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Mental health and legal profession : a webinar brief

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This summary is written by Priyanka Cholera, MKES College of Law, Mumbai University.

The guest: Shreya Seth, is a graduate from symbiosis law school with almost 6 years of work experience with four tier-1 law firms in the arena of commercial litigation, arbitration, and IP dispute.

The host: Anubhav Garg, Management Trainee, Lawsikho.

How does law firm culture affect mental health?

There is a huge stigma regarding mental health, especially in India. Even if they are aware about it they fail to acknowledge it as a real issue. Mental wellbeing is not considered to be as important as physical well being, which is one of the main problems we’re facing today.

The culture in law firms is tight and cutthroat. Freshers who are just starting need to be aware of these cultures. In law firms, there are implied and explicit expectations by the employers. These expectations are in the form of deadlines, delivering work of standard quality, taking ownership of your work. When a fresher is beginning they are unaware of these mentioned expectations. Hence, one can find it extremely overwhelming. In the initial stages of work, you don’t recognize the impact of these expectations, because they are normalized in your head. One thinks that eventually they will adapt to it but the deadlines never ease out on you. You keep burning the midnight oil, thinking its just one assignment but it is a vicious cycle.

As you step up the ladder the pressure will keep on increasing. This is one of the reasons that people burn out in the early stages of career because they are unable to handle work pressure and stress that often goes unacknowledged in society. The loss of work-life balance leads to the beginning of mental health issues. And there is little acceptance regarding all these issues, people who are suffering from it end up not talking about it.  

Eventually, the person suffering keeps on working but subconsciously they are still bothered by what is happening, but they don’t know how to ask for help. 

All the mentioned problems can be death with people start acknowledging mental health.

For fresher starting in law firms, they must be mentally prepared for the stress and expectations that entail. One has to develop a thick skin while working and in the formative years one is expected to work for long hours and burn the midnight oil.

Especially lawyers consider their mental faculties as prized possessions, they are expected to be a know-it-all about laws, authorities, etc. Additionally they are perceived as perfectionists and workaholics, all these expectations and pressure keep on increasing with time. 

Often experienced lawyers, as well as young associates, work on multiple assignments laterally. And they underdeliver in one of many as a result of exhaustion. If a lawyer doesn’t produce the quality of work they are expected to once in a while, then it shouldn’t be concluded that they are not working enough. Everyone is investing an equal amount of effort, diligence, and sincerity more or less.

Even as professionals we set the bar so high for ourselves, that any form of unintentional incompetence invites negative emotions.

And not only law professionals, the race of being at top of your game begins early. From the time one decides to join an elite law school, the entire competitive spirit beings from there, and what we see later in law firms is just a continuation of that.  From competing for admission in elite law colleges to studying for being in 10 ten in your batch so that you can get placed at a top tier law firm, it’s a never-ending journey of working hard. Hence by the time you’re joining a law firm, you’re already burnout to a certain extend.  

How does one overcome mental health issues while practicing?

(Our  guest, Shreya Seth has been practicing commercial litigation for nearly 5 years now). Mental health issues are quite universal than we know it to be. Every individual suffers thought it at least once. Often while you’re going through it, you will fail to notice it. Shreya shares that she has realized over the years that anxiety, stress, and psychological pressure need to be dealt with. There deadlines and work pressure, multiple assignments that need your attention, etc, that can take a toll on your mental health

Let us take a very basic legal professional scenario. Suppose you have a hearing tomorrow in court, and you’re very well prepared with briefs, case laws, etc. But the anticipation of results and its fate of being your favor entails immense stress. Additionally, the client is standing in the same courtroom as you who has high expectations about your performance as well as the results. And even in courts, you have to be on your toes because there a very limited time frame to perform.  

The entire legal industry is a high demanding job where you cannot escape the stress. 

How to deal with failures and not let it affect your mental health?

As discussed earlier lawyers are expected to be on the top of their game. 

All a person can do is work hard, consequences and results are in no one’s power. Might as well not think about it. Because the more you worry about something going wrong, it will become a belief in your subconscious mind that that the worst-case scenario will take place. Instead of worrying yourself with fear of bad arguments, disappointing the clients or failure of payments. This is a vicious cycle. As lawyers, one has to avoid these thoughts because it will affect your future work. As mentioned earlier one has to develop thick skin.

Also never get emotionally attached to matter or client as a lawyer, regardless of the intensity, regardless of the stake; there have to be boundaries between work and personal life that shouldn’t be violated. 

Because if you get emotionally connected and unfortunately the matter doesn’t turn out to be in your favor it will affect you as a professional and your personal life as well.  E.g. Many lawyers who deal in matrimonial cases, deal with very delicate issues and it is inevitable to feel detached from the matter and subconsciously and unintentionally you carry the unpleasant emotion everywhere. 

Even as a corporate lawyer, if your negotiations for a contract regarding certain clauses do not pull through then don’t doubt your abilities as a lawyer, just accept that it was a bad day and move on.

Because if you start doubting yourself then you will lose confidence and start having thoughts like ‘maybe i am not best suited for this matter or court or judge’ someone else is.

One bad matter or judgment doesn’t determine your worth as a lawyer. 

How do we differentiate between positive stressors and negative stressors?

To solve a problem it is important to acknowledge it. There is a simple way to differentiate, at the end of a bad day, just take a step back and introspect what you could have done differently to avoid the consequences. If you get an answer, then work on it next time and if you don’t then probably you should not worry about it.

The important thing to understand is where to stop thinking, Shreya shares that, she doesn’t overthink on an unpleasant topic if she has justified herself by knowing that she did everything she could in her power to ensure the desired results and still things did not work out, then she shouldn’t blame herself

How to deal with stress from clients?

One of the most important things to remember is, one bad review from the client will not break your career. Even if you’re a fresher, the fact that you’re not a brand works in your favor. You can make mistakes and learn. There is a fear of judgment and negative reviews from peers and colleagues.  But just take the criticism and move on. Keep working on yourself. Opportunities will show up.

If you are fearing that you have disappointed clients and losing a client is inevitable, but then to deal with that stress effective way is to reevaluate and restrategize with your team. Overthinking will not help.

Why are professionals unable to express and admit their mental health issues?

The stigma within the profession regarding mental health illness is very high if a junior is facing some problem and he takes it to his senior. The senior is very much less likely to see it as a problem, he has never spoken about it. 

Another instance, an employee fears admitting and express his mental health problems like stress with deadlines, etc because he fears that it will affect his promotion or increment. This fear has to be eliminated first to deal with the stigma. 

We don’t have a mechanism that supports vulnerability for people who want to express because. There is no assistance for it. A person who is suffering from mental health issues would want to express it to someone who understands the gravity of the problem.

Since legal fraternity is in question, few to none firms, chambers, or law offices in India have in-house or visiting psychological counsellors.  

There is a rise in mental health crises or suicide rates for the same reason, least to none amount of empathy regarding it.  E.g. If an employee wants to issue a leave because they are facing some mental health issues, then the employer might just laugh it off or make fun of it; on the other hand, if an employee says they are running a 101-degree fever, then their suffering won’t be questioned. 

Along with the stigma to a mental health issue, there is a stigma to seeking help too, people fear society and their judgment. In India, stress is very normalized and accepted to the extent that asking for help is considered a taboo. 

The approach needs to change, even though the stats are on the table. The burn out is high, employees are working 14 to 16 hours, there no counsellors or psychologists in the firm then there has to be done something about it. Many professionals move to metro cities for work, away from family there is lack of support system and they live alone in their situation combining the lack of efforts for empathy, the result will be unpleasant both for employees and employers. 

How should one open up to colleagues or seniors regarding their mental health issue?

Unfortunately, at least in India, we’re far fetched from reaching that level of comfort to make it a routine conversation. It is always advisable to seek professional help first. Because normally people aren’t trained well to deal with the conversations effectively or ideally even though there are people in workspace who are empathetic towards others, yet they are not trained enough as a professional is to deal with the matter at hand.

How can busy legal professionals maintain work-life balance without taking a toll on revenue?

It is indeed a task to maintain a work-life balance in the legal profession. But it is important to realize that having ‘me-time’ is very crucial. In time of technology even if you’re logged out of office but you still are connectable and approachable through a text or a call because your phone is with you. Hence you have to consciously disconnect from work or clients. Before technology lawyers were not available to clients post working hours for any advice or query, however, that is not possible today. Hence lawyers have to intentionally take time off by doing meditation or going for a walk or joining a yoga class or a dance class do what you have to to maintain a  healthy life because the current work structure doesn’t support it well. 

Many law firms are acknowledging the importance of work-life balance and arranging recreational activities for their employees. 

How can legal professionals use social media to beat stress?

Everyone loves appreciation and acceptance, and it is very easily available on social media platforms hence, yes social media can catalyze the process of feel-good. For lawyers being very secretive by nature does not often disclose their experiences. However many lawyers have come up and shared their stories of battling with mental health issues as junior counsels or associates.

Question by audience

How important are HR policies for the mental health well being of employees?

It is indeed very important because as mentioned earlier, having an in-house counsellor or a psychologist would make the world of a difference.  


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