The past decade has seen changes in the conversation around mental health in India. More, but not enough, people seem to acknowledge its existence and experience. For a profession deeply immersed in its own ecosystem, the conversation around mental health of lawyers is low on the list of professional priorities.
We in the legal profession wear our resilience like an armour—perhaps it has something to do with the inherently adversarial nature of the business. Thick skin is valourized and any show of weakness is a concession to the opponent, imagined or real.
The pandemic has not been kind to lawyers either. Economic activity has slowed down, affecting incomes of firms and chambers, leading to pay cuts or even closures. While the miseries of some of us are limited to yearning for the High Court canteen biryani, many members of the Bar are in a vulnerable position.
The reality is that young lawyers are familiar with existential demons. Currently, they may have taken the form of lower income or declining practices, but mental monsters have long existed in the form of inhuman work hours, demanding clients and a constant fear of failure. A global survey conducted in 2019 by American Lawyer Media (ALM) on "Mental Health and Substance Abuse" showed that the problems of depression, anxiety and substance abuse among legal professionals all over the world may be much worse than acknowledged. Some of the most commonly identified reasons for depression and anxieties among lawyers were a direct consequence of the workplace—"the feeling of always being on call and unable to disconnect; billable hour pressures; lack of sleep; and client demands".
During his felicitation address last year, Chief Justice S.A. Bobde highlighted the issue of mental wellness of legal practitioners. I spoke to colleagues and friends across the bar and the bench, to find out about the stress factors in their daily professional lives. Litigators were quick to point out the anxieties associated with preparing overnight briefs, dealing with difficult judges and the crippling fear of being humiliated or publicly insulted for mistakes. The Cult of the Error looms large over legal practice because the "stakes are always high".
Judges have to deal with a massive daily caseload, chained to a unit system that incentivises quick disposal of cases. Additionally, arrogant lawyers with outsize reputations can be a nightmare for young judges.
Lawyers that work with victims of domestic and sexual abuse are constantly haunted by brutal imagery and painful accounts. Some consider it the mental tax of the noble work. Corporate lawyers say that while their work may not involve blood and bones, it does involve a lifetime of tears and sacrifice on the family front. Incentives built around billable hours pave the way for a system that rewards the "What more can I do" worker. In an industry where the individual is the product, client feedback has the power to make or break the individual.
The profession does romanticize hard labour. Any lawyer who wants to make the cut in the profession is expected to devote herself solely to the lavish homage of the jealous mistress. During all-nighters and at lawyerly gatherings, legends are recounted of how the stalwarts of the profession burnt the midnight oil, sacrificing personal life and ignoring health.
To be honest, the hustle is what draws me to the law, most days. It may not be the masochistic desire to burn out, but is partly the quintessentially Indian ethos of sacrificing oneself to a higher intellectual cause. It also validates the belief that money isn't the most important asset or value in the world. The fortunate accident with law is that this hard work, more often than not, does beget a decent amount.
Admittedly, I have benefitted greatly from this culture of steep learning curves and perfectionism. What I do find problematic is the assumption that this way of working has no collateral damage.
Remove the stigma
Lawyers across the board struggle with mental health issues, secretly. The problem may be diagnosed as a mild form of medical anxiety, but the excessive value placed on presenting a brave face makes them dread the conversation. A culture that paints vulnerability as a sign of intellectual weakness makes lawyers repress their discomfort. The silent struggle in some cases could even cause the individual to take unfortunate steps to end the pain once and for all.
The fear of stigma and the lack of an adequate redressal is driving young, talented and ordinarily high-spirited individuals away from the profession, convinced that they're "not cut out for it". By having regular conversations on mental health at the workplace and in professional settings, we can contribute to making the suffering relatable and, consequently, easier to address.
The profession is inherently demanding and it doesn't have to stop being that way. We can possibly reflect on this environment that normalises abuse. Committing to basic norms of defined work-hours and mandatory leaves, can be a small step in redefining how lawyers approach their work and ease out the struggles. In addition, we can work towards developing a system that doesn't treat mental struggles as some form of intellectual deficiency. This is not to say that no lawyer will ever face pressure again, but let's at least commit ourselves to a system that supports the development of coping mechanisms to deal with that pressure?
My two cents towards a potential solution - Set up a panel of counsellors, therapists, and, psychologists supported by the higher echelons of the Bar. We could work towards creating an institution that offers counselling or therapies to lawyers, along with a mental health helpline. This effort to normalise the issue can be buttressed by talks, workshops and webinars. Professional peer groups focussing on art, music or sports can help the community come together in informal spaces.
I have come across some recent staggered—and commendable—individual efforts. These efforts— such as webinars by the Supreme Court Bar Association and media like Livelaw —have been undertaken in direct response to some unfortunate setbacks and new problems being faced by lawyers owing to the pandemic. Sooner or later, we'll get back to the hustle, busily gather the pieces of our professional lives and forge on. I urge that the mental health awareness efforts extend into the time when "normalcy" is restored.
Another suggestion is for these efforts to percolate to every individual bar at the city level. This will be necessary for wider reach and to ensure that institutional support is not limited to the hallowed corridors of the privileged higher courts.
If the mental well-being of lawyers is inherently linked to the nature of the profession, it would be only fair for the profession to assume responsibility and build a support system. Not all lawyers may have faced a problem with mental illness. But let's learn to recognize that a heavy head isn't only caused by an intellectual maelstrom around an interpretive point of law. Let's extend support to ease the mental burden—with empathy and kindness.
Views are personal only.