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Designing The Stress Out Of Legal Sector Jobs

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Stress and burnout among Canada's legal professionals is at a tipping point. Studies have shown that depression among lawyers is four times higher than the general population, and burnout has been reported by 94 per cent of respondents to a survey by the Legal Assistance Program Conference (LAPC).

While law societies and bar associations across the country address the issue though awareness, education, and workshops, comparatively little has been done to examine and address how the current structure of legal services can contribute to burnout. Could we innovate less stressful careers?

Design is an approach to innovation that starts with the user in mind. This 'human-centred' approach has been used by public and private organizations to improve everything from access to justice, to reducing medical error in operating rooms. Just as we can design new and better service experiences for the public, we can also design less stressful work experiences. However, if firms are to create healthier workplaces, they will need to undertake a fundamental re-examination of how they go about their business, from the way they define themselves, to how they structure and deliver their services.


Legacy systems can do serious harm to productivity when they don't evolve with the needs of users. Confusing layouts, glitches and poor integration with work flows can create multiplied tasks out of what should have been a time-saving process. For technology to work it needs to be matched with real-life behaviour patterns, which don't always play out the way developers expect them to. A great way to identify problems within a legacy system is to look for work-arounds that have been integrated into daily workflows. A pattern of patchwork solutions, like post-it notes, or using functions for different purposes would suggest that the system isn't working for its user as well as it should.

Service Models

In any organization, processes get taken for granted - 'that's just the way things are done'. Failure to formally model your service leaves a lot to chance. It also means that energy is spent where it might not be necessary, or even valued. One sign that your service model is creating unnecessary work, is if costly deliverables or results aren't met with proportional enthusiasm by clients, or if dissatisfaction persists despite favourable technical outcomes.

Service blueprints map your service out like a play, with front stage and back stage processes, and the interactions between them, examined in depth. Front stage processes are generally customer-facing, while back-stage processes are conducted by 'actors' (partners, associates, assistants etc.) and often involve technology. This detailed visualization tool can clarify where overlapping or mismatched processes are creating friction. We can then design interventions to reduce that friction, while creating greater value with fewer resources.


At the highest level is purpose. For any job to be meaningful, a worker has to feel connected to the firm in an authentic way. Your purpose should be tied to an ideal future-state that you would like to contribute to. When a purpose is easily recalled and integrated with the firm's culture, it contributes to an atmosphere of collegiality among a workforce known for its pessimism. If your purpose isn't already clearly articulated and communicated, a great way to identify one is through examination of your current social impact, as well as what causes your employees care most about.


The siloed approach to running the modern firm is unsustainable. Thanks to technology, roles in many industries have been created, re-defined, or eliminated. Content is inextricably linked with website usability. Social media is increasingly used as a customer service channel. These examples of blurring departmental lines call for a re-think of how we approach traditional firm roles, and how these roles could better communicate with each other. Rather than letting tradition dictate a role, we should define it by the real needs of the actor, the organization, and its clients. This means that roles across firms may be completely different - and that contributes to brand differentiation in a way that cannot be imitated.

If we look at these high-level trends - purpose, human-centeredness, and collaboration - we realize that companies like Apple and Google have integrated them for decades with favourable results. While this doesn't address all of the factors that contribute stress and burnout, it does make a case for improving the most controllable aspects. When we take the mental health of our professionals seriously enough to bring about systemic change, we do the legal system and they society it serves an immense favour.

Joseph is a former health researcher and the founder of Huddle, a service design and innovation consultancy that helps organizations to create new value through innovative service models and brand experiences.

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