WHAT is the work of a lawyer? When an individual has a legal problem, he visits the office of his lawyer. He tells counsel of the dilemma. Leaving the office, the client seems to have lifted the burden from his shoulders. Why? The lawyer now carries that burden as part of the retainer and his life.
This may seem like a joke; but it is true. For 16 years, I worked as a lawyer in a conglomerate, and about seven years as a sole practitioner. There were times when I would wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. Not that the summer heat had become unbearable, rather because of a horrible dream on the possible outcome of a sensitive case I was handling. I accepted these as inherent for a lawyer. While most colleagues will not acknowledge it, the work of a lawyer can be stressful as a result of high expectations from clients, extended work hours, belligerent situations and work-and-life imbalance. All these can contribute to both physical and mental health issues. If not for stress, I would not have had a quadruple heart bypass more than 15 years ago.
As a barrister-solicitor in New Zealand and being a member of the New Zealand Law Society, I receive monthly publications on the legal profession. For the past few months, I’ve noticed a number of articles on the sensitive topics of wellness and mental health among lawyers. In her column “Big Law,” Mellissa Larkin wrote: “Lawyers are by no means immune from the effects of mental health impacts given the inherently demanding nature of the field in which they choose to practice—in fact, studies have shown that lawyers experience much higher rates of depressive symptoms when compared to other professions.” Tony Southall, who served as chairman of one of the bigger law firms in New Zealand, shared his experience in the February 2019 issue of “LawTalk” on having been diagnosed with situational depression in mid-2012, of being in severe mental distress and of struggling to function. He is now active in the reform of mental health services in New Zealand.
I doubt if the issues on wellness and mental health have been raised within the legal profession in the Philippines. Nobody wants to talk about these. There are important things to address, such as graft and corruption in the justice system, unethical practices, mandatory continuing legal education and the increase in the number of lawyers murdered.
But these health issues (that could include drug addiction and alcoholism) will not go away. Those who suffer will be left to fend for themselves—viewed as weaklings who fail in the traditionally competitive, if not combative, world of legal practice.
The first challenge in the legal profession is to recognize wellness and mental health as real threats to every lawyer. Dialogue can then follow on developing steps on prevention and for safety nets to be available for the vulnerable.