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Litigation & Mental Health : Opening Up About Professional Burnout

Parijata Bhardwaj
17 Jun 2020 5:04 AM GMT
Litigation & Mental Health : Opening Up About Professional Burnout
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The conversations on mental health in our profession always place the onus on the individual rather than the system.
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The recent tragic death of a young actor has once again brought to focus mental health. Social media is presently inundated with the need to remove the stigma around mental health and the oft repeated advice of seeking out help. People are calling out the exploitative and isolating structures of the Film Industry, however, limiting it to one field is naïve.

The reality of mental health in the legal field is an open secret. As lawyers, the terms 'burn out', 'break down' and in some cases deciding to quit the profession due to the toll on mental health are quite common. Personally, I have found the pressures of the profession and the stakes involved to wreak havoc on my mental health. In the spirit of full disclosure, I suffered a complete breakdown once, and that is when I realized that I couldn't take my mental health for granted. The aim of this piece is two-fold-

  1. to share my experience in the hopes that others who are going through something similar might find solace and support and;
  2. to question some of the long-accepted practices in the field especially litigation which have gone unquestioned for long.

I do not come from a family of lawyers. In fact, I am the first lawyer in my entire family. My decision to litigate was fueled by my idealistic desire to 'help people'. Further, I started my litigation without any proper mentorship to speak, powered by sheer force of will that I was going to help people. Litigation, despite all your internships is learnt only when one steps into the Court. Reading the mood of the Court, thinking on your feet, and working to safeguard your client's interest are easier said than done. Also, in my case I started practicing in Bastar, an area I was unfamiliar with and a far cry from the Courts of Delhi where I had previously interned. Owing to the ongoing armed struggle, the majority of the cases were of offences which were serious with penalty ranging from life imprisonment to death. Further, being an outsider and a woman, I never could assimilate or truly become a part of the local bar which has the potential of being a solid support system for any lawyer. I still remember my first cross-examination was in a murder case and an error on my part in framing the question ended up supporting the Prosecution's case. The anxiety and worry of this kept me awake at nights for weeks. The armed struggle also ensured that practicing basic criminal law was a challenge in itself. On top of this, I was in a place where apart from my colleagues I had no social support network to speak of and each of us had our own mental health to deal with. The final result of this was that I soon started losing confidence in myself, felt lonely and felt that me with my limited legal knowledge was actually spoiling my client's cases rather than helping them. Despite having read up in detail about mental health and firmly advocating being non-judgmental, I couldn't stop judging myself. The thought of having to argue in Court filled me with anxiety and dread, 'I hope I don't mess up the case'. I am aware that this is a common feeling amongst lawyers, but in my case, it became so prominent that it affected my health. I started losing weight and kept falling ill frequently.

Finally, I was convinced that I was not adding anything productive and I needed to take a break. So I chose to leave. The reason I communicated openly was that I wanted to hone my legal skills, but the truth was I just wanted to leave. Some survival instinct kicked in to tell me that for my own well being I had to leave and of course the privilege of having supportive parents ensured that money was not an immediate worry. However, the thought of going to a psychologist/psychiatrist for help never struck me. I was sure that leaving would soon cure all ills.

After this, I joined a chamber in Mumbai and started practicing criminal litigation. I could feel the difference immediately. The mentorship I craved so long was finally there. I had someone to go to and fall back on. I made some of my best memories in litigation in this chamber. So, I started putting my everything into the profession and literally put the rest of my life on hold. Despite having many friends in Mumbai, I hardly met them, and my entire world was limited to my work and that seemed enough for some time. For me to have some savings, I had to take a room in Andheri, which meant a long commute everyday to reach work and reach home. My schedule was such that Sunday -which was the day off- would be spent more or less sleeping. There was always a matter to prepare, caselaw research to do, some filing and some work or the other. The manner in which our litigation system is structured is such that it demands and celebrates complete surrender to the work. We have each heard stories of how some lawyer functions only on 2 hrs of sleep or those perfect juniors who are not only wonderful in the legal field but manage their household also with efficiency. So, the times I found myself overwhelmed my mind would prop up these ideal juniors and tell me that the fault was with me for not being good enough and not the system. So, I would motivate myself to ignore my anxieties and tell myself that if I excel in my work everything else would work out. I rationalized the things I missed in my life as unnecessary. But such spiels seldom work, the continuous unending work started getting to me, I started feeling lonely and I started falling sick again. I had to force myself to read paperbooks. Further, the unpredictable nature of the profession also started getting to me. There were cases in which we knew on merits we should have won but we didn't. The more one practices law, the more one realizes how little is in the control of the lawyer. My personal life also started getting affected, I hardly had either the time or energy to spend time with my partner. He started getting worried about me and in the middle of this chaos I came across a well-paying job opportunity. The money was more than double of what I was making or would make in the next few years and it also meant I got to be in the same place as my partner. My confused mind readily chose money as the reason for all my problems. I had not shared any of my anxieties or thoughts, with any of my colleagues, who are all wonderful people. The truth was I myself was not convinced of the gravity of it and verbalizing it felt like just complaining and I also started suffering from a bad case of the Imposter Syndrome. Compared to a lot of my batchmates I had it much better - I didn't work till 1:00 AM, I liked my senior and my colleagues and the environment in the office was generally pleasant and cheerful. In such a context, my anxiety and mental health seemed to be because of my weakness. I felt guilty. I was so fortunate and had no business complaining about stress or anxiety or anything. On the contrary I should be grateful that my office was allowing me with all my flaws to work there.

It was when I shifted to Delhi that things worsened. I found myself unable to read the briefs. I found myself reading the same sentence for hours and still not understanding it. Judgments, which I could remember like the back of hand, went missing from my mind. Slowly this disconnect between how I felt and how I projected myself took a toll and I still remember my breakdown moment. I had reached the office early and thought that I should get an early start and sat to read the papers again. A few minutes later, my mother called me and just casually enquired how I was doing, and that question triggered something inside me that I broke down and started crying. I just couldn't stop the tears and I didn't know why I was crying but I just felt exhausted. I felt like I couldn't function anymore. At that moment I just wanted to disappear. I called my colleague and explained to her that I had to leave and hung up. The people at work were very sensitive to my needs and supportive and gave the space I needed to recover. But this time I realized that just quitting wasn't the solution. So, I finally decided to go for therapy and went for almost a year and a half.

One of the major triggers for me was the fact that I kept pushing myself to fit into the mould of the ideal lawyer our field has created over the years. This ideal lawyer is brilliant, efficient, and always on top of their game. Be it drafting, filing, briefing, or even arguing they have everything under control and as a bonus have a repertoire of witty jokes and anecdotes and in some cases an online presence as well. It was this fictitious character that I compared myself to and always found lacking. This persona gets a generational make over depending on who is using it, so I have often heard senior lawyers complain about how they toiled and overcame dreary working conditions and the junior entrants just had to toughen up. Also, there is a weird competition of suffering, so if someone narrates of working with an unreasonable senior, another will mention how he worked with two unreasonable juniors and each person tries to one up the other. These stories are often narrated to young lawyers asking them either to ignore the exploitative nature of the field or to just bear it because that is the way things are.

I often find it ironic, that a profession which often challenges unjust systems and has developed a plethora of caselaw on the fact that following something because it is the convention is no defense against injustice, has no qualms in asking lawyers to bear the injustice of the field. Even the most sensitive people, while giving a patient hearing, often conclude by saying that maybe this field is not meant for you. The conversations on mental health in our profession always place the onus on the individual rather than the system. It is the  individual lawyer who is weak, inefficient, or ill-equipped to bear the profession rather than the profession which is exploitative and inhuman.

As a profession, we seldom openly question the long working hours, the highly hierarchical nature of the profession, the fact that a young lawyer from modest background with no Godfather in the profession has almost zero institutional support, the fact that we have one of the highest burn out rates but we do not have any proper mechanism of counseling or addressing the toll on mental health. We have all heard stories of workplace harassment and abuse which is justified under the garb of 'the senior is temperamental'. A lot of emotional abuse and cruelty gets legitimized because of the culture which romanticizes suffering.

At the end, over the years there are some pointers which have helped me to cope with the profession better:

1. Your journey in this profession is your personal journey. Don't feel pressured to fit into moulds or expectation, take time to device your own rhythm.

2. Try and litigate in your hometown if possible. The support system of a family or even the general familiarity of culture is invaluable in litigation.

3. Try and find a good mentor. A recent article on this point is immensely helpful (https://www.livelaw.in/columns/finding-mentorship-in-the-legal-profession-158335).

4. Set your limits and be firm about it.

Despite what might seem from the article, I love practicing the law. The adrenaline rush from a good Court hearing or the feeling you get when you realize the Judge has understood your point is indescribable. I am yearning to achieve that balance and reach a point where I can say litigation is a part of my life and not my life and be content with that. 

(The author is a Delhi-based Advocate, and may be reached at [email protected])

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