Mental Health: Are we going to address the elephant in the room?

  • Thyagarajan Narendran
  • 06:27 PM, 05 Jan 2022
Disclaimer: The following is an attempt at expounding issues of mental health. Though the author has endeavoured to take utmost care while delving into the subject with sensitivity, the author apologises in advance if any part of this article offends anyone or sounds patronising in any manner.
 

Preface: I quit litigation a few months back. I had to move out of Delhi for some personal reasons and started afresh in Bengaluru. Though landed a job in Bengaluru sometime in early 2020, just as we moved out, the lockdown was announced and I lost that one opportunity I had.

Nevertheless, I landed another opportunity in litigation (though a full year later), but could not continue because I came down with COVID-19 and the recovery took an unusually long time. So, I resigned from the job and was completely clueless. While I was still recovering, I ranted in Linkedin about how much I thought I was missing out because I had fallen sick.

I got a message from a very senior lawyer on LinkedIn which said,

Hey. Saw your LinkedIn post.The “catching up” is unnecessary. You should set your pace and goals. Don’t try and rush back. You have got the gift of life. Use it well. You are not in a race with anyone. Take it easy.  I mentor a number of lawyers. I make it a point to tell them all. It is very easy to get caught up in the race of what someone else is doing and how much s/he is earning, what matters someone else is doing, etc. Ultimately, people are different. Not everyone can be a Palkiwala or a Datar.”

While I consider this a turning point, I must confess that the time between deciding to become a journalist and leaving Delhi was nothing short of a nightmare. I was already taking therapy for depression and anxiety for a couple years and the more I explored what was going on in my mind, the more uncertain my future seemed. Therapy helps, but psychological support from members of the bar is extremely crucial. Every successful lawyer has of course gone through this cycle.

While there were many webinars on law during the pandemic, the ones on mental health or how to support someone who is going through a rough patch were countable, perhaps on fingers.

I took upon myself to start this year by addressing the elephant in the room. Why is there no support system from the bar to juniors suffering with mental health issue? Most importantly, why is a law office not a safe space yet to discuss about mental health?

When I started asking questions to some seniors from the bar, Mr. Arvind Datar told me something very simple, he said “Actually lawyers in Delhi were more badly affected!”.

[While there are many lawyers in Delhi who hail from the city, there is a sizeable chunk of lawyers who migrate not only to Delhi but also to Bombay, Bengaluru or Chennai from smaller cities in search of better opportunities in litigation.]

When I was diagnosed with depression much before the pandemic, I spoke to my senior, Mr. Balbir Singh, ASG of India, about this. I felt I needed to tell him as it will most certainly affect my productivity. His reply was simple “We will handle this Sai, you just have fun doing your work.” This was exactly what I needed to hear and I felt like his office was my safe space.

Safe space because having moved to Delhi from Coimbatore that was 3000 Kms away, I needed to feel at home and I needed to know that the city and its people were welcoming.

When I started speaking to more of my colleagues and classmates who had to move from their home town to a bigger city, I realised it was the loneliness along with the pandemic that was pushing them into depression.

This brings us to an important conversation about why the lack of social capital and an employer’s apathy are a heady concoction for mental health issues.

What is social capital:

Wikipedia defines social capital as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.”  Many young lawyers who moved cities are mostly dependent on friends and colleagues for their emotional comfort and a sense of safety in some way. When that support system was severed because of the pandemic, they spiralled.

What happened during the pandemic?

While we know it is beyond reasonable doubt that the pandemic was devastating to people across all age groups and profession, I intend to stick to how it has affected the mental health of young lawyers who migrated to bigger cities in search of a career.

I want to start with explaining what ‘triggered’ me to write this article.

One of my friends, who worked for a law firm, had to take a week’s leave to undergo an emergency surgery. However immediately after the surgery she developed kidney stones, she however was constrained to hide it from the firm, because if she applied for more leaves her appraisal would go south. She literally worked through excruciating pain only to be told during the pandemic that the firm could not retain her. While this not a debate about why chambers and law firms let go of young lawyers during the pandemic, this is more of an example of how someone who hailed from outside of the city lost all her contact with the social capital overnight.

With absolutely no support system left in the city and no one to talk with, my friend went into a depression. She eventually moved back to her home town feeling rather defeated.

The larger question here is, why is there a lack of awareness about mental health in the legal community especially during the pandemic. Some employers let go of their retainers during the lockdown and sent security personnel to collect laptops and other belongings. While I don’t want to pass any judgments on such employers for doing this, why could they not have counselled the lawyer for a few days, rather than just cutting them off one fine morning? This lack of empathy is a major trigger.

While there is a financial crunch everywhere, a one on one conversation over zoom a call assuring them that things would be okay or they would try and fit them elsewhere would definitely have gone a long way.

Why are litigation lawyers prone to mental health issues?

While one cannot discount that the stress attached to being a corporate or an in-house lawyer is unfathomable. Building a successful career in litigation is all about investing one’s time. It is almost forbidden to speak of short term benefits in the profession. A young lawyer will have to settle for a lower pay, erratic working hours, negligible social life and needless to say they have to bat many uncomfortable questions from their social circle about taking their case up for free.

Having endured emotional abuse in one form or the other, poor pay and unforgiving working hours, a lawyer makes the big move of going independent. However, all this goes down the drain one fine day owing to the pandemic.

I spoke to a few lawyers about their experiences during the pandemic and here is what they had to say

Gaurav Chaudhury, an advocate, who moved to Delhi to be a litigation lawyer, said,

“There is constant anxiety, all my plans for the future seemed bleak when the pandemic struck. The work thinned as did the pay, I have managed to stay afloat. But the suffering was largely silent.”

Another lawyer who did not want to be named said “I haven’t set foot in a court hall in months now, it was harrowing. The hard work I had to put in during the early years of my career seemed pointless and it was the same story wherever I looked.”

Jasmeet Singh, AOR, Supreme Court of India said, “Advocacy is a stressful profession. An advocate takes up a brief, and somehow gets emotionally connected with the problems of his clients. We never realised it, but that continuous daily stress was eased out with gossips and samosas in the court canteen and corridors. Today, the requirement of that distressing is not getting fulfilled. We are not meeting friends, not discussing matters or cracking jokes after our day in court, not shaking hands with our fellow colleagues. All the perks of this socialising can never be substituted by Netflix, glass of wine or zoom meets. The stress is piling up, but hopefully we will see the end of the tunnel pretty soon, and will celebrate it with samosa, cold coffee and unmasked smiles.”

In some way, it can be said that the social capital many ‘migrant lawyers’ create is their office, their roommate and the courts they frequent. Even those lawyers who did not have to suffer losing a job or a brief ended up suffering with mental health issues because many were too scared to leave the city for the fear of losing out while many had to stay in the city because they were asked to do so.


We spoke to some senior lawyers about mental health issues among litigation lawyers and here is what they had to say:

C.K. Nandakumar, Senior Advocate:

“Mental health issues in the legal profession are a serious matter and need sustained discussion. Being in a field that makes one pit one’s mental faculties daily, lawyers are often loathe to even acknowledge that they may be in need of help. The obvious reason being the fear stigma. Lawyers and judges alike, at the best of times, work under enormous, possibly unhealthy, levels of stress. The pandemic has made this worse. The loss of income and livelihood among some and lack of infrastructure, among some lawyers, needed to be balanced with the need to stay healthy. The uncertainty of the situation following lockdowns and other restrictions has also caused a lot of mental anguish. Professionals can go through depression and anxiety like any other person. If these are not talked about and addressed, it may only give rise to addiction and other counter productive responses. The legal community as a whole needs to accept this and work towards solutions that are more inclusive.”

Vibha Datta Makhija, Senior Advocate:

“There is little sensitivity to mental health issues in this highly competitive profession. Both the bar and bench need to be empathetic. It is more important for judges to be alert to the symptoms and give such counsels a sufficiently wide berth.”

Chris Parsons, Chairman, India Practice of Herbert Smith and Freehills and Mental Wellbeing Champion:

“Mental well-being should never be seen as inconsistent with high performance - on the contrary the two should go hand in hand. We ignore the mental health of our lawyers at our peril.”

Saurabh Kripal, Senior Advocate:

"The bar has always been a relatively closed circle, where more support was those lawyers who were part the ‘network’. This included both financial as well as emotional support. With the increasing democratisation of the bar where a large number of first generation lawyers are joining the profession, there is a great news to revisit the previous-existing set up.

The system of mentorship that existed between a senior and her juniors just does not work today. A more formal structure is needed to help younger lawyers - a structure that has to be put in place by the Bar council or the bar associations. Relying on the gratuitous goodwill of an employer is not sufficient.”

Sriram Panchu, Senior Advocate:

"This is a time of global stress because of the pandemic and we are a community who constantly undergo stress in our occupation. Mental health will be an issue for us. One of the challenges is isolation and loneliness. We should know that we can reach out to one another for support and comradeship. Forming a support group by and for lawyers will be a good initiative. There is strength in numbers. We need not suffer in silence.”

Dr. Birendra Saraf, Senior Advocate:

"The times we are living in are indeed unfortunate. While virtual hearings did, to some extent, provide access to justice during this period , lawyers particularly junior lawyers faced immense pressures and challenges. Large number of lawyers have rented apartments or offices and are also confronted with loan EMIS.

A large section of  lawyer’s have been struggling to earn a livelihood. The handful of affluent lawyers are hardly reflective of the true state of the profession. Junior lawyers faced and continue to harbour doubt and serious apprehensions about their survival and their future in the profession. The uncertainty and related stress gets compounded by the inability to interact with peers, seniors and clients  in person.

Understandably, this does affect the mental health of people in the legal profession, which is a matter for grave concern. Its been a phase of immense mental distress. While its easier said than done, as in any other crisis in life, the only way is to stay strong and hang on. This too shall pass.”

Devdatt Kamat, Senior Advocate:

"Mental health is of vital significance in the legal profession. Losing  cases or having setbacks is part and parcel of the profession. The agility to to move forward from such losses and concentrate on the case at hand depends on one’s mental strength. Seniors in the profession need to guide and counsel young lawyers on how to achieve this."

Madhavi Divan, ASG of India:

"It is not unusual even in pre-pandemic times to find young lawyers facing stress and anxiety. It is a competitive profession and many young people have come from different parts of the country to try their luck in the Supreme Court. They live alone, away from family and support systems. Success does not come early if it comes at all and this generates extreme disappointment and dejection.

Young women find it even harder because they are thrown off the ladder when they choose to have families. The juggling between work and family brings its own set of logistical and emotional challenges. Perhaps we do not talk about this often enough”

Aishwarya Bhati, ASG of India:

“First and foremost, we need to understand is that lawyers are social doctors. When a client brings his brief, they also leave a little bit of their pain with us. So, as  lawyers, we need a lot of mental bandwidth to handle this. With that background,  the pandemic year has bee hard for everyone including the lawyers.

During these 2 years of the pandemic the focus of the courts was to just keep the wheels of the justice running.  Many PILs were being filed, so much so that the litigation of the regular man seldom came up for hearing. What was perceived as urgent was only being taken up. Since matters are not getting listed, there was no work for many young lawyers, this brought life to a stand still."                                        

Many of us don’t plan or calibrate our lives keeping the pandemic in mind.  Many lawyers had EMIs and other financial commitments to meet and their lives came to a sudden stand still. These were the lawyers who had moved to  metro cities from their home towns.  In metros the rental of office spaces, rentals for home spaces, education of children etc is more expensive when compared to that of their home towns. Lawyers practicing in Delhi saw a lot of hardships under these circumstance.

I  think  this was a very important lesson to us all. Over the years we had gotten used to living  in nuclear families and some time ultra nuclear families. It taught us a lot of lessons. We forgot what familial support meant to us. In my opinion, this is going to be the new reality. I think we should use the gains from the pandemic like VC hearings to our advantage.    

Many women who could not appear in the courts before now appear in the court through VC hearings. Mental health has of course deteriorated the pandemic along with the pressure that this job entails had made it worse. Nature has a way of balancing things out. I consider this nature’s way of asking us to stop the mad rush. I was a signatory to the representation asking the court to continue with the virtual hearing. My primary question is why do lawyers  have to move to Delhi to practice in Supreme Court? People can sit at their home towns and practice. I for one am a big proponent of technological gains that have happened during the pandemic.”

Suruchi Suri, Partner, Suri & Co:

"The pandemic has been hard on all, including the independent practitioner. Litigation, other than for urgent reliefs is neither the priority of the Client nor of the courts. Looming uncertainty has led to insecurities. I remember a video where lawyers were jostling for about Rs 5,000 worth of free ration in Delhi.The fear of catching Covid, infecting family members, mounting medical expenses, having dipped into savings is surely taking a toll on the mental health of lawyers.We must reach out for each other in the fraternity and be available with help and resources if identify signs of any fellow colleague in need of help. 

Courts are social places, and lawyers lives revolve them. While the familiar stands suspended in the bigger cities, where we will revert to virtual courts, let us look out for each other. Some may need our virtual company or a reassuring word, others may require the professional help of a psychologist or a psychiatrist.For my mental health I avoid unnecessary dwelling on Covid and its losses and doomscrolling, unless friends want to discuss their personal losses."

 

In conclusion, while there is a lot of awareness about mental health now in comparison to what we now infamously call the "pre-pandemic era", there is a necessity for the bar and the bench to do more in this space.

 

(Views are personal)