The Advisory: Volume 9, Issue 3, December 2011

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Meet the New Executive Director: Marian De Souza takes the lead at the Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society

By Derek Sankey

Marian De Souza views her role as the Executive Director at Assist as the next step in a career that has always involved working closely with lawyers from many different backgrounds. Assist is a charitable society that helps lawyers, law students and their families with personal problems. “It just seems like a natural progression to work with lawyers on this level,” says Ms. De Souza.

Role similar to running a business

Ms. De Souza sees aspects of her role as similar to running any business. “We address operational, infrastructure, IT, marketing and governance considerations and compete for resources, like any company.” More importantly though, she describes what is unique about Assist. She says, “Assist provides an opportunity to connect with lawyers on a profound level.”

Assist was founded on a tradition of compassionate and caring lawyers in Alberta. It owes its existence to the energy and determination of recovering alcoholics who demonstrated the passion and compassion to establish a network of lawyers to help other recovering lawyers.

Today, Assist is a comprehensive program offering professional counseling services and peer support for a range of personal issues, including stress, anxiety, work-related issues, relationship issues, family problems as well as alcohol, drug and other addictions.

Challenges to overcome

Assist works to reduce the stigma associated with having and addressing personal issues. The culture of the legal profession may add to the stigma, admits Ms. De Souza. The need to maintain a professional image of competence, while bearing significant responsibilities as a lawyer, can make it difficult to seek help for personal issues. “A big part of our mandate is to increase awareness about personal issues and that has been a focus in my first year,” she says.

When asked about the best-kept secret of the organization, she quickly responds that it’s “the Board of Directors and every volunteer.” These individuals are devoted to helping their peers and do so without fanfare. The board recognizes there is more that Assist can do. Their vision includes increasing awareness of programs and services, and establishing a stronger network of peer support volunteers, all with a view to the organization’s long-term vision of prevention. “That is, preventing stress in life and law from becoming distress; preventing distress from turning into crisis; and preventing crisis from becoming a terminal or long-term debilitation,” she says.

Assist reaches new milestones

Ms. De Souza is excited about the milestone that Assist reached when it launched a structured Peer Support program, which offers training to lawyer volunteers who wish to support and encourage peers experiencing difficulties. This program matches a lawyer who has an understanding of the issue at hand with a lawyer seeking help. She reports that the program has seen immediate uptake and results are positive. It is also about honouring lawyers who volunteer their time to help their peers. “It’s humbling to see lawyers come forward and ask for help, but I’m equally humbled when lawyers offer their help,” says Ms. De Souza.

She believes that her work in private practice, which included family law, has helped prepare her to handle the calls she receives. She says that working closely with the Canadian Bar Association has enabled her to better understand the fundamental needs of lawyers. She will assume the role of CBA Alberta Branch President in 2013.

Organization of lawyers helping lawyers

Prior to joining Assist, Ms. De Souza was director of a commercial division in Western Canada, where she identified a need for networking in industry. As founding president of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW), she connected Calgary to major global markets.

Ms. De Souza insightfully explains that we strengthen the bar as a whole by addressing the needs of the individual. To her, peer support represents what Assist is all about – an organization of lawyers helping lawyers. Ms. De Souza will no doubt draw upon her experience as she builds on the credibility of Assist and grows a strong network of peer volunteers to help carry out the vision of the organization.

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