The Impaired Lawyer: Why We Need To Talk About Mental Health In The Legal Profession

Sandhya Visvanathan for The Caravan
23 October, 2016

On a warm August morning, as I was waiting for my matter to be called for a hearing in court number two of the Supreme Court, I saw a fellow lawyer who appeared to be about my age, sitting in the gallery. Every day, nearly 3,000 lawyers of various descriptions—of varying practices, ages and even gown forms—occupy the corridors of the Supreme Court. They are uniform only in the black and white hues of their attire. The man I noticed was staring at his brief and talking quietly to himself. Although he caught my attention, his actions did not strike me as particularly odd—after all, he could have been doing anything, from practicing his submissions to recreating a recent conversation he had with someone. Soon enough, he realised that I had been looking at him. He did not smile at me, as lawyers often do at each other in the corridors, regardless of whether they know each other. “Does your boss shout at you?” he asked.

I was taken aback by the abrupt manner in which he posed the question to me, but quickly realised that he was having a bad day and had likely gotten into a tussle with his superior at work. It would only strike me later that it was perhaps an oversimplification on my part. I responded by saying that such skirmishes were fairly regular at my end too, and asked him not to worry about it. I then added that it is only when we get called out when we make a mistake that we learn.

He wasn’t impressed by this platitude. “What if I was just not able to do it, not because I was not capable of doing that job,” he continued. “But because my mental faculties just let me down at that moment and I can’t for my life understand what I was supposed to do?”

At the time, I did not register the most pertinent part of that line. Instead, I ended up giving him an evasive reply that was also a little condescending—something about how we, as lawyers, are expected to always be at the top of our game because clients depend on us. The young lawyer nodded along, but was clearly unconvinced. I realised then that I had not addressed the pertinent part of what he told me, and that I may have said something he did not need to hear at the time. A few moments later, I leaned over and asked him to confront his boss if he was ever rude to him beyond reason. He laughed this off. “I am just not able to say a word when he shouts at me, and I cannot take this kind of a hit. It makes me feel like I am not good at my job. Sometimes, I want to just leave this profession,” he said.

I knew exactly what he was talking about. This was not the first time another lawyer had said something like this to me. We spoke for a while: about his workplace; about what he felt was required of him; and about what he felt he could do to be better at his job. His matter got called not long after, ending our chat as abruptly as it had begun.


The legal profession is one that has consistently seen high incidences of mental health issues such as depression. In 1990, a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins University on major depressive disorders in various occupations in the United States of America found that attorneys displayed the highest number of working professionals with depression. Various studies across the world, in various jurisdictions, have followed and affirmed the findings— for instance, in his 2015 book, The Wellness Doctrines, Jerome Doraisamy, a lawyer from Sydney examined the prevalence, causes and effects of psychological distress, anxiety and depression among law students and young lawyers in Australia. Doraisamy noted that one in every three lawyers or law student in Australia battled depression. Though few such studies have been conducted in India, it would not be amiss to assume that, despite a different working culture, similar pressures and perils exist in the profession in India.

The legal profession inherently prescribes various traits that a lawyer must display to be rewarded for their work, but these traits are also ones that force our community to brush mental health-related issues under the carpet. Over the past few months, several fellow lawyers who are close friends have confided in me about the mental-health related issues they face, and why that can often make it hard for them to navigate our profession.

Every aspiring lawyer or law student is told that their mental faculties are their prized possessions. Those in the profession always sing praises of the “great legal minds” who every young lawyer aspires to emulate, sooner or later. The practice of the law, an adversarial system that often thrives on negative dialogue and a culture of one-upmanship, is sold to young lawyers as the “thrill” of the profession. To be ambitious, driven and sharp are qualities that are lauded and rewarded in the profession. As a lawyer, your work can be a matter of life and death for your client. It often involves material or other objects that are precious to them. Such stress is certainly present in several other professions—medicine, for instance, or law enforcement. As a lawyer, such stresses can be compounded by the requirement to also be a mouth-piece for the client in court. A counsel is expected to, on the behalf of their client, engage in a battle of wits on a daily basis with other lawyers as well as judges. The same is applicable to the the corporate side of the practice, where significant importance is placed on client satisfaction. While parallels can be drawn with other professions, there is no gainsaying the fact that the performance of engaging in a verbal and intellectual duel with the opposing counsel and the judges for a client is a daunting and stressful exercise.

A fellow lawyer and I recently spoke about how, because law schools produce thousands of competent young lawyers each year, the competition among for entry-level positions in top-tier law firms in India is substantial. (This is true across high-paying professions such as the technology industry, medicine, or for that matter, most corporate establishments—there exists a common culture of competition, which rests on romanticising over-exertion.) What happens to a lawyer who is facing a hard time at work, who may be unable to work under such strain? The pressure to over-extend oneself is so entrenched that such a lawyer would probably find it hard to speak to someone at work about the trouble they face, for fear of being called a slacker. For young professionals, the fear and anxiety of making it in their professions is omnipresent. For young lawyers, these concerns—whether they will succeed as independent legal counsel, whether they will be able to generate work, whether their training is sufficient, whether they are working with the right people—are constant. A senior lawyer I look up to once told me, “The corridors of the Supreme Court are littered with the corpses of counsel who went independent too soon.” Although he made this remark while discussing the importance of getting adequate training from senior lawyers before beginning an independent legal practice, it is telling of the standards that are set for young lawyers.

Above all, like any other profession in India, there is a huge amount of stigma associated with mental health issues. Mental healthcare in India is already marred by lack of access to basic information and an unwillingness to accept mental health as a real issue. Add to this, the burden lawyers face to not only be mentally “fit” but to also play the part convincingly. A lawyer who falters on their sentence construction is often eaten up by other lawyers. One can imagine the attitude towards a lawyer whose temperament and mental faculties—as a result of the stigma surrounding mental illnesses—are written off as being untrustworthy or volatile. The acceptance that should be extended to a person battling mental-health issues, or is overwhelmed by the pressures of the profession, is rarely forthcoming. These conditions shut out any possibility of a lawyer seeking help from his or her peers, putting them in a catch-22 situation, and often forcing them to choose to confide in outsiders to the profession to discuss even work-related problems. A lawyer who feels that they have to hide their mental illness at work so as to not be perceived as weak or incompetent is bound to fall deeper into this whirlpool.

The prevalent substance abuse and alcoholism in the lawyer community, which has been subject of immense research and study across the world, then comes as no surprise. In 2008, the University of Pittsburgh Law Review published an exhaustive study on law students and lawyers in relation to substance abuse and mental illnesses. Among other things, the study noted that addiction rates among attorneys are higher than the rates among the general population.

Though not subject to the same factors, substance abuse and alcoholism are also prevalent issues at many law schools over the world and in India. Over the last 15 years, legal education in the country has undergone some major changes. The five-year law professional course and National Law Schools have managed to produce some of the finest young lawyers, and continually send out a large number of lawyers into the world every year. A senior lawyer in the Supreme Court I spoke to said that the situation was different 25 years or so ago, when law was considered by many to be a fall-back option. But over the past few decades, law, like engineering and medicine, has come to be an aspirational career. It therefore sees youth from various socio-economic backgrounds come to these institutes of higher education for the potential of a financially stable and fulfilling career. This may also give rise to students succumbing to high-competition environments and even discriminatory practices, which becomes a greater road-block for individuals battling mental health issues.

The banality of alcoholism, substance abuse and the steep increase in the number of suicides in such institutions points to a systemic flaw in the way legal education is conducted. The rat race regularly claims lives—the recent instances in colleges in Pune and New Delhi are only stark reminders of the manifestation of the problem. Off-late, efforts have been made by made by law colleges and their students, such as the Gujarat National Law University or at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) in Hyderabad, to recognise the need for addressing these concerns and provide avenues for students to reach out within the institution. They are, for the most part, positively working towards securing young minds from the trauma and anxiety that comes with the promise of a career. However, there is a long way to go to achieve a level of institutional empathy that can empower the future members of the bar.

As many issues specific to the legal profession are responsible for the heightened level of stress that most of us have felt, the empathy to understand such a situation must also come with the knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of this field. Lawyers need to speak to lawyers—this must be one of the ways in which we collectively work to create a healthier environment.

For this, we need to end the stigma. We need to start talking about the prevalence of mental illness in our profession. In our profession, we place a lot of importance to the concept of “seniority”—although only statutorily recognised in relation to the designation of Senior Counsel by various high courts and the Supreme Court. Senior lawyers, who act as mentors, should identify, acknowledge and address these issues.

Several lawyers I spoke to who work in leading law firms in Mumbai and Delhi admitted that their firms did not talk about stress-related or mental health issues during induction briefings for fresh associates. Nor do they have a dedicated support structure for their employees, let alone a counsellor or psychologist available for consultation. This is definitely not a far cry from the situation that exists in many of the top companies in India—or in fact, any workplace. To expect a positive dialogue on work-related psychological issues is perhaps more realistic in a chamber setting—where younger lawyers are attached to the chambers of a more senior lawyer—but given the high workload that is picked up in a litigation office, and the large number of law graduates opting for a career in litigation, young lawyers struggling with mental-health issues are often met with apathy.

The bar councils and associations should also play a large role in initiating dialogue amongst lawyers, and making it comfortable for them to speak up or reach out to others about such issues. These organisations regularly claim that they exist for the welfare of the lawyers— mental welfare, I would reckon, ought to be a high priority.

Many seniors in the profession pride themselves on having produced great counsel from their chambers, but there is a lot they can do for individuals who need support in dealing with an eco-system that unfortunately prides itself on being high-stake, high-pay, high-tension. Change on an institutional level, however, requires a massive change in our attitude, and that we de-stigmatise mental-health issues amongst members of the bar. This must come about slowly and steadily, and is more important than ever today.


The young lawyer that I met has not spoken to me since our brief conversation, nor has he made eye-contact with me on the many occasions we passed each other in the corridors of the Supreme Court. Wary of imposing an interaction on him, I, too, have not approached him. Perhaps when we spoke he was just having a bad day at work, and it is presumptuous of me to think that he was facing any mental-health issues. Or perhaps, he feels like our interaction was inadequate, and that I handled the situation without empathy. But, in either case, I hope he was able to speak to someone who acted in a more considerate manner than I did that day.