2021 to showcase alternative pathways that exist in the legal community and share concrete examples of how Canadian lawyers have centered joy in their lives and practices.
I sat down with Forte and Not Your Average Law Job’s Project Manager, Sarah Ewart, to talk about the project’s origins and why the alternatives it offers are more important now than ever.
FIRST OFF, WHO ARE YOU PROFILING IN NOT YOUR AVERAGE LAW JOB?
Forte: We profile lawyers who have outside the box legal jobs. We spent a lot of time thinking about what “outside the box” means, ultimately deciding that the broader we can define that term, the more representative we are. We’re not anti-big firm. We’ve profiled people who work at big firms and are happy there, working in interesting jobs. Unlike the emphasis in pop culture and law school, which is entirely centred around big law, we are presenting a much fuller picture of legal practices in Canada. Ultimately, we’re looking for people who have something that they feel is awesome about their job. We ask people to fill in the blank, “I love my job because____ .” And whatever that answer is, that’s what we’re looking to highlight with the project.
WHERE DID YOUR IDEA FOR THE PROJECT COME FROM?
Forte: I was working as an associate at a big firm, but I wanted a change. The problem was, I didn’t really know how to do that. I started looking around on Google and found that there was a lot of information about leaving the law, but almost nothing on “making a career in law work for you.” The options seemed to be to switch firms to another similar firm, work in house, or work for the government.
So, I started looking out for people who were doing cool legal work that I didn’t even know existed. The more I learned, the more I thought it was important to share this information with people who don’t have the opportunity to do the research like I did. I’m outgoing, I had a spouse to support me, I was comfortable cold-calling people, but I know that that’s not everyone—people don’t have those privileges and they might not have my shameless personality.
AND HOW DID THE PROJECT BECOME WHAT IT IS NOW?
Forte: Honestly, once I had the idea, I didn’t do anything about it for years. Then, in 2021, I met Sarah, who was a third-year law student with a digital marketing background, and she’s the one who really breathed life into the project.
Ewart: I first heard about Sara through a mutual contact and gave her a call when I was looking for an articling position. She told me about this idea she had, a project that combined law and marketing, and it couldn’t have been a more perfect fit for me.
The idea of highlighting these sorts of “non-conventional” paths really resonated with me. Going into law school, I was already over 30, I didn’t have any family members who were lawyers, and I found it shockingly discouraging that while I was in school there didn’t seem to be any alternatives to this one, traditional career path. We’re really trained to all have similar goals and given tips on things like how many drinks to have at a function (1 to 3), or what colour suit to wear (never black). Basically, it felt like we were being trained to be law robots. It wasn’t for me. I can fake it for a while, but I worried about what my future would look like in that kind of environment.
WHY DO YOU THINK THERE ARE SO MANY PROBLEMS WITH MENTAL HEALTH IN THE PROFESSION?
Forte: Sadly, it wasn’t surprising for me to read the findings of the University of Sherbrooke study. It shocked me to read that 24% of lawyers have suicidal thoughts, but I wasn’t surprised. Well-being is an existential crisis for the legal community.
But the good news is that it feels like there’s a movement afoot. This report, our work with Not Your Average Law Job, conferences about mental health. These are all things that didn’t exist before. You know, when we started, we said we wanted to profile 100 lawyers. People said that that wasn’t possible. Happy lawyers sounded like an oxymoron. But when we made our first call on social media, 50 lawyers responded immediately. To date, we have around 86 profiles, and a long list of lawyers waiting to be profiled.
WHAT RECURRENT THEMES DO YOU SEE AMONG THE LAWYERS YOU PROFILE? IS THERE ANYTHING SPECIFICALLY THEY'RE DOING DIFFERENTLY THAT CONTRIBUTES TO THEIR HAPPINESS?
Ewart: Happy lawyers are the ones who’ve intentionally designed their practices to fit with the kind of life they want as a whole. Don’t feel beholden to a specific path just because it’s what you thought you wanted when you started out, take opportunities that interest you.
Forte: The problem is that for so many lawyers, it’s like they’re sprinting on a treadmill. They don’t have the time to stop and think about these things. But introspection, intentionality and self-advocacy are crucial.
Another big theme we see is the personal connections people have at work. If they have a connection with their clients, the people they work with, or their community, that makes a big difference. And the financial side of it is important too, because a lot of people feel trapped by money. It’s something that always comes up and one of the biggest disincentives to making any changes, which is where financial literacy and planning become crucial.
FINALLY, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WISH MORE PEOPLE UNDERSTOOD ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH IN THE LEGAL COMMUNITY?
Ewart: Traditionally, we think of vulnerability as something that can hurt you in this profession, but there’s a lot of power in it. The project has shown that people who share their stories are met with a lot of understanding in return.
Forte: Happiness is a light and easy term, but the spirit of our project is to get deeper than that and really be open about the issues people face in this profession, then show how they’ve managed to succeed on their own terms. I wish more people understood that being a lawyer can be a health-positive thing. It is possible to have a full and happy life and an awesome law practice.
We’re used to wearing our hardships like a badge of honor. It’s normal to take a kind of stubborn pride in all that you’ve endured—the terrible bosses, the long hours, or that semester you lived off ramen noodles—but if we accept the idea that suffering is unavoidable, then why can’t we make the same room in our lives for joy?
The issues brought to light in the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada reveal a culture in crisis. The prevalence of drug addiction, burnout, and mental health issues within Canada’s legal community aren't likely to be healed any time soon, and not without significant changes to the work model so many legal professionals have long accepted as the norm. But what Forte and Ewart’s work shows us is that while the findings of the study are dire, they don’t have to be inevitable.
Yes, the community at large is suffering, but right here in our midst, lawyers exist across Canada of all ages, backgrounds, and specialties, who’ve carved out careers that contribute to the joy in their lives, instead of diminishing it. These individualized, unique portraits of happiness offer a glimmer of possibility for anyone contemplating change or struggling to understand how this thing they were once so passionate about—the law—can actually work for them. Go on, check out a profile and read for yourself.
 Canadian Lawyers Magazine, “First comprehensive research on mental health in Canadian legal profession paints a sobering picture,” October 2022.
 University of Sherbrooke, “National study on the psychological health determinants of legal professionals in Canada,” 2022.