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The Taboo on Mental Health of Lawyers

There is no better time than now for lawyers to exhibit their compassion and empathy and convey to their associates that mental health matters.

Asavari Jain

I recently came across a beautiful quote, “It’s a pandemic, not a productivity contest”, and it immediately resonated with me.

Not that I have not been productive during this COVID-19 crisis, but the powerful message that this simple quote conveyed hit me hard. It’s a quote which I am unabashedly sharing with all the people I know who are feeling the heat because of all the ‘productive’ things their friends have been sharing on social media (I am guilty of sharing some of these ‘productive’ items too).

A recent trend among lawyers is ensuring that their associates (technically ‘consultants’ and not even ‘employees’) continue to keep their grey cells active. To make up for the deficit in work, some lawyers are pushing associates to come up with business development plans, write articles or give presentations on legal topics.

It is understandable that lawyers are finding this innate need to project normalcy, because as lawyers, it has been ingrained in us to not show our weaknesses and to carry on with the most strenuous of projects despite not being up to it.

While increasing one’s knowledge and developing other skills is essential for being successful, it is not the need of the hour today. It is disappointing that even during a pandemic, there is no effort towards opening a mental health dialogue to enable associates to understand and deal with the anxiety that has been brought upon us by these uncertain times. Instead, energy is still being expended on being ‘productive’.

After speaking to a few colleagues at the Bar, I learnt that hardly any firms or lawyers have had any real discussion about the mental well-being of lawyers. Young lawyers who live away from their families are even more overwhelmed by the lockdown, and at times, unable to cope with the dual tasks of surviving as well as performing at work in this unstructured work from home scenario.

On the other hand, some lawyers say they prefer this lifestyle over normal office hours because they have a chance to live their life a bit (admittedly, most of it revolves around cooking and household chores). They find it wonderful to be able to introspect and focus on their own self, rather than coping with the burden of artificial urgencies.

The self-realization that apart from being brilliant at our mundane existence, we can also be brilliant at other things has been most satisfying. Yet, only a few of us have been lucky enough to have had the time to focus on our personal growth.

It is not necessary to push associates to sharpen those skills which they are already expected to hone during normal times. The need of the hour is to let them be so they can reflect and focus on their personal growth and happiness (something which is stunted the day you enter the rat race) and discover their other passions in life.

I am not saying that associates should not be encouraged to write articles or give presentations, but these activities must be voluntary. While some of us thrive on such activities, others do not.

In these difficult and trying times, it is critical that mental health and personal growth are prioritized over intellectual but non-essential tasks. Associates deserve their ‘me’ time so that they remain in a positive frame of mind and do not feel peer pressure and anxiety to perform during a crisis.

In this race to always be on top of things, the mental health of lawyers in India has not been part of any mainstream discussion. The American Bar Association, on its website, has a dedicated page focusing on the mental health of lawyers and offers ‘lawyer assistance programs,’ which provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers and law students who face mental health issues.

In India, there are hardly any such services or support groups for lawyers.

Though some lawyers have made an effort by sending emails or holding video calls expressing general concern, the question remains whether these generic group emails/video calls have any real impact. It is difficult to fathom that a person who is feeling anxious or depressed or both would disclose their true feelings on a group chat for fear of being stigmatised.

An alternative and, perhaps more effective approach would be for the senior lawyers to proactively reach out to each associate individually to check up on his/her mental health. It is time for lawyers to liaise with mental health experts and make their services available to their associates, which only a handful of lawyers have been doing.

Planning a weekly game night instead of a legal discourse could be another way to keep the morale high and foster team spirit. Playing simple games like Housie or Scrabble or Ludo not only break the stress, but also give associates a chance to bond with their seniors and peers and feel connected.

However, "voluntary" should be the keyword for any activity, as each person has a different mechanism for coping with stress and anxiety.

There is no better time than now for lawyers to exhibit their compassion and empathy and convey to their associates that mental health matters. The endeavour must be to help them navigate this phase as smoothly as possible. Ultimately, good mental health will serve to help associates cope with job-related stress better and lead to improved performance.

The author is an IP and commercial litigation lawyer.

Disclaimer – This piece is not intended to criticize the vital legal work that is being done by lawyers. The piece only aims at initiating a dialogue to address the mental health and well-being of lawyers and the work stress they deal with, a subject that is often left unspoken and ignored because of the stigma associated with mental health issues.

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