Glass Ceilings Draw Blood

The compounding toll of advocacy related to one’s own identities

Glass Ceilings Draw Blood

The Code of Professional Conduct for BC states that “[a] lawyer is a minister of justice, an officer of the courts, a client’s advocate and a member of an ancient, honourable and learned profession,” and encourages lawyers to steadfastly adhere “to the time-honoured virtues of probity, integrity, honesty and dignity.”1 To fulfil these responsibilities, we are trained to be rigorous, but dispassionate advocates who prioritise duty above personal interest and safeguard our reputations as the essential currency of our practice.

Many of the underlying principles of this approach are noble and draw people to the profession. But they can exact a compounding personal toll on those of us who advocate on issues related to our own identities. Because, whether we admit it or not, we are not just lawyers. We are humans. And it’s a rare human who can crack a glass ceiling without getting cut.

Advocacy related to one’s own identities can take many forms: standing in court arguing for the basic human rights of members of one’s community; fighting for equal respect within the profession; being tirelessly available for education, consultations, and representation to taking the risk of practising law authentically and openly as oneself. This is unique from other forms of advocacy because the harms addressed are not abstractions, but lived experience, and the consequences of failure are amplified and personal.

This conflicts with what is expected of lawyers. We are not supposed to be personally implicated in our work, to have feelings and bodies, or to risk our reputations. Yet advocacy related to one’s own identity requires all of these and regularly risking being seen as a nuisance, a bad lawyer, a poor representative of one’s community, or overly sensitive for simply raising concerns and seeking
equal treatment.

The value of the work that marginalized lawyers do to improve our system and our society is incalculable. They are the change-makers that keep our laws and society moving slowly, hopefully inexorably, closer to alignment with our values. But the compound physical, emotional, and social toll of working in these conditions is intense.

The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada helps quantify the toll.2 It found an alarming level of mental health challenges in the profession across the board, but when it comes to lawyers with “diverse” identities, the results are downright devastating.

Lawyers with disabilities and those who are Indigenous, ethnicized, and/or 2SLGBTQ+ were found to experience significantly higher rates of psychological distress, moderate to severe depressive symptoms, and burnout compared to those who are not differently abled, are White, straight, and cisgender.3 For example, one of the biggest gaps is the finding that 61.9% of non-binary legal professionals have experienced suicidal ideation since beginning their careers, compared to 24.1% of legal professionals as a whole, and 11.8% of the Canadian population over their lifetime.4

Discrimination experienced outside of professional practice likely contributes to these alarming numbers, but what happens within the profession also matters. For example, one of the most highly significant risk factors identified was emotional demand, which is inseparable from advocacy related to one’s own identity.5 The study also found that lawyers with marginalized identities experience higher levels of incivility and violence in the workplace, including unwarranted criticism, unsolicited sexual advances, threats of violence, and bullying.6

What keeps people going despite these challenges? Very often it’s steadfast commitment to the potential and principles of our profession. But the personification of the virtues of probity, integrity, honesty, and dignity alone does not protect the human who is doing the work. We also need acknowledgement, resources, support, and more people to share the burden. And we clearly need change.

  1. Ibid 2.1-5(f). |
  2. |
  3. Pages 200-202, 210-211, 219-220, 233-234. |
  4. Pages 39-43, 221, 224. |
  5. Page 70. |
  6. Pages 319-323, 325. |

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