Know Thy Self
Mental health has been the talk of the town since the pandemic started lasted year. To me, it is one of the most important aspects of a lawyer’s well-being.
Often, lawyers lament that they are mentally exhausted by their law practice and that they do not have time to engage in other activities in their lives.
The Singapore Mental Health study conducted in 2016 shows that one in seven Singaporeans have experienced mood/anxiety disorder or alcohol misuse in their lifetime. One in 16 Singaporeans has been found to have suffered from Major Depressive Disorder at some point in their life. These statistics are of concern to us, a country with a small population.
We take better care of our physical needs as physical ailments are more obvious and which have to be treated in order for us to function, but mental health issues are often not detected as we do not have sufficient knowledge on how to identify them and treat them. It is thus possible for mental health issues to remain undetected.
As a young legal associate, I remember being very stressed, often falling sick and experiencing heart palpitations which never went away for six years. At that time, there was no awareness of mental health or counselling. If I had seen a counsellor then, I would have identified some of my mental health issues earlier and obtained professional help.
When I left my job, I felt better and I have hardly fallen sick since then. I later learnt that the heart palpitations were due to the stress that I was experiencing.
Complaints of feeling stressed are so much a part of our everyday conversations that the significance of it becomes lost on us as we are often unable to recognise the signs that stress has become a major health condition.
If stress persists for a long period and we are consistently unhappy in our life, there is a need to seek professional help. The Law Society has teamed up with counselling agencies to provide confidential counselling services to all of us (for example, LawCare and Mentoring Members’ Assistance & Care Helpline). Seeing a counsellor is no longer considered taboo and it has become very much like consulting a general practitioner when we are down with a flu.
Counselling is speaking to a trained professional about our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, understanding the change that is required and working on the change through certain techniques. There are many forms of counselling – individual, couple and family counselling. There are also professional career guidance and mentoring services provided by the Law Society, such as Career Path.
Counselling, over an extended period of time does bring about benefits. We feel better, learn how reframe our problems, be more resilient and become better able to cope with challenges in our life and law practice. Counsellors are also trained to identify mental health issues which may need referrals to psychologists and psychiatrists.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who provide medication to overcome serious mental health conditions. Psychologists are not medical doctors but trained professionals who can offer therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy to identify and work on negative or incorrect thoughts and behaviour.
Lawyers often quit their jobs in law firms citing mental fatigue and lack of time for self, family and loved ones. They then join another law firm and feel the same way after some time. Others leave practice and join companies as legal counsel.
After leaving my first job, I started my own law firm in 2003 to practise family law, which I enjoy very much till today. Many young lawyers have also complained that family law practice is emotionally draining, having to handle clients at the worst stages in their lives.
I would not say that I no longer experience stress in my family law practice. Being a business owner, the stress level is the same if not higher than being an employee, having to also handle marketing, managing staff, clients and worrying about overheads.
As I grew older, I learned that self-care was very important. Self-care for me started with drinking copious amounts of coffee to the extent that my friends used to joke that coffee will spurt out of my veins if I were cut myself! I then went on to eating snacks before going to bed. Healthy self-care is taking breaks, spending quality time with family and friends, having sufficient rest and engaging in activities which will make us happy.
For me now, self-care is watching dramas and movies on Netflix, cooking and hanging out with my wife. I also try not to work during weekends. It is not so much about the activities in themselves, but what will enable us to recuperate and recharge ourselves.
Having me-time away from the hustle and bustle of life allows me to do self-reflection which in turn provides clarity. I am a firm believer in finding the passion in my life. Know the why of practising law. For me, I became a lawyer to make a difference in the lives of my clients. This passion does not change and has given me an anchor in my law practice for the last 24 years.
Finding the purpose of lawyering and becoming self-aware takes a lot of time. It took me a few years before I got clarity. Even after that, there were moments of doubt about whether running a law firm is what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life.
An elderly friend, after hearing one too many of many complaints said, “Just accept that lawyering is what you are supposed to do in your life.” Though it sounded a little ominous, it was only about a few years ago that I became fully aware that running a family law firm is my life mission.
As a young lawyer, you will find the hours are long, the stress is overbearing, clients are difficult and bosses are demanding. What matters most is to be fully aware why you chose to become a lawyer. You need to spend a fair amount of time (more than two years) in law practice to become fully aware why you chose to become a lawyer.
If your passion is not to be a lawyer, then chase your passion like a fervent lover would.
As a trained counsellor, I have worked with young lawyers to provide career guidance. I find that we are generally very hard on ourselves, suffer from a lack of self-confidence and often think that we are not good enough. To be honest, I used to, and may be still to a lesser degree, fall into this category. As a result, we feel insecure, push ourselves even harder and become unhappy.
We need to be kind to ourselves. Celebrate who we are and our successes. Not everyone can qualify to be a lawyer. Recognise our weaknesses and work on them to become good lawyers. This itself will take away a significant amount of the stress that we place on ourselves.
Resilience is an important quality which will see us through life. I was speaking to a lawyer friend recently and expressed my admiration of her in taking care of her three teenage children single-handedly whilst her husband is away overseas and also managing a busy law practice at the same time. She said: “That is called living.”
Persevering and not giving up does not only show our strength but it produces success. Running a small boutique law firm for 18 years is no easy task. I will not go into describing the sweat, tears and even blood that I have put in. There have been so many challenges as I started the business right in the midst of SARS in 2003 and now COVID-19. I have learnt a lot about being an entrepreneur, leadership and about myself during this process. There is immense satisfaction in doing all this – a very important ingredient in my life.
Many men and women before you have gone through the hard passage of lawyering and become successful lawyers. They have gone through the rite of marriage, having children, running families, taking care of others, engaging in other activities outside of law – and become outstanding individuals, many till the very last day of their lives.
It is all in your hands – who you want to become as a human being and as a lawyer.
If you ever need a pick-me-up, call on these senior lawyers. My pick-me-up is the late Palakrishnan, SC. I remember at the beginning of my practice, leaving my first Publications Committee meeting at the Law Society chaired by Pala, feeling so inspired to be a lawyer like him. Even today during my low moments, I will remember Pala. If Pala could do it and he was lawyering till his last day, I surely can too.
Finally, I am happy to be there for anyone of you who needs a listening ear, to share and discuss your legal career and your career concerns. I look forward to hearing from you, if not just to have coffee!
May I wish you the very best in your legal career. As you are a pandemic lawyer, let me just say – be like the corona virus – strong, resilient and contagious about life and practice.