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The Singapore Law Gazette

Happy Life, Happy Lawyer

As the Government announces forming a committee to focus on mental health in Singapore, the legal profession too should pay heed and focus on our mental wellness.

The fast pace of practice, coupled with stressors such as bosses, unreasonable clients and billing targets cause untold stress which in turn creates unhappiness in lawyers. We then start questioning the whole purpose of the job we do every day. Whilst some think of quitting the profession, others feel that a change of environment by moving to another law firm may be the solution.

Unlike physical symptoms, mental symptoms are not given equal importance, are often ignored or dismissed with remarks such as “Be positive. Be strong. Just focus on your work. It will go away.”

We have now learnt that good mental health cannot be fostered by such platitudes. We have to take proactive steps in caring for our mental needs, lest they become serious in some cases.

The onset of mental health issues often manifests in being frequently physically unwell. This causes further stress and unhappiness to us. It does not help that the law practice still has to run and work still needs to get done.

What can we do to help ourselves?

If you continue to be in low spirits or even depressed, do not ignore it. Be aware of your feelings. Acknowledge it. Ask yourself why are you feeling this way? There has to be a reason for this state of mind. Try to find the cause or trigger for feeling as you do. Feelings are important as they dictate how we live every day. Take time to understand yourself. Do not rush the process.

Once you find the cause, explore solutions. Speak to people who you believe will be supportive and empathetic. Build your support system. Recently, when I was trying to get back to work whilst recovering from a surgery, I felt low and unhappy. I spoke to one of my mentors outside the profession. Over the span of a few phone calls over a couple of weeks, I felt that his support and advice helped me to pick myself up again.

Everyone of us, whether we are young or not so young can undergo such mood changes and we need support.

We have to take action to make a change to the way we feel. It can be a change in our mindset, or cultivating positive thoughts by listening to podcasts or just finding space to have time for yourself.

I find that starting the day by sitting down with a cup of coffee and being silent helps. I let the mind wander, be it about work, family or personal life.

Managing expectations is another way of cultivating mental wellness. Accepting that law practice is demanding and that work-life balance is a myth will help in some way. The best place we can be is achieving some level of work-life integration. Work-life integration can be achieved in law firms practising a hybrid work model. Alternatively, we have to find our own personal work-life integration.

When I used to work in a large law firm in the initial years of my law practice, I used to spend the weekends going on long walks in parks to find that equilibrium in life. Time spent with ourselves is a worthwhile investment which helps us to achieve that peace of mind.

Finding the passion in our work is an external motivator. Remind yourself why you chose law as a career. What fascinates you about law? If you find that push, you will not mind working hard at it. I did not enjoy my first six years of law practice. I did not discover why. It was only when I left my first job and started my own family law firm that I discovered my passion in family law.

Now 21 years later, what motivates me every day is being able to use family law to help couples and families find peaceful outcomes to their problems. The practice is not any easier but the difference is that I enjoy it.

Find hobbies and causes that interest you which you can engage in outside of work. This will give you the respite and relaxation that you require. A few years ago when legal work became very stressful, I delved into baking. The precision required in baking helped me to relax.

I also watch family dramas on Netflix and cable channels every day which is my own way of winding down and preparing for the next day’s work.

I may not have lasted 27 years in law practice if I did not surround myself with positive lawyers and giants in the legal profession through volunteering in the Law Society since I qualified as a lawyer. I still remember how I, a first year lawyer, was very inspired to practise law after attending a meeting chaired by the late Mr Palakrishnan SC. Similarly, working alongside as a Law Society Council member with former Presidents of the Law Society such as the current Justice Philip Jeyaretnam and Mr Michael Hwang, SC left life-long deep impressions on me.

Form your own tribes in the profession where you can support and encourage one another.

A fulfilling and meaningful personal life is also necessary to excel in a law career. If your personal life is well tended, your career will flourish. Your family must also understand the demands of law practice. I have seen many young lawyers struggling with their law career without their family‘s support. Have open and frank conversations with family members so that everyone understands expectations and needs. At the same time, let them know what kind of support you need from them. Then, consider how you can meet their needs and at the same time keep your practice of law going. If not, you have to find other options in law.

There will be occasions when we cannot find the answers to our career challenges. There is no stigma attached to mentorship, career guidance and counselling. I will say seek whatever option that is helpful to you.

As we have seen in the last few years with the sudden demise of lawyers in our midst, life is indeed short. We owe it to ourselves to live as happy and fulfilling a life as possible.

There are so many ways to live it. We each have to find our own path.

Rajan Chettiar LLC
E-mail: [email protected]