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

23 October 2016
Sandhya Visvanathan for The Caravan
Sandhya Visvanathan for The Caravan

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.

Govind Manoharan is an advocate practising at the Supreme Court of India.

Keywords: lawyer healthcare Law mental health