Legal Profession and Mental Health: An Issue Less Discussed

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On 17 July 2020, a young Disputes and Regulatory practice lawyer, Shikha Pandey, committed suicide. She was a bright legal professional who started her career at the Chambers of Sr. Advocate Mr. Jayant Bhushan and also worked at HSA. Few days back, on 15 July 2020, a Pune-based lawyer, Chandrashekhar Takalkar committed suicide by jumping into a river. He was a leading lawyer in Rajgurunagar based District court and former President of the Khed Bar Association.

We are not privy to the factors leading to their suicide. However, through this article, I want to highlight the less talked about problem of mental health and depression that most legal professionals face and, propose viable solutions to overcome it. People assume that the legal profession on the face of it, as a career always comes with huge sums of money and nobility. There is no denying of the fact that the legal profession as a career does reward you with affluence and reverence, but the rewards are acquirable only after years of struggle, hard work, and experience.

The saga of mental depression has always been an unnatural and embarrassing phenomenon making it a point of passive discussion among people. Increasing suicide rates in the legal profession is a matter of concern. Like every other highly paid profession, the Legal profession also comes with its terms and conditions, which if not complied with, may lead one to wipe out of the profession. According to the American Psychological Association, “Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers”.

Rachel Fry, a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Alabama, who often works with lawyers says that “Lawyers tend to score higher in pessimistic thinking, which often results in higher success rates and becoming a better lawyer. However, this type of thinking is also highly correlated with depression.” It is this complex idea of being a ‘perfect’ lawyer that leads one to think about the numerous heavy responsibilities on their shoulders and that coping up with them becomes a herculean task to perform. In 2016, the American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation had conducted a study that revealed that 28 percent of licensed and employed lawyers was suffering from depression.

ABA Journal[1] has claimed that the legal industry has the 11th-highest incidence of suicide among professions. The year 2020 has hit the world hard because of the distressing situation caused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has in turn adversely affected economy, education system, human life, scarcity of resources, sudden layoffs, and termination of jobs.  Among these highlighted issues there is one more issue which is being faced by almost everyone, not only in our country but worldwide and that is adversely affected mental health. To reckon the root causes, it is important to know and analyze the factors that can lead a legal professional to depression and suicidal thoughts.

FACTORS LEADING TO DEPRESSION AMONG LEGAL PROFESSIONALS

  1. PERFECTIONISM- Research suggests that those who suffer from intense perfectionism are at a higher risk for suicide. They are driven by an intense need to think about and expect the worst-case scenario that can take place in any given circumstances. Therefore, they tend to perceive thoughts negatively in order to avoid failure and set back.

Perfectionism drives us to excel in academics as well as our profession. But, it has a dark side; it can produce ‘a chronic feeling that nothing is good enough.’ The quest for becoming a perfect legal researcher, a cogent orator, and a brilliant advocate to argue and defend the client, sometimes comes in a way of peace and mental health. Perhaps, what makes you a better lawyer may also persuade you towards emotional and mental instability and consequently to depression.

Why are lawyers more prone than anyone else to the dangerous phenomenon of depression? Lawyers more often than not are expected to work continuously even in adverse situations and excel. They have the tendency of being involved in hectic and sometimes unpredictable schedules, leading to a heap of workload without due regard to deal with mental or physical health. Therefore, mental health deteriorates considerably, if they do not pay enough attention to tackle it.

  1. SEDENTARY AND ADVERSARIAL NATURE OF WORK- The sedentary nature of work that lawyers do as a part of their profession often lasts for long and unusual hours, resulting in muscle pain, mental burnout, stress, exhaustion, etc. Lawyers are usually resistant to relaxing breaks due to their intensive workload. Additionally, they tend to work on laptops and computers for long hours without adequate breaks, due to which severe physiological, as well as mental health issues, may occur. Working indoors for long hours may lead to a lack of exposure to sunlight, natural air, and a green environment, resulting in an increased level of mental stress and depression.

The very nature of work that a legal professional is expected to perform is adversarial and conflict-ridden, breeding negative thoughts, and stress. This often leads to emotional issues like excessive anger, fear, and guilt. The chronic result of these issues can impact both physical and mental health.

  1. VICARIOUS TRAUMA- Primarily, the job of lawyers perform is shouldering and managing their clients’ problems. The pressure of shouldering others’ problems and being invested in solving them can often aggravate mental issues like stress, emotional and compassion fatigue. Many Lawyers get so much indulged into this vicarious trauma that they commit themselves to work in hectic schedules without breaks. The far-reaching effects can lead to insomnia, anger, feeling of helplessness, avoidance of other essentials, and social withdrawal.
  2. SLEEP-DEPRIVATION- A recent study by the University of South Florida suggests that even minimal interruption during sleep can lead to health problems, consequently affecting both professional life and mental health. Lawyers are considered among the ‘most sleep-deprived professionals’, making themselves prone to serious mental and physical health problems. Due to the long and unusual hours of working, healthy sleeping habits get disturbed. The risk of having physical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, impaired vision, and mental problems such as anxiety, stress, pessimism, depression increases considerably.
  3. LONELINESS- Being engaged in long hours of sedentary work, lawyers often get less chances to interact with others or spend quality time with their family and friends. Many senior advocates make their juniors work seven days a week, thus leaving not a single day for relaxing and interacting with their family. Jarret Green, a wellness Consultant has rightly put it, “The things that make you successful professionally, can make you sick emotionally.” Due to workload, lawyers rarely get a chance to go out for recreational activities, attend family and social functions.

Additionally, lawyers are expected to maintain the confidentiality of their clients’ problems. They cannot share such issues with their colleagues or sometimes family members. It is critically challenging when lawyers face a novel and challenging issue, which cannot be unraveled, and thus they put up with it throughout the end. Solo practitioners may face this problem more often than others. Weak and non-collaborative connections with other lawyers can maximize the problem. Thus, the feeling of isolation emerges very quickly among lawyers, prompting to damaging their mental health.

  1. CUT-THROAT COMPETITION- The fact that competition prevails everywhere in the world, in every profession is not a novel phenomenon. In the legal profession too, competition among lawyers remains at the hike. Apparently, because of unhealthy competitive practices and jealousy, some professionals often adopt malpractices to pull down each other. Due to these practices, honest lawyers often have to pay a huge cost. They don’t acquire what they deserve and their aspirations remain unfulfilled, which ultimately leads to depression and unsatisfactory life. The budding lawyers are usually more vulnerable to fall into the trap of ruthless competition.

The disparity in demand and supply of job opportunities in the legal profession is very vast. The demand for filling vacancies is lesser than the supply of potential aspirants. The fear of not getting better jobs even after working hard for years during graduation, internships, and training, results in causing mental stress and anxiety among the aspirants. During the period of COVID-19 lockdown, the profession has become one of the bleakest job markets. Salaries of lawyers working under law firms have been cut to a large extent; many of the junior lawyers have also been retrenched from their employment. Such a sharp decline in the demand for lawyers has caused a deeply negative impact on their mental health.

  1. CORRUPTION- Nepotism, and corruption go hand in hand. Prevalence of instances where advocates engage in corrupt practices by trying to offer a bribe to the opposite party’s counsel or the judge creates an environment of malpractices and jeopardizes the whole profession of legal studies. One such incident happened in the case of Shambhuram Yadav v. Hanumandas Khatri[2], where the lawyer suggested his client for offering a bribe to the judge in order to get the suit decided in their favor. The apex court held the lawyer to be guilty of professional misconduct under Rule 3 and 4 of the BCI Rules.

It is also a least talked about agenda because talking about this issue in public often leads to troubles like ruining of reputation, loss of contacts of high profile people, in fact, the promotion also turns into demotion at times, helping hands withdrawing support and various other negative things. Raising voice against the wrongs and malpractices happening around us in turn often takes a huge toll on lawyers themselves. Standing up for the ‘right’ sometimes leads to falling into a trap of troubles, resulting in high mental pressure and stress.

  1. FINANCIAL CRISIS AND INSTABILITY- During initial years the litigation lawyers do not earn a wealthy sum of money and the income is manifestly lesser to sustain and run the family at times. A vast majority of lawyers, especially in the lower courts, function on a case-to-case basis for their income, and thus it becomes extremely difficult for them to earn money and stabilize their financial condition when they are not called for any work.

Deep income disparities in the legal profession are also easily visible. The huge gap between the pay scale of a renowned legal practitioner and that of a not so popular advocate, though working for the similar areas of practice, altogether acts as another peril in the profession. In fact, to put it transparently, many senior legal professionals often take the assistance of a law graduate’s or a junior lawyer’s labor and hard-earned skills, without paying him/her any monetary amount, even if they are worthy enough to pay a bare minimum amount of stipend, if not a full-fledged salary. The most common reason cited by senior lawyers for not paying stipend is the notion that young lawyers should ‘focus on learning the skills required by the profession’ while working, rather than expecting any monetary rewards.

When the courts do not function (like in the present times of COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown), lawyers’ economic situation becomes precarious. With only urgent matters being listed, lawyers who are generally dependant on fresh case filings and physical court hearings are finding it difficult during the pandemic to cope up with their financial problems. The Bar Council of Delhi (BCD) has also sought Prime Minister’s help for disbursing financial relief of ₹500 crores for lawyers who are not able to meet basic needs during the pandemic.

Senior advocates are themselves not earning a good amount of income nowadays, and are left with no other alternative than to lay off or retrench their junior employees. Many lawyers are returning to their hometowns in search of different jobs because they are unable to pay their house rent and bear living costs. Thus, such an economic crisis is leading to depressional thoughts among legal professionals.

  1. NEPOTISM- One of the most talked-about problems leading to a psychological breakdown in various professions, is ‘nepotism’. It essentially means the practice among those with power or influence, of favoring close relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs and various other opportunities. Due to such prejudiced practice, the ones who seek opportunities in their professional fields solely on the basis of their talent and hard work, most of the time struggle endlessly or at times gets wiped out of the profession. Law students generally face such difficulties right after they join a law school and start looking for internships under good Advocates and legal firms. It is of course convenient for a student who has a better reach and network in the profession to get internships and job opportunities, owing to his/her close relation to the employer.

One cannot talk about nepotism openly in this industry until he/she is an established lawyer. In this profession, a person can witness the evil presence of nepotism right from the first step of application job applications in legal firms to practicing in the highest court of appeal. Surprisingly, in some interviews, aspirants are also asked whether they are first-generation lawyers or not. Even after possessing good knowledge and exposure to relevant practical skills, if the candidate is not able to secure his/her desired position, it resultantly breaks the hope and confidence of the applicant. Hence, this leads to an emotional and mental breakdown that sprouts depression and suicidal thoughts. Many of your court colleagues and law firm seniors or partners may also enquire if you are a first-generation lawyer or not, and then will treat you accordingly. Such a biased approach in the legal profession is uncalled for.

Over a period of time, progressing and prospering in this profession has become extremely difficult, unless one belongs to a family with a legal background. No matter how much it is denied, the fact remains that a first-generation lawyer will find it difficult to build a successful career.

  1. POSITION OF WOMEN IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION- Women have been facing harassment not just in public places or within the four walls of their household, but also in courts of law. Numerous recent instances exist to defend this fact. One such incident occurred in 2018 when a 29-year-old woman advocate was allegedly raped by a senior advocate inside his chamber at Saket district court.[3] There have been many instances of women lawyers being subjected to verbal harassment by their counterparts while arguing cases. Attitudes may have changed, but across the world and in India, women are poorly represented in the legal profession.

In a conference[4], Justice Indu Malhotra, the first woman to be elevated to the post of a judge from the bar under the Supreme Court of India, has revealed that women lawyers face a lot of discrimination in this profession. They face stereotyping in the kinds of briefs they receive like the majority of family matters are handed over to them instead of commercial or corporate matters due to the lack of trust in them for handling such ‘elite’ matters. She pointed out towards calling the legal profession as a ‘jealous mistress’ and highlighted the plight of women legal professionals who struggle between managing their work-life and household. This scenario makes it tough for women to handle their profession and mental health, leading to the cause of depressed thoughts.

MEASURES TO OVERCOME DEPRESSION

  1. Cut off your expenses: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation, lawyers’ financial conditions have become uncertain. Most of the lawyers do not have enough income to sustain their lives in a normal fashion and run their household. In such a situation, one cannot look for opportunities to earn money instantly. The most feasible option for a lawyer could be to cut his expenses as much as he can. He can control his unnecessary and extravagant expenditures, and rather spend his hard-earned income on only the essential services wisely. This way, while on the one hand, you may be seeking opportunities to earn good money, on the other hand, your expenditure on other expenses may decrease.
  2. Engage yourself with work: Owing to the current situation of lockdown, many legal professionals have resorted to online teaching and mentoring as physical courts have been shut down for the time being. Keeping yourself occupied can prove to be detrimental to your personal growth as well as a healthy lifestyle. As a lawyer, apart from attending virtual hearings, you may engage yourself in attending webinars as a guest lecturer, conducting your online lecture series, creating informative videos or podcasts, writing comprehensive research papers and articles, virtually advising clients on legal points or expanding your outreach by digital networking. Keeping yourself updated with the legal news, and the innovative and productive activities happening around the world during this situation can be helpful.
  3. Connect with positive people: In the legal profession, networking and connectivity play a vital role. It is often the resource for getting better opportunities and wider reach. You should remind yourself time and again that you are not alone in this battle against mental health, many legal professionals are also struggling in the same way. Thus, connecting with people who share your ideas, prefer taking unbiased approaches, and are willing to extend a hand when you face trouble coping up with the standards of the profession. Additionally, connecting with your seniors in the profession to enquire about prospective work opportunities can help a lawyer in not only grabbing a good job to earn money but also in getting a decent work environment through which one can expand his network in the field.
  4. Manage priorities wisely: Multitasking is one of the attributes of a legal professional, and to cope up with this attribute, you need to be good at managing your time and work wisely. Lawyers and research professionals are trained and expected to work on copious of projects at a time, the ideal approach of dividing the work into smaller tasks has to be adopted in order to avoid unnecessary mental and physical breakdown. Taking adequate stretch and relaxing breaks at intervals is necessary during a hectic schedule.
  5. Meditate and Do Yoga: Meditation and Yoga have been known for curing stress, anxiety, and depression to a great extent. The more it seems tough to start meditating, the less it is so to follow up the routine if you successfully get yourself into one. Doing aerobic and callisthenic exercises eases the circulation of oxygen in your body and thus makes you healthier. You should also take a 15- to 30-minute brisk walk every day, jog or cycle if you prefer. People who are depressed may not feel much like being active. But make yourself do it anyway, push yourself. Exercises and Yoga drastically affect your mood and so does meditation. Remember to maintain a healthy lifestyle and refrain from junk food, alcohol, and smoking because these elements injure not only physical but also our mental health excessively.
  6. Develop a healthy lifestyle: The fast-paced life has already taken away many privileges from us. We no longer ‘have’ time for recreational activities or enjoying the natural environment around us. In fact, the schedule of working on Computers, laptops, and mobile phones barely allows us to go out in green parks, gardens, or beach sides, and simply relax. Lawyers working in courts or offices have busy schedules and are always overburdened with work. Spending time in natural surroundings can be the best way to relieve stress and anxiety.

Take a healthy and balanced diet. Surveys have suggested that substance abuse is also one of the leading factors behind bad mental health, thus they must refrain from consuming alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. One of the most vital points to remember is to have healthy sleeping habits. Sleeping for at least 7-8 hours is necessary for a healthy body and mind. Since a lawyer’s work schedule lasts for long hours, taking small naps in between or relaxing small breaks can help in minimizing the health risks.

  1. Develop New Hobbies and maintain a Gratitude Journal: To put it straightforwardly, focusing on polishing your knowledge and skills in whichever way possible will surely bloom better results. Involve yourself more into doing the work which interests you. You may like writing poems, stories, articles, or dance, sing, act, etc. Develop new hobbies and work on improving your lifestyle. Getting yourself engaged in the tasks that you enjoy doing can be a mood booster and thus relieving you from stressful and negative thoughts. You may also develop a habit of maintaining a ‘gratitude journal’ in which you can jot down your blessings every day. Make it a habit of thinking about at least three things that you learn in a single day and write it down in your journal before going to sleep. That way, you will sleep with a positive mindset and optimistic ideas.
  2. Destigmatize seeking support: Seeking mental health support from colleagues or peers in this profession is often stigmatized. Several legal professionals are fighting the battle against mental health issues, no matter if they are expressive of it or not. Lawyers should indicate acceptance and encouragement towards those who seek help and support to battle against their mental health issues. Helping each other in this profession can be a benevolent gesture of humanity and can result in getting better and pragmatic solutions.
  3. Stay Positive: Alex Yufik, a clinical rehabilitation coordinator for the State Bar of California’s Lawyer Assistance Program has claimed that the most common factors that contribute towards suicides in the legal profession are nothing but depression, stress, anxiety, unfulfilled expectations and concrete fear of meeting failures. It is indeed vital to remain calm and think optimistically; otherwise, you will not be able to see through the possible solutions for your problems.
  1. Helpline number for lawyers: I believe that a helpline number specifically for legal professionals must be set up and made available, where they can discuss the problems they face while working in this profession. Lawyers can contact on this helpline number, meant for creating a forum where they can anonymously express their professional troubles, issues related to mental health, complain about unethical practices of their colleagues or seniors, verbal or physical abuses, harassments, etc. Such a forum can help the legal interns, researchers, assistants, or lawyers in finding a viable support system where they can be expressive about their worries and get direct help.

CONCLUSION

‘Bad times’ do not last forever and nor do negative thoughts. Thinking rationally and pragmatically should be the approach while fighting against the challenges of this profession. It is indeed incumbent for every legal professional to understand and accept the challenges that are intrinsic to the profession, and prepare oneself for battling against them. Surrounding yourself with people who cherish blessings and whose vibes inspire you, then degrading your virtues, is the key. Lastly, share your thoughts and problems with your colleagues or family members. Remind yourself that everything can be tackled with the right approach.

The Author, Adv. Ms. Himanjali Gautam is an Advocate practicing at the Supreme Court of India, Founding-Partner at the Chambers of Himanjali Gautam, Ex-President at Law Centre 2, Faculty of Law DU, Columnist, Public Speaker, and TV Personality. Views expressed are personal. She can be reached at [email protected]

REFERENCES:

[1] Jeena Cho, Attorney suicide: What every lawyer needs to know, 1 January 2019, available at https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/attorney_suicide_what_every_lawyer_needs_to_know

[2] AIR 2001 SC 2509.

[3] See, Women advocate raped by senior at Saket court, New Delhi, THE HINDU, (2018), accessible at https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/woman-advocate-raped-by-senior-inside-saket-court/article24428660.ece#:~:text=A%2029%2Dyear%2Dold%20woman,from%20the%20Saket%20court%20premises.

[4] See, Women in the legal profession in India, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD NEWS, 31 Oct 2018, accessible at https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/news/2018-10-31-women-legal-profession-india.

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