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LAWYERS’ MENTAL HEALTH AND TOXIC WORK CULTURE

INTRODUCTION

Justice DY Chandrachud while addressing the Harvard Law School centre on the topic of “The Corporate Legal Sector’s Impact on India” stated in his speech that “Lawyers’ job can often be very stressful and, thus, the lawyers are prone to addiction and struggle with the mental health issues like depression, both at the higher rates than the general population”. [1]

Given that corporate legal firms offer substantial salaries, many young people in India aspire to practise law. Though it is a rising concern in the legal profession that lawyers frequently struggle with mental health concerns. Long hours, high-stress levels, and heavy workloads are commonplace for lawyers, which can be detrimental to their mental health. There are several reasons why lawyers experience mental health issues. For example, lawyers are constantly under pressure to deliver and fulfill stringent deadlines and uphold the highest standards of professionalism. Stress, anxiety, and depression are possible outcomes of this pressure. Additionally, the nature of the legal profession can be emotionally taxing because lawyers routinely assist clients who are coping with demanding and challenging situations such as divorce, bankruptcy, and criminal charges. Lawyers who learn about their clients’ horrific experiences may likewise suffer from vicarious trauma. Moreover, the stigma associated with mental health problems is another element that makes lawyers reluctant to get therapy out of concern that admitting they have mental health issues may lead to criticism or discrimination.

STUDY REVEALS THE TOXIC CULTURE AT LAW FIRMS

A survey undertaken by the legal research and consulting company Vahura highlighted the law firms’ harmful work environments.[2] It was shown that numerous tier-1 and tier-2 legal firms have a lack of cultural alignment with the long-term goals of the business, lengthy working hours, inadequate compensation, and bad benefits. The study also showed that law firms may experience attrition if they don’t act quickly to establish a fair workplace and fail to pay attention to people.

The report titled “The Vahura Best Law Firms to Work Study, 2022” mentioned that “the Indian law firm domain, on the whole, risks losing exceptional people to other jurisdictions and segments: trends that have already begun.”[3]

WHAT IS A ‘TOXIC WORK ENVIRONMEN’”?

A toxic work environment is one where there are unfavourable, stressful, or hostile working conditions. Several things, including unfair treatment, abusive or disrespectful behaviour from co-workers or bosses, poor communication, unjust treatment, a lack of support, and a general lack of trust and respect among employees, can contribute to it. High turnover rates, low employee morale, frequent disputes or rumours, micromanagement, a lack of transparency, discriminatory behaviour, and a lack of work-life balance are some typical indicators of a toxic work environment. These circumstances may cause stress, and burnout and even cause issues with an employee’s physical or mental health. A toxic work environment can significantly impact the productivity, reputation, and financial health of a business.

HOW LAW SECTOR’S TOXIC WORK CULTURE IS HARMING PRODUCTIVITY?

A toxic workplace culture in the legal industry is driving lawyers out of their positions and degrading their productivity and mental health. In numerous ways, toxic culture can have a detrimental effect on productivity which results in:

High Employee Turnover Rates: When employees feel unappreciated, unsupported, and undervalued, they are more likely to leave their jobs. This results in increased recruitment and training costs for the company, which can reduce productivity.

Reduced Motivation: When employees feel undervalued, unsupported, or constantly criticized, they are less likely to put in their best effort. This can lead to reduced productivity and lower-quality work.

Increased Conflicts between employees: When there is a lack of trust, respect, and communication, conflicts can arise. This can lead to a breakdown in teamwork, reduced productivity, and lower morale.

A toxic top-down structured law firm: The majority of top law firms have a toxic top-down organisational structure where partners have excessive power, which allows seniors to get their tasks completed by juniors without giving them credit for it. Juniors receive an excessive amount of work, which causes them to feel intellectually limited.

Stifled Creativity and Innovation: When employees are afraid to speak up, share their ideas, or take risks, the company misses out on valuable insights and opportunities for growth and improvement.

HOW TO ADDRESS THE SITUATION?

Building the right law firm culture is important for creating a positive and productive work environment that attracts and retains talented lawyers and staff. Start by identifying the core values to guide your law firm’s culture. Values like integrity, collaboration, innovation, and respect for clients and colleagues can form the foundation of your culture. Make sure your values are communicated clearly to everyone in the firm, from partners to staff. Incorporate them into your hiring, training, and evaluation processes, so that they become a part of the fabric of your firm. Leaders in the firm must model the values they espouse, and hold themselves accountable for upholding them. This includes treating all employees with respect, being transparent and honest in communication, and working collaboratively with others. Encourage teamwork and collaboration by creating opportunities for employees to get to know each other outside of work. Give employees a sense of ownership and autonomy in their work. Moreover, recognise that employees have lives outside of work and create policies that support work-life balance. This can include flexible work schedules, telecommuting options, and generous time off policies. Building the right law firm culture takes time and effort, but it’s essential for creating a workplace where employees feel valued, supported, and motivated to do their best work.

MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES PREVAILING IN LAWYERS: ADDRESSING THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

The treatment for mental disorders must be the same as for physical ailments. It won’t help to explain that it’s all in your head since for those who suffer, it is quite real. Instead of passing judgement, give coping tips to those who are suffering from mental disorders. It appears that there is no clear cause for the onset, severity, or duration of a mental disorder. The mental health of lawyers in India has not been a topic of widespread debate in today’s world of cut-throat competition and hustle culture. The American Bar Association provides “lawyer assistance programs,” which offer private services and support to judges, attorneys, and law students who struggle with mental health issues, on its website. These programs are focused specifically on the mental health of lawyers.[4] There aren’t many such support organisations or services for lawyers in India. Though after the pandemic, State and local bar associations are becoming more aware of the fact that lawyers do have mental health concerns. Therefore, programs are made available to help lawyers deal with issues including burnout, depression, addiction, and other psychiatric inclinations. In support of those who are mentally ill as well as professionals, the Supreme Court of India has made some positive moves. The Supreme Court successfully ran an interactive workshop called “Mind Matters” as part of a program intended to promote stakeholders’ knowledge and general wellness. [5]

CONCLUSION

To promote good changes in the acceptance and treatment of mental disorders, the relevant authorities must make choices and strategic decisions. Despite the chronic nature of mental disorders, people with them can lead productive lives and play a significant role in their communities with the right treatment. What is needed is the courage and dedication to take the necessary steps. To address issues of mental health and well-being, it is crucial to dispel stigmas, start serious, organised talks, and build a culture of acceptance surrounding mental health in the legal industry. This can entail activities like offering mental health education and training, setting up support groups, and putting in place procedures that protect staff from stigma and discrimination due to their mental health status. More than ever, the judicial system must significantly alter its strategy by fostering an emotionally and mentally healthy environment. The seriousness of mental health concerns in the legal field calls for ongoing dialogue. Judges and lawyers both work under extremely high levels of stress that may be unhealthy. If these issues are not addressed, they might lead to addiction and other counterproductive behaviours. This is something that the legal profession as a whole need to acknowledge and endeavour to find inclusive solutions.

Author(s) Name: Palak Verma (Dr. BR Ambedkar National Law University, Sonipat)

Reference(s):

[1]‘Justice Chandrachud: Lawyers’ job can often be very stressful thus, lawyers are prone to addiction and struggle with mental health issues’ (Latest Laws, 17 December 2017) <https://www.latestlaws.com/latest-news/justice-chandrachud-lawyers-job-can-often-stressful-thus-lawyers-prone-addiction-struggle-mental-health-issues> accessed 22 February 2023

[2] Balanand Menon, et.al, ‘Vahura Best Law Firms to Work Report, 2022’ (Vahura, 17 August 2022) <https://vahura.com/research2022/the-vahura-best-law-firms-to-work-report-2022>  accessed 23 February 2023

[3] Ibid

[4] Bob Carlson, ‘It’s time to promote our health: ABA mobilizes on multiple fronts to address well-being in the legal profession’ (ABA Journal, 01 December 2018) <https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/its_time_to_promote_our_health> accessed 24 February 2023

[5] ‘Supreme Court to hold a workshop on Tuesday, September 15, to create awareness on mental health issues caused by COVID-19 pandemic’ (Bar and Bench, 14 September 2020)  <https://www.barandbench.com/news/mental-health-workshop-distress-covid-19-supreme-court-cji-sa-bobde> accessed 24 February 2023