LITIGATION AND MENTAL HEALTH: OPENING UP ABOUT PROFESSIONAL BURN OUT

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This article is written by Bhavya Verma from JEMTEC, School of Law, Greater Noida and curated by Shruti Chaudhary from Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.

India’s mental healthcare is already marred by a lack of access to basic information and a reluctance to accept mental health as a real issue. The tolerance that can be extended to a person dealing with mental-health problems, or frustrated by the profession’s demands, is uncommon. Those circumstances shut down the chance of an attorney receiving advice from his or her colleagues, placing them in a catch-22 position and sometimes forcing them to choose to entrust the practice to strangers to address even work-related issues.

All aspiring lawyers and law students are told that their precious possessions are their mental faculties. Those in the profession still sing praises of the “great legal minds” that every young lawyer sooner or later aspires to imitate. Law practice, an adversarial environment that frequently thrives on hostile debate, and a culture of one-upmanship, is being sold as the profession’s “thrill” to young lawyers. Being creative, motivated and sharp are some of the qualities that the profession lauds and rewards. As a lawyer, your work for your client can be a matter of life and death. It often involves material or other objects which are valuable to them. Certainly, such stress is present in several other professions, medicine, for example, or law enforcement. As a lawyer, the requirement to also be a mouth-piece for the client in court can compound such stresses. A counsel is expected to engage in a daily battle of wits with other lawyers as well as judges on their client’s behalf. The same applies to the corporate side of the profession, where customer service is assigned great importance. While parallels can be drawn with other professions, there is no objection to the fact that a daunting and stressful exercise is the performance of engaging in a verbal and intellectual duel with the opponent counsel and the judges on behalf of the client.

Although few such studies have been conducted in India, it would not be amiss to assume that similar pressures and perils exist in the Indian profession despite a different working culture. The legal profession has consistently seen high incidences of mental health problems like depression. Inherently, the legal profession prescribes various characteristics that a lawyer must display to be rewarded for their work, but these characteristics are also those that force our community to brush under the carpet of mental health issues.

What happens to an attorney who faces a difficult time at work, who might not be able to work under such strain? The urge to over-extend yourself is so ingrained that it will probably be difficult for such a lawyer to speak to others at work about the trouble he/she is facing, for fear of being considered a slacker. The fear and anxiety of making it in their occupations is omnipresent for young professionals. These concerns, for young lawyers, are whether they will succeed as independent legal counsel, whether they will be able to generate work, whether their training is sufficient, whether they are constantly working with the right people are always there.

International perspective

ALM’s survey, conducted for the first time in 2019, questioned participants about their own mental health in general and their work in the law firm, as well as mental health observations in their firms and the legal industry as a whole. ALM’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey found that 64% of the respondents feel that they have anxiety, more than 31.2% feel that they are depressed, 10.1% feel that they have an alcohol problem and 2.8% feel that they have a drug problem. 73% of them replied yes when asked “whether their work environment contribute to their mental health issues or not”. When they were asked whether the profession has a negative effect on their mental health over time or not, 74% replied affirmatively.

In 1990, a study of major depressive disorders in various occupations in the United States of America, conducted by Johns Hopkins University, found that the attorneys displayed the highest number of working professionals with depression.

The American Bar Association has a dedicated page on its website focusing on lawyers’ mental health and providing ‘lawyer assistance programs’ which provide confidential resources and support to judges, lawyers and law students facing mental health issues.

It was noted by Doraisamy that one in every three lawyers or law students in Australia battled depression.

Solution

While growing one’s awareness and improving other skills are important to achieve success, today it is not the need of the hour. It is disappointing that there is no effort, even during a pandemic, to open a dialog on mental health so that associates can understand and deal with the anxiety that these uncertain times have brought upon us. Energy is still being focused on being ‘successful,’ instead of being productive. Young lawyers who are living away from their families have become even more overwhelmed by the lockdown, because of which they are unable to cope with the dual tasks of surviving as well as doing work from home in these desperate times.

We need to put an end to the stigma. We need to start learning about the prevalence of mental illness in our profession. In our practice, we attach considerable importance to the idea of “seniority,” although it is acknowledged only by law in relation to the appointment of senior counsel by various high courts and the Supreme Court. These issues need to be identified, acknowledged and addressed by senior lawyers acting as mentors.

The good news is that there are healthy coping mechanisms available, and it has been proven that they help lawyers to reduce anxiety and depression. Meditation is the main among them. The law schools at Yale, Berkeley University of California, and San Francisco University have started offering courses in mindfulness. In addition to meditation, eating both healthfully and mindfully should not be underrated as a method of combating anxiety.

Bar councils and associations should also play a significant role in facilitating discussion among lawyers to make it easier for them to speak about these issues or reach out to others as these organizations regularly claim that they exist for lawyers’ welfare and mental well-being.

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