The Perpetual Moral Dilemma to be Kind to Your Mind
Let me begin as lawyers do by stating categorically a caveat that I am no expert on mental wellness. I may have acted for clients who were diagnosed with some form of mental conditions but I suppose the reason why I am sharing my thoughts with you here is because it was thought that I was “brave enough” to share my personal battle about my mental health challenges on mainstream media last year. I did not think I was being courageous as I just spoke my mind then. Apart from being cathartic, I wrote it because I felt it was something that was necessarily needed by lawyers and I did not have the patience to wait for the people who made decisions to address the issue.
What prompted me as well were the law undergraduates and some young lawyers who shared with me their personal challenges with mental health, and this even before they were called to the Bar.
That said, the other caveat is that this is entirely my opinion and if you think you need help, please speak with a professional. I do not think my professional indemnity insurance will cover me from any mental anguish that you may suffer from reading this, however remote, eggshell skull rule notwithstanding.
I was called to the Singapore Bar on 12 January 1994. If memory serves, I was called with 74 others. From this vintage, there are a handful of us left in practice. Out of the many, many lawyers who were called in 1994, I am told that this year, 148 have renewed their practising certificates. Yes, not many stay in the profession.
There are many reasons why the attrition rate is so high. For one, legal practice these days is very, very different from when I first started as a young lawyer. Things then were pretty much slower and relaxed.
I think COVID-19 has fast tracked the legal profession’s long held resistance to technology, be it hearings by Zoom, communications by e-mail, social media, WhatsApp, the use of e-filing of court documents and the abundant technology that is supposed to make practice seamless and everything reachable at our fingertips.
The practice of law has come a long way. No more standing in queue for hours to mention a five-minute matter along the passageways of the old Subordinate Courts. No more robing up in the robing room at the old Supreme Court. No more dark, daunting, ostentatious and musky (and some say haunting) old court rooms with the gorgeous antiquated wooden furniture. And how I love paper, whether for writing love letters to opposing counsel, using worn out dog eared files tied with the ubiquitous pink ribbons and so on.
These days, things are very different, but at what cost? There is no more sanctity of personal space and me time. There is lack of respect for the demarcation of weekends and after hours. E-mails and phone calls come at all times of the day, and night. Add to that, the imposition of crazy deadlines and the non-stop bombardment of interlocutory applications, no thanks to the ease of access to e-litigation. If you ask me, sending e-mails at 11pm on a Saturday only tells me you could possibly be on your way to a mental and or physical breakdown. Then there are phone calls and WhatsApp messages. Can you not pick up or not read the messages? I suppose this can only be answered by you, depending on who you are and where you are in your career and how important it is for you to respond. I have heard from both senior and young lawyers that they find it difficult to differentiate between day and night, that they are constantly checking e-mails on their mobile devices. If the first and last thing you do in your day is to check your e-mails, you may want to take stock of your life and start evaluating your priorities. Nothing, and I must stress, nothing, is more important than your personal well-being.
Just recently, I caught up with a senior lawyer whom I have not spoken with for a very long time and whom I looked up to in my early years, both as a friend and mentor. We were sharing about how and where we are with our respective lives and practices and the commonality was that we have this one life to make a difference, to leave a legacy and to spend it wisely on the things that matter. And a little later that evening, I found out to my dismay that a classmate from my alma mater SJI, had passed away unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. I hear quite too often that you never know when it is your time to go but when it is your time, how do you think it will be?
As lawyers, there will be many, many battles to fight, and which we will win and lose hopefully, graciously. Without taking things personally and not letting our emotions get the better of us, the art of compartmentalisation is a skill that is most helpful in this regard. To hone this ability, I would humbly suggest, if you do not, to start playing poker (really!) as it may help, for a start to teach you to remain calm and smile when deep down inside, you want to wipe that annoying smirk off the face of your opponent.
Appreciating the subtlety between obsession and indifference over a matter under your care may help with your sanity. There are many things in life that are not worth getting obsessed about and therefore it is important to know where your priorities are. Saying no to the self-entitled client from the start may set the tone to your relationship, one of mutual respect or, indifference. If your work involves retail, the moment they ask you how much you charge for a simple franchise agreement, or a friend who calls you for a quick consult, these are some of the things you do not need to place any priority on as they rob you of your self-worth.
But lest we forget, we are the second oldest profession in the world, and the noblest and most honourable one, and the expectations of the man and woman on the street is hugely tremendous. This is aside from your own expectations and personal challenges.
Sometimes, many times if required, when things appear difficult, it helps to take a step back, take a long deep breath and gather yourself. And when you revisit the issue later, you may be surprised at how you view that difficulty differently.
There is a consequence to everything that we do. The Buddhists refer to it as cause and effect. Especially for you as a young lawyer, you may be torn between doing what is right as against what is expected. How do you balance that and protect your state of mind? In the course of your practice, there will be many things that you will be unable to control and it is therefore pertinent to learn to accept it and let go. It is about knowing that you have done your best and not looking back, wondering if you could have done it differently. Wondering will not help your already fragile mind, but evolving by learning from it may help you for the future.
We are all blessed with a huge capacity for joy that many of us somehow lose along the way to adulthood. Sometimes, it may help to see things from the eyes of a child to give perspective on the things that matter.
Toxicity has no place in life. When you find yourself in that awful environment, it is ultimately your decision how you deal with it. I was stuck in such an environment for a long time and it finally took a toll on my health, to the extent that I could barely breathe and felt like my soul was being sucked out of me. The moment I chose to leave that toxic environment, my cardiologist told me the results of my angiogram was surprisingly positive and that the chest pains were symptomatic of an unforgiving and unhappy work environment. His advice was simply not to take matters to heart.
You are your client’s best hope only if you can do your job to the best of your ability.
The greatest takeaway I can proffer is that you learn to differentiate between things that matter and things that do not. It is important that you do not obsess over the little things that add no value and which do not matter. Separating yourself from your emotions that arise at work is what any right minded lawyer should be able to do to survive. And please remember to always be kind to your mind.
The mental resilience to manage the various emotions that manifest when you deal with clients, colleagues, bosses and judges – such things come with time as experience will ultimately teach you how to compartmentalise your conflicting emotions. People come and go in the course of your career and you will come across many people. Some, you will embrace for a lifetime, the rest will mostly be insignificantly forgotten.
We live our lives afraid to be seen as weak, and eventually we may end up not being seen at all. Ultimately, living is about being happy because if you are not in a happy place, then this is not for you.
Finally, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of self-care. There are many ways to take care of yourself, be it eating well, sleeping sufficiently to allow your body to recover, exercising purposefully or doing something that allows you to spend time with yourself. On that note, do allow me to share a music playlist which my soon to be nine-year-old son compiled, of songs such as Space Unicorn, Noob song and Life is fun. I hope these songs will help you to see the world from the eyes of a child and perhaps, allow you to lose yourself a little and look at things from a different perspective when the going gets tough.
With that, it only leaves me to wish you the very best and a warm welcome to the Bar.