“the more discussion you have about mental health issue in different forums, the less stigma will be attached to someone suffering from mental health issues” says Justice Rajiv Shakdher

Justice Rajiv Shakdher graduated in B.Com. (Hons.) from Delhi University in 1984. He obtained LL.B. degree from Law Faculty, University of Delhi in 1987 and enrolled as an Advocate in 1987. He was appointed as a counsel for the Union of India in 1995 by the Government of India with respect to its cases in the High Court of Delhi. He became permanent Judge in the year 2011. He was later transferred to Madras and Delhi High Court.

In this interview, he talks about his journey and throws some light on the mental health issues in the legal fraternity.

 

1. Please tell us about your journey so far.

Around 34 years ago, I decided to pursue my dreams. Law was not my first choice. It has been 20 years since I joined the Bar and this month, I completed 14 years at the Bench. My journey was tough as I was not from a family of lawyers and Judges. My mother was an educationist, and my father was working for a multinational company. Though some members of the family were in the bureaucracy, and well known, no one was in the legal profession. This profession is difficult, to say the least, for people who do not have roots in the fraternity. So, that was the first hump in my journey.

 

To obtain a placement was tough in spite of having a degree in law and chartered accountancy. I am talking about an era when not many people were taking to law. In the sense, that law was not one’s first choice. I could have continued with the chartered accountancy but since I liked the legal facets of accountancy, I took to law. My professional journey entailed approaching one law firm after another, only to be disappointed. I, therefore, finally decided to join a lawyer’s chamber. Interestingly, I entered the chamber of a lawyer who himself was not a Senior Advocate at that time, but as time passed, he became one of the best and today is the foremost lawyer in the country, and he is none other than Mr Salve. In the first stage, of my professional life in his chamber, there was no money but a lot of work. Then, of course, the second stage was reached when there was a little bit of money and more work, and then there is the last stage, when there is a lot of money and one does not have to do too much work. But before I could get to the last stage, let us say, the really cushy stage, I got invited to the Bench. I accepted the offer and that is how these 34 years have panned out.

 

  1. You have been associated with both the Bar and the Bench. Do you think there is something fundamentally amiss?

Well insofar as the Bar is concerned, certain aspects have really got exacerbated. There is more competition. Therefore, for most people, the pie has shrunk. For people who do not come from entitled backgrounds, it was already very small. So, typically 90 per cent of the work is with 10 per cent of the lawyers and 10 per cent of the work is with 90 per cent of lawyers, who, largely comprise of those who do not come from an entitled background.

 

Therefore, when you are vying for that small pie, there is a lot of struggle, and if you are an individual who is not part of an established law firm, the struggle is exponentially greater.

 

In law firms, the competition is of a different kind, that is, if you manage to get into one. Getting into a law firm is tough unless — and that is a hard fact — you have a reference. Getting into a good law firm is tough but once you get in, then there is a different kind of struggle I am told. I was lucky to have been loosely associated with one. Why do I say loosely associated? Because as I said in the beginning, I had a problem getting into a chamber. When I got into the chamber, firms and solicitors who came to brief Mr Salve recognised that there was perhaps some potential in this young man. Resultantly, I got some offers.

 

So, when I got these offers, I also negotiated my terms, based on the principal ethos of my professional life, which was that I was very clear I did not want to lose my freedom to continue practising the way I was at that time. So I said I will join you but on my terms, giving me the ability of, you know, practising as a lawyer as well as doing their work. Not that at that time, I had a lot of work, but I had this space and the freedom to accept work. I wanted to keep that option open for myself. At the same time, I sort of have subjected myself to a self-imposed constraint, call it pressure or whatever, which helped me to perhaps grow faster; I did not get into the mould of taking a monthly pay packet home. I said I will do the work for the firm, and you will receive my invoices and then pay me according to what you think my work was worth. So while I was associated with the firm, after I had left Mr Salve’s chamber, I did not accept a salary.

 

So, there are different models that one can adopt. This can be tough. Maybe I had the advantage of having a home and hearth in Delhi. But this model may not work if you do not have a base or are not from a city where you are working. It all depends on whether you can generate enough money to get by and whether the equity partners are willing to offer you such terms of engagement.

 

  1. As more people are willing to speak about mental health, what might be the causes of mental illness in the legal fraternity?

See the causes veer around the issues concerning lack of opportunity, employability, and thereafter, you know, lack of avenues for growth. After a particular point in time even if you are in a good job or have a good placement, say in a law firm, you plateau, you are not growing because, how much more can you expand the area of work you do or add to your earnings. One sometimes falls into the specialisation rut. There is not enough variety. All these issues at some stage weigh you down.

 

The other is also about the quantum of work. Some firms pay you fabulously, they give you bonuses and take you out on offshore trips, but this could lead to disruption of work-life balance. You know, in this sort of race to get to the top from an associate level, say, to the partner level, you lose out a lot because you are expected to work long hours. You may get your bonuses but if you have a family, that family suffers because you do not spend enough time with them.

 

At some stage, especially, if your spouse or members of your family are not in the profession, they are unable to adapt to this environment which requires almost a 24×7 commitment. We are constantly on calls; especially in India, we do not know how to switch off on weekends; it is not a done thing. You are constantly on e-mails, WhatsApp and what not.

 

So, I think, everyone must think for themselves about what is best. I mean there must be a mental goal-setting:

What do I want to do in life?

Where do I want to be in life?

How much of my time do I want to devote to getting there?

 

  1. There are some cases where there is some societal pressure on the Bench before a decision is pronounced, do you think such societal pressure adds to the reasons for mental health issues on the Bench?

When I became a Judge, the pressure was not much. One had to deal with articles published in the print media but over time, that has changed drastically. Earlier, it was not considered appropriate to discuss a matter which was pending in court. Clearly, professional mores have changed. Now, even though the matter is in court, there are interviews given by lawyers/their clients, who are in the matter and even by those who are not in the matter. Therefore, remarks/observations made in court to elicit answers from lawyers, are published, causing confusion. This practice is actually in my opinion not good for the system.

 

I prefer to be away from all social media platforms. What I do not read, does not hurt me. The sad part is if something is written which is not correct, the Judge does not have any platform or avenue to correct it. People in the media should realise that it not only affects the Judge but also affects their family. We must find an appropriate approach to this issue. I am all for freedom of speech, but moderation is good at times and civility is very good.

 

  1. Do you think the societal pressure of maintaining a particular standard of life is also one of the causes of mental health issues?

According to me, it is also cultural. Having been a Judge in Madras High Court, I have seen life there quite closely, and I have seen life in Delhi. The culture of Delhi and the south is very different. In the south, simplicity seems to be the USP-rich people are seen walking barefoot, wearing a dhoti. You can see them being ferried in an ordinary car which is not the case in Delhi. In the north for whatever reasons, life is more ostentatious; so that is one aspect. The other reason is that it is very individual-centric. There are people who are understated, and there are others who think that you need to project yourself, to be noticed. The problem is the constant need to indulge in self-projection.

 

An eloquent lawyer who speaks fluent English is more acceptable than a person who comes from a government school or a municipal school whose initial reception before the court is at times difficult; but then again it is Judge-centric. If you are before a Judge who sits back and listens, you soon realise it does not make a difference if you are making sense.

 

So, while you are right that there are youngsters in the profession who do get carried away by the fact that the bigger the car and bigger the office, there are more chances of attracting a larger clientele but that is not necessarily true. The fraternity knows whether an outsider knows or not, who is a competent lawyer and in what area. Ultimately your best advertiser is the fraternity or your client. If you do a good job, your client by word of mouth will tell other people.

 

  1. Do you think we have enough support systems to tackle the situation, how important is support from the family in dealing with mental health issues and can there be a safety net?

No, I do not think so because firstly it is not recognised as a problem, to begin with, and when people find that someone has a mental health issue, there is immediate labelling of the person concerned, as being “off”/“unbalanced”, et cetera.

There are kinds of mental health issues. Much needs to be done, but nothing is really happening, at least, in our profession. You need trained counsellors, you need psychiatrists, and you need psychologists who are ready and freely available to render help. I think, there is an increasing need for institutions to have counsellors who one can approach and speak with about issues that ail an individual.

 

As I said, talking is the first step. So, this is a good initiative that you commenced. You need forums where mental health issues can be discussed, and ensure that there is no stigmatisation. Just because someone has a mental health issue, it does not mean that the person concerned cannot function. Therefore, the more you talk about it, the less stigma would be attached to it.

 

People confuse mental issues as meaning something which is always related to a mental disorder. I am not a mental health expert but it is apparent that people have different kinds of mental health issues.  I think sometimes people just need to vent and they do not get an opportunity to vent, and therefore, it scales up to something worse. I have had my share of lows – having my family around, for example, made a difference – I would have felt worse perhaps if I did not have anyone to speak with. As long as you have someone you can speak with, or you can vent to, the chances are you may be able to understand and put your issues at hand in perspective, or at least not do too much damage to yourself.

 

  1. Do you have any chapter in your life where you felt that the stigma attached to mental health needs to be addressed?

As a lawyer, I did go through a lean period. There was a constant debate in my mind as to how and from where I was going to get work? I spent much time talking to my senior about my predicament. He used to give me assurances that work will eventually come to me. But these assurances did not seem enough, quite frankly at that time. I did go through a period of uncertainty and even after I started getting work, it was not enough to look after one’s needs, at least, not in the initial stages of my career.

 

  1. How stressful can Judges transfers be?

It can cause grief and can get stressful if the system does not provide you an explanation.

Transfers if carried out under a well-considered policy can be beneficial. I believe cross-pollination is good for courts. The strength of each court gets shared and replicated. If the policymakers were to relocate Judges with their consent for one or two years, it could work well for the system; you take the skill set available in one court and supplant it in another court. The court and Judges get strengthened by this kind of cross-pollination. While this is the ideal situation, transfers are not happening in this way, and therefore, perhaps, it causes grief to the person concerned when it is viewed as a penal transfer.

 

But the outcomes are not always necessarily bad. My experience was otherwise.  Even though I was unexpectedly transferred to the Madras High Court, I enjoyed my stint thoroughly. I was welcomed warmly by the Bar and the Bench and when I was returning, many members of the Bar kindly mentioned that “it is now a loss for the Madras High Court and a gain for the Delhi High Court”; a sentiment which was very humbling.

I grew as a person; both  personally as well as a Judge because when you get relocated to a place where you are not born and brought up, you imbibe the culture which is prevailing there; and Tamil Nadu has a very rich culture whether it is their music, literature or their temple architecture.

 

  1. We at SCC are trying to spread awareness about mental health. How do you think we as part of the legal profession or just even as part of society contribute to helping reduce the stigma around mental health?

I think the more discussion you have about this issue in different forums, the less stigma will be attached to someone suffering from mental health issues. There needs to be more data collation and analysis about the numbers involved and sharing of best practices as far corrective measures are concerned, to address mental health issues more robustly.

So, whether it is the Bar Associations, the Bar Council of India, the Bar Council of various States, or the courts as an institution, you must have professional help available.

 

We have done it for other areas like sexual harassment. We have committees which enable victims to articulate their grievances. Likewise, why cannot we have counsellors for those suffering from mental health issues?  Everyone requires counsellors so that they can talk about mental issues without their privacy being jeopardised. Your mental health could be related to gender discrimination, sexual harassment, or something else. It could emanate from anything. If you have counsellor attached to an institution, it will help. It will help in mitigating the issue.

 

  1. Please share your thoughts on the young generation struggling with mental health and at the same time trying to achieve a name in the fraternity.

I think the best way forward in this kind of a situation is to have a peer group. If nothing else, the members of these peer groups can have a conversation among themselves, whether it concerns the tyranny of the boss, lack of pay, lack of work or even problems related to sharing of work.

 

This will, I am sure, help you get past your initial days of struggle. Everyone faces it and that, in my view, is the way forward. And if you have a good senior, you must talk to him. I have known several people who have been mentored well and if you have an understanding senior, then nothing like it. It is where you start your journey from; at times that becomes important because that stays with you. The ethos and the work ethics that you imbibe from your senior is important: Do you want to be a thorough professional who knows his job or do you want to be someone who only wants to, earn a lot of money by whatever means? There are two routes in this profession. You need to choose very early in the profession what works for you.

 

 

 

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